As protests against racism and police brutality continue to engulf the nation, a once radical movement to “defund the police” has gained traction and mainstream respectability. 

Singer John Legend, soccer player Megan Rapinoe, and a multitude of other celebrities have jumped on the bandwagon, asking governments to decrease police budgets or disband their police forces altogether. 

This, of course, is a childish solution to the serious problem of police brutality and excessive force. 

And, yet, some politicians are all too eager to act.  In Minneapolis, where the killing of George Floyd by a police officer sparked the nationwide unrest, officials announced that they plan a vote on whether to dismantle that city’s force. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he wants to shift resources from the NYPD to social services. And in a stunning about face, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti last week scrapped plans to request a police budget hike, instead calling for cuts, so that the city can invest more in “people who have been left behind.”

But eliminating cops, or even slashing police budgets, won’t help poor, black communities. In fact, it will hurt these communities most. 

In his 1997 book, Race, Crime, and the Law, Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy writes that “deliberately withholding protection against criminality (or conduct that should be deemed criminal) is one of the most destructive forms of oppression that has been visited upon African-Americans.” 

Kennedy’s book documents the racially selective underprotection of black communities from the time of slavery through modern times. Kennedy describes how law enforcement often turned a blind eye to lynching and other crimes against blacks in the Jim Crow era. According to Kennedy, even in 1997, predominantly black, inner-city neighborhoods continued to receive insufficient police protection. And yet, blacks were more likely to be victims of violent crime (including rape, robbery, assault, and murder) than whites.

American blacks continue to be disproportionately victimized today. Over the four decades from 1973-2015, the risk of serious violence to blacks was 1.5-2 times greater than the risk to whites.

Data from 2017 show that 52 percent of known homicide victims were black, despite being only 13 percent of the population; homicide-victimization rates for black men were 3.9 times the national average. And yet, according to a study by the Washington Post, police arrest homicide suspects at significantly lower rates in cases where the victims are black than in cases where the victims are white.

All of this would suggest that, if we are truly interested in protecting black lives, we need to increase police presence in black communities, not reduce it. This was the argument Matthew Yglesias made last year in a VOX article entitled, “The case for hiring more police officers.” In the piece, published in February, 2019, Yglesias points to studies that show that increasing the number of cops deters crime. According to Yglesias, more cops = safer communities.

Yglesias cites polling data provided to Vox by a Democratic data firm, showing that black and white voters alike support hiring more cops. Says Yglesias,

Black voters are likely aware that they are disproportionately likely to be victims of crime and disproportionately likely to benefit from extra police staffing in high-crime areas. 

And, yet, Yglesias worries that “in the wake of the leftward swing in the Black Lives Matter era,” politicians — Democrats, in particular — may abandon effective law enforcement strategies that benefit communities of color. 

One year later, Yglesias’s concerns have come to fruition.

So if defunding the police won’t work, what will? Reforming the unions. 

Any police chief will tell you that unions, which are set up to protect police officer’s jobs, make it next to impossible to fire even bad cops. 

The police officer who killed George Floyd had been the subject of more than one dozen misconduct complaints. And yet he remained on the force, protected by his union. 

Inability to fire cops with a record of complaints has broad implications for the use of excessive force. According to Benjamin Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School:

We now know that the extension of collective bargaining rights to Florida sheriffs’ offices led to an estimated 40% increase in violent incidents among sheriffs’ offices that elected to unionize. A study using data from America’s 100 largest cities found that police protections created via union contract were significantly and positively correlated with the killing of unarmed members of the community.

A forthcoming paper finds that the introduction of collective bargaining rights for police officers between the 1950s and 1980s led to substantial increases in police killings of civilians with disproportionate impact on racial minorities.

To be clear, Sachs is no union buster. He has represented workers and unions and taught courses in labor law his entire career. And he believes that “unions are the single most important and effective voice for working people we have ever known.” Nevertheless, Sachs makes a compelling case that, to solve the problem of police brutality, we must limit the power of police unions to bargaining over wages and benefits, not disciplinary matters. 

My friend, Fred Ryan, the former Chief of Police in Arlington, Massachusetts agrees.  “We can’t continue to allow civil rights to be put on the bargaining table.”

But don’t expect politicians, many of whom are beholden to union donations and union votes, to take on this sacred cow anytime soon. 

And don’t expect left-wing activists to take on the difficult task of reforming the unions city-by-city and state-by-state. It is much easier to deploy empty slogans and attack the police who protect communities of color.