Jun 8, 2020

Defund the police and what it means.

Defund the police and what it means.

Plus, that Tom Cotton op-ed.

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Today’s read: 12 minutes.

It was an eventful 72 hours. Today I’m covering the debate over “defund the police,” the Tom Cotton op-ed that got everyone talking and six big news hits to know about.

Riot police from Trump’s inauguration day. Flickr: Shamila Chaudhary

Reader feedback.

Last week, I referenced The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley and the work of Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who says he could find no evidence of racial bias in police shootings. Several readers wrote in to note that Fryer’s study has been heavily criticized by his peers and stands in opposition to other, more expansive studies on the same topic. “It was funded anonymously,” one reader wrote. “It underwent a shady publishing process: it was not peer-reviewed until 2018, yet received most of its media attention in 2016 when it was still a work-in-progress branded as a journal article.”

I think the criticism of this work should have been acknowledged in my initial Tangle about it, so I’m following up with it now. You can read criticism of Fryer’s work from Snopes here, from Fryer’s colleagues at Harvard here or from activist and data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe here.

What D.C. is talking about.

Defunding the police. After nearly two weeks of protests over the killing of George Floyd, and with reforms already taking place in cities across the country, activists in the streets have adopted a new three-word slogan: “defund the police.” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey was booed and shamed from an event after he refused to commit to “abolishing” the Minneapolis police department. Then, not long after, the Minneapolis City Council voted with a veto-proof majority to dismantle its police force.

“We recognize that we don’t have all the answers about what a police-free future looks like, but our community does,” the city council said in a statement.

Activists celebrated the news. “It shouldn’t have taken so much death to get us here,” Kandace Montgomery, the director of Black Visions Collective, said after the vote. “We’re safer without armed, unaccountable patrols supported by the state hunting black people.”

While defunding the police may be a new concept for most Americans, the movement has roots that are decades old but are only now entering the mainstream. The Minneapolis City Council has not specified what the city’s emergency response system will look like, but they have alluded to changes that include sending mental health professionals or social workers to emergencies instead of cops.

Regardless, the concept is gaining traction. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti says they will cut $100 million to $150 million from the city’s $2 billion police budget. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he’ll cut the city’s $6 billion annual police budget, but hasn’t specified by how much. The movement to reduce funding for police is coming as cities are also reviewing decades of policy related to policing, and House Democrats say they plan to unveil a police reform bill today.

What the left is saying.

The left supports defunding the police to redirect that money into social programs. The pioneer of defunding the police is the sociologist Alex Vitale, who wrote the book The End of Policing, and has been calling for this moment for years. Vitale’s overarching arguments, which have been echoed by activists now using his research to support their calls, is rather simple: we spend an absurd amount of money on police, they don’t make us safer and they do jobs they’re not qualified to do.

In Oakland, the police department receives half of the city’s discretionary spending. Cops have a $193 million budget there. The budget for affordable housing is $31 million. It’s also just $250,000 for community organizations and $400,000 for the Office of Crime Prevention. The NYPD has a $6 billion budget — that’s more than the GDP of 50 countries worldwide. It’s more than the World Health Organization. “More than the Department of Health, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Youth Services, and the Department of Employment Services combined,” Vitale says.

As a result, Christy Lopez argued in The Washington Post, police are used to “roust homeless people from corners and doorsteps, resolve verbal squabbles between family members and strangers alike, and arrest children for behavior that once would have been handled as a school disciplinary issue.”

Many on the left are actually accepting the argument that crime must be punished — and that criminal impunity leads to more crime. Instead of more funding for police to catch more criminals, though, they’re arguing that reducing police responsibility to nothing more than solving violent crime would increase the rate with which violent crimes are solved. In the U.S., those rates are — right now — abysmal. And if more violent crime is being punished, there will be less of all types of crime.

The Week’s Ryan Cooper pointed to the Nordic countries as an example worth following.

“Since Nordic police are not busy hassling desperate poor people or suppressing protests of their own abuse, they can focus all their effort on catching offenders, which they do very well,” he wrote. “Because virtually all serious crime is in fact punished, there is much less of it — in keeping with research (and common sense) suggesting that criminal impunity is another driver of crime.”

What the right is saying.

They’re against defunding the police — and actually want the opposite. Many on the right now accept that policing needs reform, but many are calling for more training and more accountability, which requires more oversight and more money.

The right is also pointing to increased policing during the 1990s that led to a reduction of historically high violent crime across the U.S. and helped bring peace to the very communities who want help now. Many on the left and right have written about the evidence that increasing police presence decreases crime, and black Americans are the racial group most likely to want additional cops in their own neighborhoods. In 2015 Gallup polls, 38% said they support an increase versus just 10% who want fewer cops around.

“The number of black victims of violent crime fell by nearly two thirds from 1993 through 2005, exactly in conjunction with widespread adoption of larger police forces, more patrols in the ‘inner city,’ and greater willingness to cite or arrest people for even lesser offenses,” Quin Hillyer wrote in The Washington Examiner. Hillyer argues that we should be doing the opposite of defunding the police: more money to offer better salaries and thus better applicants, all while providing better training for officers in the field.

In Fox News, Curtis Hill argues that defunding police would only make positive reforms more difficult. Hill notes that every profession has people who engage in criminal conduct — “pedophile priests, doctors who rape patients, teachers who assault students, lawyers who swindle elderly clients out of their life savings, corrupt politicians who take bribes” — yet we don’t call for less money to improve those fields.

“This defunding makes as much sense as cutting funding for a hospital or a school where a doctor or teacher has engaged in criminal conduct against a patient or student,” he wrote. “In all these cases, the criminal cops, doctors and teachers would not be the ones to suffer as a result of defunding. Hospital patients, students and the general public would suffer instead.”

As far as “overspending,” Jeremy Beaman pointed out that state and local governments spent $184 billion on policing and corrections in 2017, compared to $60 billion in 1977. That’s a 223% increase, which is less than the 381% jump in public welfare and on par with the 216% increase in health and hospital expenditures — all of which are within reason.

My take.

When I first heard the “defund the police” slogan, my knee-jerk reaction was to scoff. Much like “ACAB” (“all cops are bastards”), the rhetoric struck me as the left’s version of “illegal immigrants are criminals.” It’s reductive. While it’s not the first time I’ve read about the “defund the police” movement, it is the first time I’ve taken the notion seriously.

On the face of it, the prospect of abolishing police departments seems absurd. Which is fine — because that’s not really what anyone is advocating (the Minneapolis city council’s “police-free” language notwithstanding). So my initial read on this was that I was in the right’s camp, and fully expected to stay there. But the more I read, the more I felt like the left had two very, very good arguments.

One is that cops are doing all sorts of things they aren’t properly trained to do and probably shouldn’t be involved in. If you actually pause to think about it, it’s insane that we rely on the police to settle domestic disputes, revive and counsel drug addicts, discipline children in schools or rush to the scene of a homeless person having a psychotic episode. I’m not even sure we should be sending the police when someone allegedly uses a counterfeit $20 bill. There are people who spend a decade in school and careers of work learning to speak to someone who is mentally ill or counsel a couple in distress or give resources to someone in the throes of poverty — and our cities and counties would be wise to use them instead of police.

Second is the sheer expense of it. We’ve seen in the last week that our police forces are armed with military-grade equipment while our frontline health care workers struggled to get surgical masks. In New York, we’re currently proposing to solve the massive COVID-19 budget shortfall by cutting $600 million from our education department while cutting just $23 million from our $6 billion police budget. Does anyone actually think that’s a good idea?

Vitale, who is basically the godfather of this movement, gave the most compelling interview and argument I’ve heard for defunding the police in a podcast episode with The Atlantic. Before I listened to it, I was wholly unconvinced. But he is convincing. Included in that interview was a fascinating tidbit that counters one of the right’s best arguments for more training: there is compelling research showing officer behavior actually gets worse after anti-bias training, not better. Mostly because they resent the training itself. Which is evidence that sometimes these things can be counterintuitive.

I’m not saying that reducing our public safety budget to zero or pulling police out of violent neighborhoods is going to help our country or cities. It’s true that some neighborhoods in some cities are going to want more police, not less. And those citizens should be heard. This won’t get solved on the national level, it will be handled by city councils like Minneapolis’s responding to the will of the people.

It’s also true that more policing has been attributed to a reduction in crime, though it comes at the cost of mass incarceration that likely produces (and will continue to produce) more criminals in the long-run. The most radical of the left’s activists have already been tied closely to the “defund the police” movement. I expect “defund the police” will be a political loser, as well, and Trump is likely to weaponize the idea that “liberals want to let criminals run rampant” as a 2020 talking point.

All of that is unfortunate because there seems to be good research — and common sense — to suggest that shrinking the responsibilities of our police and using that money on specialized professionals is a good idea. The issue with the left’s stance is that “defund the police” is little more than a bad slogan (for now), and there needs to be some fleshed-out policy that’s more coherent than “all cops are bastards” and “abolish the police” if we want to move this kind of reform anywhere productive. Once that happens, a real set of policies — and a real framework for what reducing police numbers would look like — can be pitched to the American public and a better debate can take place.

5 quick hits.

  1. Prominent Republicans say they are unsure or unwilling to support President Trump in 2020, The New York Times reports. Former President George W. Bush, Sen. Mitt Romney, former National Security Advisor Colin Powell and the widow of late Sen. John McCain all say they will oppose Trump’s re-election in 2020. Other Republicans like Sen. Lisa Murkowski have indicated they’re wrestling with what to do.
  2. The U.S. Labor Market posted a surprising jobs gain last month, with the unemployment rate falling to 13% and 2.5 million jobs being added, the most in a single month on record. Some economists are expressing caution, though, saying data reporting errors could have caused the surprising report — and that things may get worse again when next month’s report comes out.
  3. New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, begins Phase 1 of its reopening plan today by allowing construction, agriculture, wholesale trade and manufacturing to resume normal operations. Retail stores will also be able to begin curbside and in-store pickup. Some 400,000 people could be going back to work. It’s been exactly 100 days since the first known coronavirus case was confirmed. Since then, 205,000 New Yorkers have been infected and 22,000 have died. About 500 new cases persist a day, enough for contact tracers to keep an eye on where the virus is spreading.
  4. U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan will explain why he did not dismiss the Justice Department’s case against Michael Flynn this week, setting off a highly anticipated debate over whether charges against Trump’s former national security advisor should be dropped. The hearings will mark “another extraordinary turn in an extraordinary — and seemingly interminable” case.
  5. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, currently fighting for a Democratic Senate seat, violated state law in 2018 by accepting a ride in a Maserati limousine at a conference in Italy and traveling on a private jet on his way to the commissioning of the USS Colorado submarine, a state ethics commission said Friday. Both acts violate the state constitutional gift ban. The news is likely to complicate his run for Senate and could sink his candidacy, upending a toss-up seat Democrats are betting on winning in order to flip the chamber.
  6. WEIRD NEWS BONUS: Forrest Fenn, Santa Fe author and artifacts dealer, says a treasure worth $1 million he hid in the Rocky Mountains was found last week. An estimated 350,000 people have hunted for the treasure, which Fenn has laid out clues to find. At least five people have died during the search. The news is a notable end to a controversial, bizarre and legendary treasure hunt.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: reader questions are one of my favorite parts of Tangle. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to get to it as soon as I can.

Q: I'm curious about your opinion, as a journalist, on The New York Times decision to publish Sen. Tom Cotton's op-ed piece and the subsequent outcry. Do you agree with their reasoning?  How would you feel if you were on staff there?

— Bonnie, Los Angeles, CA

Tangle: I’m really glad you asked this question, as I was hoping to talk about it but wasn’t sure where it would fit into the newsletter. For those of you that missed it, here is a brief summary of what Bonnie is asking about:

Last week, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) published an op-ed in The New York Times calling for the federal government to “send in the troops” to major U.S. cities that could not quell civil unrest. Cotton called for “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” referring to the need to beat back “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches.”

The blowback was huge. Shortly after publishing, reporters from The New York Times started sharing the op-ed with tweets that said “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.” Hundreds, if not thousands, of people began canceling their subscriptions. Times journalists began debating (publicly and privately) the wisdom of running the column at all. James Bennet, the paper’s opinion editor, resigned after reports surfaced that he didn’t even read the op-ed before it was published (a sitting senator’s op-ed at such a sensitive time is one I would expect the top editor of the opinion section to read!).

Bari Weiss, a conservative Times columnist, tweeted that the outcry over the column was starting a “civil war” in the newsroom between the old guard and the younger journalists — saying the “new guard” believes “the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps what were previously considered core liberal values, like free speech.” Then Weiss received a pile-on of her own, with one reporter asking threateningly why she “still had her teeth.”

The whole thing was a huge mess — and has now set off a massive debate not just about Cotton’s op-ed, but the wisdom of publishing it.

First, the opinion piece itself: Cotton’s column was not persuasive at all. The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board had preemptively destroyed his case in an op-ed of their own, and the content of Cotton’s writing seemed unlikely to change anyone’s mind. Cotton was frothing at the mouth for more violence and more unrest, which for anyone who has been paying attention should not be surprising. He’s the same senator who has advocated for war in Iran, jailing journalists, buying Greenland, killing Qassim Soleimani, sending more prisoners to Guantanamo Bay and — now — airdropping soldiers on U.S. civilians. Cotton is one of the most dangerous senators in the U.S. and he should be regarded as such.

This was clear in the op-ed, which is now preceded by a weighty three hundred word-long editor’s note that aptly sums up Cotton’s mischaracterization of protesters, historically inaccurate claims and dangerously misleading rhetoric. That editor’s note is worth including now, but it should have manifested itself as actual edits on the op-ed before it ran.

And yet: should the piece have not run at all? I find that notion nearly as repulsive as the op-ed itself. Weiss took a lot of flak, but she’s absolutely right that there is a schism between the reporters I learned from and the ones I learned with. The former had a firm and devout belief in the idea that good ideas should be used against bad ideas — the latter seems increasingly drawn to the notion that people like Cotton, even when they’re sitting senators, should be silenced, de-platformed or ignored altogether. I fundamentally disagree with that belief.

The best thing that came out of Cotton’s op-ed was Michelle Goldberg’s response to it. It was a scathing piece describing his writing as fascism and de-constructing the right’s “authoritarian turn” as it relates to quelling civil unrest. Goldberg ultimately doesn’t take a stance on whether Cotton’s piece should have been published or not, but instead seems to indicate that his ideas are so troubling it has thrown her support for the “marketplace of ideas” into crisis.

But to me, the conclusion seems self-evident: his op-ed, however abhorrent and dangerous, opened an opportunity for Goldberg’s better ideas to win out. That she published those ideas in the same exact paper is a testament to the power of “the marketplace of ideas,” a concept conservatives frequently say they support. As Goldberg notes, Cotton went as far as saying there should be “no quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters,” using an expression (no quarter) that in military parlance means no mercy, even in the event they try to surrender. Or, in other words: a war crime.

This language is no joke, especially from a veteran of two wars, and — again — the case that Cotton is unserious, unhinged and dangerous is apparent to me.

Olivia Nuzzi, a writer for the New Yorker, said she is a “radical” when it comes to the free press and that you can’t believe in radical first amendment rights and also believe Cotton’s column is “too dangerous for people to read.” Nicole Hannah Jones attacked her for that tweet. She said the following:

Hi black woman, journalist, NYT reporter. It’s not that we thought it was too dangerous to read. It’s that the most prominent journalism platform in the land should not be legitimizing the federal governments use of US military to violently repress dissent oppressed minorities [sic]…

This is most obviously not a free speech issue. Cotton is free to write and publish that wherever he chose. He should not have been able to publish it here. Where is the line: Publish people calling for genocide because in the market place all ideas deserve prominent airing?

Jones is right that Cotton’s op-ed likely adds to the danger reporters and demonstrators are facing. Dozens of video clips have already shown police using too much force for no reason while also arresting (or shooting at) lawful reporters in the field. But the argument that Cotton’s op-ed is legitimizing military violence against citizens and reporters, or is anything like advocating for genocide, is only a good argument if you think about it for three seconds or less.

Of course, The New York Times would never publish an op-ed advocating genocide. That they so obviously wouldn’t is evidence that there are lines and that it’s typically obvious when you cross them. But the argument is further self-defeating because no rational person could think that the Times was “legitimizing” or elevating the argument for sending in the troops: the President of the United States was already calling for it! And, as Cotton noted in his op-ed, a majority of Americans were actually supporting some form of military back-up for local police.

Again: Cotton’s op-ed was a dumpster fire. It was a bad argument and it included a series of misleading and dangerous claims that should have been edited or contextualized by the staff that helped solicit and edit the column in the first place. But the suggestion that the answer to this bad column is to not run it at all seems just as dangerous as Cotton’s floundering, bloodthirsty call for U.S. infantrymen standing against their fellow Americans. And what did trying to suppress this column get the rebellious staff of the Times?

The controversy and upheaval in the newsroom became such a big story that the column likely got ten times the readership it would have otherwise. Every liberal columnist in America responded to the controversy about the column with an editorial of their own, Cotton got to go on Fox News in front of millions of viewers to make his case, and now on top of gaining a larger audience for his very bad idea to send U.S. troops into American cities, he also gets to play the victim card and pretend like he was “censored” by Times staffers despite having his piece published in full. So how did the “not legitimizing” bad ideas thing go?

There were better ways to handle the column. First would have been actually editing and fact-checking it. Second would have been including a response to the column with its publication — preferably Goldberg’s which, again, was the best thing to come of this disastrous moment for The Times (I’m not saying I agree with everything she said, but it’s a worthwhile piece). But the simple fact of it is that Cotton’s op-ed gave America a look both into the thoughts of a sitting senator, the thoughts of the president and (apparently!) the rationale of many Americans who agree with them. Claiming those ideas are too dangerous to publish in the paper of record or are being legitimized by making it to print when they’re already firmly in the zeitgeist of today’s America, is the kind of illiberal liberalism that conservatives so often harp on — and it’s not a position you’ll ever find me taking.

There are lines, but Cotton’s unhinged and misleading op-ed did not cross them.

A story that matters.

Millions of American workers are about to return to fewer hours, less pay and more anxiety, The Washington Post reports. Economists say the positive jobs report is masking a grimmer reality for workers who are now encountering unfavorable conditions where they’re taking on more responsibility for less pay. “People are coming back to work in jobs that are very different than they were three months ago,” Robert Scott, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, told The Washington Post. Even as COVID-19 begins to recede, the impact it’s left on the workplace looks like it will last.


  • 55-41. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in the most recent CNN national polls, the largest margin of the 2020 campaign yet.
  • 80%. The percentage of Americans who feel that the country is spiraling out of control, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.
  • 83-7. Amongst Americans who never or rarely wear a mask or face covering, the support for Donald Trump versus Joe Biden.
  • 66-26. Amongst Americans who always wear a mask or face covering, the support for Joe Biden versus Donald Trump.
  • 55-35. The percent of registered voters who would prefer to vote for presidential and congressional candidates who “look for compromise and consensus” versus those who “favor making bigger and bolder changes.”
  • 48%. The percent of registered voters who think that Donald Trump would be better at “cutting the unemployment rate and getting people back to work” than Joe Biden, Trump’s strongest number of any issue in the poll.

Have a nice day.

Singapore’s parliament says it is exploring a four-day workweek to improve work-life balance in one of southeast Asia’s most burgeoning job hubs. The idea of a 4-day workweek is something being experimented with and adopted across the globe, and it’s gaining traction faster than some of its staunchest advocates have expected. Firms like Microsoft have shown that a four-day workweek can increase productivity by up to 40% while also improving the mental health of employees. A similar program to push a four-day workweek is being considered in New Zealand as well. Click.

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