Are Cops to Blame for the Crime Wave?
Examining the ‘legitimacy’ hypothesis
What’s driving up violent crime? As evidence mounts that the current surge began after last summer’s protests, many on the right have linked the two. Those on the left have a counter: High-profile police violence, such as the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, set off both the protests and the crime wave.
Law professor John Pfaff has argued that violent crime “is the product of anger at police forces that kill far too many Black men, as well as at the remarkably violent, riotous way the police responded to last summer’s protests.” Criminal-justice-policy analyst Jonathan Blanks advanced a similar notion last summer, writing that the protests show that the police have lost public trust — a loss linked to rising crime. Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, has explicitly argued that reduced trust has made violence more common.
Each of these arguments invokes the “legitimacy hypothesis,” which holds that the primary reason people follow the law is not that they fear punishment but that they believe in its “legitimacy” — its deservingness of respect and compliance. In this view, police actions, such as killing innocent people, that reduce their legitimacy in the public eye weaken the rule of law and therefore lead to more crime.
The legitimacy hypothesis found widespread support during the 2015–16 homicide spike, which the view’s proponents argued was a product of declining police legitimacy following the killing of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests. In general, the argument is a redoubt of those most critical of the police as an institution.
Does legitimacy play a role in the current crime spike? The answer is both yes and no. The traditional formulation, wherein police misconduct breeds community mistrust, does not stand up to closer inspection. At the same time, the past year has seen a concerted effort by politicians, the media, and activists to delegitimize the police. This effort has likely reduced police manpower and activity, which in turn has likely led to more crime. Police legitimacy, then, does play a role — just not the way it is usually framed.
There are two standard explanations for why police illegitimacy causes crime. One is that if the law is less respectable, the average person will be more likely to break it. The other is that illegitimacy affects the community’s willingness to work with the police, leading to fewer tips, crime reports, and other uses of the formal legal system to resolve disputes.
In 2016, three researchers released a study seemingly vindicating this theory. Using data on 911 calls, the authors argued that the 2004 beating of Frank Jude by the Milwaukee police dramatically reduced crime reports, particularly in the city’s black neighborhoods. Thus, they concluded, police violence can “thwart the suppression of law breaking, obstruct the application of justice, and ultimately make cities as a whole, and the black community in particular, less safe.”
Reporting suggests something similar happened last summer. New York City’s leaders warned against calling 911, which they said endangered black residents. A white Minneapolis neighborhood profiled by the New York Times vowed to stop calling the cops. Could these stories help explain the crime spike?
Be skeptical. The 2016 finding doesn’t bear scrutiny: In a 2020 reanalysis, Harvard’s Michael Zoorob found that the results were driven by a single outlier, 47 weeks after Jude’s beating. Remove the outlier and the effect vanishes.
In a separate study, Zoorob found 27 well-publicized cases of police brutality that had no effect on calls; Harvard’s Tanaya Devi and Roland Fryer produced a similar finding as part of a larger study. Similarly, George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests seem to have had no effect on 911 calls in five cities for which I obtained data, nor in data from Denver obtained by criminologist Justin Nix.
Calls for police service are, as criminologist Richard Rosenfeld recently put it, “one of the few quantitative indicators we have to evaluate the legitimacy hypothesis.” If they are unaffected by police violence, that’s a blow to the community-engagement theory.
What about illegitimacy driving people to commit more crimes? It’s hard to say, because we don’t know whether the violent-crime spike was driven by more criminals or by more crimes among the same number of criminals. But there are a few reasons to think the latter.
One is that criminal offending is a highly concentrated phenomenon — 10 percent of the most criminally active people account for two-thirds of crimes — suggesting that an increase in crime is usually driven by prior offenders. A second is that the weight of the evidence suggests that procedural-justice policing — an approach that emphasizes treating citizens with dignity and respect and preserving officer neutrality and perceived compliance with due process — improves community relations and respect but does not actually lead to a reduction in crime rates.
In short: It’s hard to square the traditional legitimacy hypothesis with the evidence on the ground. But that doesn’t mean the legitimacy of the police as an institution isn’t important to the story of the 2020 violence wave.
One way to understand this evidence is that misconduct does not shape people’s judgments about how they, personally, should interact with the police. Polling more generally shows that people’s views about the police do not change easily. Last year’s events reduced confidence in the police by only about five percentage points — a loss that was almost completely recovered, among white and black Americans, this year. Even last summer, 86 percent of all Americans and 81 percent of black Americans said they wanted police to spend the same amount of time or more in their neighborhood, suggesting that even when the cops are an object of political outrage, people still want to engage them personally.
The polling actually shows, however, that people both trust individual cops personally and believe policing as an institution is in need of deep reform. Last July, 58 percent said that policing needs “major changes,” 65 percent said cops are treated too leniently, and 79 percent called police violence a serious problem. Those concerns have diminished, but as recently as March a majority supported “reforming” the police, and nearly half asserted that police misconduct reflects “systemic racism.”
This sort of personal–political mismatch is common in polling — Americans notoriously dislike Congress but love their congressman. But it suggests that even if the perceived legitimacy of the police does not affect people’s personal behavior, it could still affect their political views.
In a prescient 2015 article, criminologist Philip J. Cook argued that illegitimacy not only could lead to increased criminal activity and decreased cooperation but also could indirectly boost crime by creating political pressure that reduced cops’ budgets and thus their crime-deterrent effect. Police illegitimacy, in other words, can stimulate demands for reform, as shown in the polling above and manifested in calls to “defund the police.”
Americans do not support defunding the police, and relatively few cities have cut police budgets. But political pressure on cops, in the form of both public rhetoric and policies curbing their discretion, has increased enormously over the past year. It’s hard to call, for example, Minneapolis’s push to dismantle its police department anything other than a challenge to the police’s legitimacy.
So are the legitimacy hypothesists right? Again, yes and no. This legitimacy challenge may play a role in the crime spike. But that doesn’t mean cops are ultimately at fault for the changing political headwinds.
Proponents of the legitimacy hypothesis argue that if police did not do all the horrible things they are accused of, then their legitimacy would not fall and crime would not rise. The standard examples are high-profile police killings. These are taken to be proof of widespread systemic abuse.
But such anecdotes are unrepresentative. In 2018, just one in four Americans over 16 reported any contact with the police; of those, just 2 percent experienced any force. Ninety-nine percent of arrests involved no force; among those that did, 98 percent resulted in mild or no injury. Police shootings of black people, in particular, actually got rarer between 2015 and 2019.
Obviously, any unjustified use of force is bad. But much of the public has a distorted sense of how common it is. A survey from the Skeptic Research Center found that many Americans dramatically overestimate both the number of unarmed black men killed by police and the share of those killed by the police who are black. My Manhattan Institute colleague Eric Kaufmann has shown that voters across the spectrum, particularly white and black liberals, inaccurately believe that police kill more young black men than car crashes do.
These misperceptions reflect that many Americans’ judgments about the police’s legitimacy are a by-product of a handful of rare but emotionally powerful stories. As both police critics and supporters have noted, Black Lives Matter would not have been possible without the spread of smartphones, which capture moments of brutality in high resolution. Such videos can strongly affect crime. Devi and Fryer, in their previously mentioned paper, show that federal investigations of police departments led to steep reductions in crime, except when the investigation was preceded by a “viral” incident of police violence, in which case crime skyrocketed.
Individual police officers are always responsible for their own misconduct, including deadly violence. But the changes in public perceptions of police legitimacy are driven not by a change in the level of police violence but by a change in the perception of it — a shift toward fixation on specific events that obfuscates rather than clarifies.
Some of this is a necessary by-product of the digital age. But some of it is a conscious choice by the media and by politicians who benefit from being perceived as “tough on cops.”
Increasing hostility from those parties is why cops I’ve spoken to joined hundreds of others in quitting their jobs last year, fearing that a single incident could ruin their lives. It’s likely why many cities have seen declines in police activity — there isn’t enough manpower, and what manpower there is is less willing to fight crime, fearing that, if they make a mistake, they’ll be thrown under the bus.
It is fine to say the police should be “reformed,” and legitimacy-enhancing interventions such as procedural-justice training do seem to improve community relations. But there has been a comprehensive war on police legitimacy over the past year, one that has stigmatized policing and made our streets less safe. The hypocrisy of people such as Representative Cori Bush (D., Mo.), who hires private security as she calls for defunding the police, is not merely a childish error — it costs lives.
As mentioned, people’s views about the police are resistant to change. Just as the last protest-induced homicide spike abated, this one is likely to do so in a year or two’s time. But another surge of anti-police sentiment is similarly likely, costing tens of thousands of unnecessary lives. Until we acknowledge the role that the campaign against police legitimacy plays, this cycle will continue: It is the deadly dividend of “defund the police.”
Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.
This piece originally appeared in National Review