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Hero-worship of Police is Failing Us

Does adding more police deliver results?

Adrian Owen / Flickr

In our shows, movies, and novels, they are our heroes in blue. To elected officials, they are the go-to response to complex, unmet social needs, from mental health care, housing, and supportive schools, to safe neighborhoods and more. Police will save the day.

Or so it goes.

Now, with President Biden, Mayor Adams, and leaders across the country pushing to involve police in more aspects of our lives, it is worth pausing to ask: Does our hero-worship of police actually match reality? Does adding more police deliver results?

Crisis response

Police stood outside a Robb Elementary School classroom in Uvalde, Texas for more than an hour while, inside the room, an 18-year-old with an assault rifle murdered 19 children and two teachers. While the shooter was left to continue his killing spree, police officers handcuffed, tackled, and threatened parents who were begging them to go inside and stop the carnage.

This story of police allowing a murder-spree to continue unimpeded while officers aggressively confronted concerned parents is now infamous. And as disconcerting as it is, Uvalde isn’t the first time a mass shooting was allowed to continue long after police were called. During the 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, for example, police took three hours to respond after an emergency call. Thirteen people likely bled to death during that time.

It’s time we stopped asking police to be the simple catchall solution to so many complicated problems.

In New York City, after a mass shooter opened fire on a subway car, a police officer responding to the scene told bystanders to call 911 because he couldn’t use his radio underground. It turns out the problem was user error.

Despite a city-wide manhunt for the suspect, the NYPD didn’t catch him until he called the police on himself, and after civilians helped identified him. A few blocks away, dozens of NYPD officers had been deployed, but not to search for the suspected shooter. They were there to enforce a homeless encampment sweep, where members of the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group destroyed the belongings of unhoused New Yorkers.

An analysis last month found that most active shooter incidents end before the police even arrive.

In deadly situations like these, where even a critic of police likely agrees that a law enforcement response is appropriate – officers have failed to prevent violence.

TV shows and movies often portray police officers as singularly focused on, and quite effective at solving, the most serious crimes. They are depicted as skilled sleuths keeping our society from descending into chaos, prepared to intervene to protect us. But the truth about what police spend the vast majority of their time doing and how effective they are at actually solving crimes belies this Hollywood narrative.

Hollywood vs. Reality

An analysis published in the journal, Criminal Justice and Behavior discovered that 66 percent of the crimes focused on in three popular police shows were murder or attempted murder. But a 2019 Vera Institute of Justice report found that fewer than five percent of arrests are related to serious violent crimes.

Media Representations of Crime Compared to Nationwide Arrest Data

When it comes to solving these serious crimes, police tend to fail more often than they succeed. In 2020, according to the Marshall Project, the clearance rate for murders —meaning the percentage of cases where a person is arrested and charged — was 27 percent in New York City. Buffalo police solved 25 percent of murders that year and Rochester police solved 31 percent. Even in some of the most heavily surveilled places on earth, like New York City, the odds of police solving crimes are low.

Those clearance rates don’t take into account the number of people who have charges dropped against them or who are not actually convicted of murder. If they did, the percentages would be even lower.

Homicide Clearance Rates in New York State (2017-2019)

For less serious crimes, clearance rates are often much lower. In San Francisco for example, police fail to make an arrest in theft cases more than 97 percent of the time.

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the Hollywood myth vs. reality dichotomy is the NYPD’s Special Victims Unit. “Law & Order: SVU” depicted the unit — in reality called the Special Victims Division — as a crime-solving juggernaut where police always catch the perpetrator.

The reality, as the Appeal reported last year, is that the division is “full of officers who have little to no investigative experience.” The result is that “[i]n multiple cases, women were assaulted and children were killed after detectives failed to appropriately investigate reports of rape or abuse.” The Special Victims Division is now under investigation by the Department of Justice for “failing to conduct basic investigative steps and instead shaming and abusing survivors and re-traumatizing them during investigations.”

Police don’t just fail to solve most crimes. Their impact is often harmful and even deadly.

Police are not only shown on screen as crime solvers, but as crime stoppers, ready to intervene to prevent violence. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. In 2011, Joseph Lozito was attacked on a New York City subway, the final victim in a 24-hour stabbing spree. Officers stood by until Lozito disarmed the attacker himself after being stabbed in the head. Only then did they intervene to apprehend the attacker.

After suing the City of New York for the NYPD’s failure to intervene, Lozito’s lawsuit was dismissed in 2013. The decision was based on the Supreme Court’s ruling that found police do not have a duty to protect members of the public. In fact, police officers are not under any legal obligation to protect citizens who are not in custody.

The same ruling was used by a federal judge in Florida, who found that the armed officer who failed to enter Marjorie Stonewall High School during the Parkland shooting had no duty to intervene.

The anti-heroics of policing

Police don’t just fail to solve most crimes. Their impact is often harmful and even deadly.

Police kill more than 1,000 people in America every year — disproportionately Black and Brown people. Between January and March of this year, there were just four days when police did not kill someone.

In New York, police often violently confront and stifle peaceful protesters. Officers too often target racial justice protesters while allowing white supremacist and far-right demonstrators to protest without interference.

In New York City, the NYPD is central to the effort to destroy homeless encampments. This cruel initiative provides no long-term solutions for unhoused New Yorkers. Instead, it funnels people into notoriously violent and inhumane shelter systems, and makes their lives on the street even more difficult.

Police also play a key role in reinforcing gentrification. Studies have documented heightened police enforcement in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Breaking the cycle

It’s time we stopped asking police to be the simple catchall solution to so many complicated problems.

We all want safe communities. But we know that adding even more police has a negligible impact on crime rates, and that there is no evidence that criminal system reforms or progressive prosecutors have fueled increases in crime.

New York needs proven and effective public safety solutions, including better jobs, schools, homes, and health care — all of which would do more to lower crime rates than further relying on police.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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Civil Liberties Union