To Produce Safety, We Must Understand What Drives Violence

We have long prioritized investments in law enforcement over investments in community.

As New York and other cities experience a rise in shootings amidst growing calls to defund the police, we risk mistaking these acts of violence as a reason to hold fast to current budget priorities and safety strategies. That mistake, if we make it, will cost people their lives: these shootings, in fact, underscore the urgency of moving resources to where they can be most effective in producing safety.

Producing safety requires understanding what drives violence.  It is unquestionable that the COVID-19 pandemic is a central contributor to this current uptick we are witnessing.  COVID has been like gasoline to the fire of the most central and durable drivers of violence: mass unemployment, especially of the most marginalized workers, high rates of exposure and illness among essential workers, a great portion of whom are Black and Brown people, insufficient access to health care, rising inequity and deepening poverty.  We know that violence arises first and foremost out of inequitable structures, and COVID has laid those structures bare as communities of color in particular are hit with disproportionate loss and wracked with disproportionate grief. As this grief and loss is compounded by continued and continually visible deadly violence at the hands of police, the interconnectedness of divestment from life-affirming infrastructure, on the one hand, and investment in law enforcement, on the other could not be starker.

Even as tens of thousands of people take to the streets daily protesting police violence, we still look to the police as the option of first resort to respond to violence and presume a cut in their budgets would gut their ability to keep people safe. This mistakes fundamentally what most policing does: a recent study found that an average of 4 percent of police time was spent addressing violent crime.  Many cities spent 4 or 5 times amount that on traffic violations and 9 times that amount on responding to noncriminal calls.[1] That means we have a very long way to go before cuts to law enforcement budgets would require any reduction in addressing violence.  But we also vastly overestimate what portion of violence police address.  Fewer than half of crime survivors call the police in the first place.  That is largely because survivors judge, based on their lived experience and that of their loved ones, that the current system in place cannot be relied upon to bring them safety in the aftermath of harm. This means primary reliance on law enforcement begins with the complete exclusion of a full half of people it is meant to protect—and that is before we even get to the adverse treatment by police of many survivors of color, immigrant survivors, LGBTQIA+ survivors, survivors with disabilities, and others who experience discrimination, dismissiveness of their pain, baseless cross-complaint arrests, and even violence when they do call for help. And then of course, involving the police in a case does not by any means guarantee its resolution. Many cities have abysmally low homicide clearance rates[2] (typically considered the portion of homicides resolved by arrests), not for lack of resources, but because of the lack of trust survivors and people who witness harm have in the police, whom they often experience more as an occupying army than as a source of protection.

Safety is not produced primarily by force. Safety is produced by resources, by connection, by equity, and by reciprocal accountability among neighbors. The vision of a society that does not rely on policing or on prisons as its primary response to harm is not mostly a vision of less, but a vision of more. It is a vision where the space freed up by the staged withdrawal of the criminal justice system is filled instead with what has been available all along but rarely invested in. This vision of safety, to be fully realized, includes and requires the redistribution of resources from the criminal penal methods to more productive, reliable measures of producing safety: investments in health care, in education, in housing, in living wages, in violence interrupters and intergenerational interventions that draw on the moral authority of those most respected by their neighbors, in conflict resolution and restorative and transformative justice, and in a social service infrastructure and safety net that in time will render enforcement not just less dominant, but obsolete. 

It is important to remember the recent rise in shootings is happening in the context of the current, not yet diminished budgets. This specific, contextual spike in violence is not a product of budget cuts: it is a product of the status quo in which we have long prioritized investments in law enforcement over investments in community. In New York City and elsewhere across the country, we have seen budgets passed in a context of great economic downturn that maintained funding for police almost entirely intact. But the deepest failure of these budget processes was not simply their failure to cut funding for policing. It was their failure to reallocate those resources to community-led responses instead. Because in the end it is only those responses that produce the durable safety we all deserve.

Danielle Sered, executive director of Common Justice, is author of "Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration and the Road to Repair." @daniellesered


[1] How Do the Police Actually Spend Their Time?, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/19/upshot/unrest-police-time-violent-crime.html.

[2] Clearances,” 2016 Crime in the United States, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2017, ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2016/crime-in-the-u.s.-2016/topic-pages/clearances