Updated: May 3, 2022
New Jersey recently enacted state-wide policy disallowing police to pursue stolen vehicles. Leading to the restriction, in part, was research that revealed in the preceding decade vehicle pursuits resulted in approximately 55 deaths and 2,500 injuries, with over half of the time the victims being the police and innocent bystanders. Under the revised policy, officers were only allowed to pursue vehicles for serious or violent crimes that created an imminent threat to public safety --- a threat that must have existed before the pursuit began, not as a result of the pursuit. Last week, the state's Attorney General reported that auto thefts have increased by 37% from 2021 and by 53% from 2020, many of which are purportedly linked to shootings. Now, in response, the policy will again be changed to allow for the pursuit of stolen vehicles. The decision will be reviewed at the end of 2022 to evaluate the efficacy, as critics see little to no link of the increase in thefts to the former change in policy.
The cries to defund and reduce proactive law enforcement efforts have rung loud for over six years. However, as crime increases throughout the nation, arguably in response to those reductions, the public opinion and tolerance pendulum will likely slowly swing back toward police enforcing the law. For example, after proposing over $120 million in police budget cuts in 2020, the San Francisco mayor's tone drastically changed in late 2021: "It’s time, the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end. And it comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement. More aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerant of all the b***s*** that has destroyed our city." In yet another flip, in March of this year the mayor withdrew her request for additional law enforcement funding. Perhaps the criminals' reign has ended on its own accord.
In January 2022, President Biden openly called for re-funding the police in order to improve services brought to communities, to include the addition of mental health and social work services. Additionally, of the 20 major cities that cut police budgets in 2021, over half have quietly increased those budgets in 2022. There is no doubt that the debate will continue on whether we should increase funding for the police, but even more so, on how those funds should be allocated.
Statistically crime is on the rise, and according to the FBI, in 2020 violent crime alone was up almost 6%. However, not settled is whether the presence of and proactive patrols by police actually reduces crime. The data is not conclusive, but a poll of patrol personnel would certainly indicate that the fear of arrest is generally an effective crime deterrent. Without debate is the fact that with increased police activity comes increased uses of force and the occasional human mistake that leads to unlawful arrests, serious injuries, and death. Notably, the social contract theory on which our criminal justice system is founded factors in that the policing model is not perfect and there will always be collateral wrongs, losses, and at times, injustice.
Not surprisingly, when crime strikes close to home, the acceptance of the risks associated with proactive law enforcement quickly changes. Could it be that an increase of crime a little too close for comfort to the policy makers is a driving factor in re-funding the police? Regardless of the reason, hopefully we are at a turning point in understanding the interplay of crime and police activity that will open the door for long-term policy decisions that move us toward a safer community for all.