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‘Defund the police’ is a debate over how to prevent crime. What do Americans believe?

Here’s what makes whites less — and more — likely to support community investment

- July 14, 2020

In the record-breaking nationwide protests since a Minneapolis police officer restrained and killed George Floyd, advocates have been demanding that policymakers “defund the police.” Essentially, this slogan is a call to debate government budget priorities. To prevent crime, should the government invest primarily in police or in community programs and institutions that focus on the social causes of crime, such as poverty and addiction?

How local governments will respond to this call probably depends on the opinions of their residents. So how would U.S. citizens prefer to see their tax dollars used to prevent crime?

Earlier research suggests that when cued to think about black communities, white Americans express less support for reducing interracial wealth disparities and poverty and more support for tough punishment of criminals. Scholars refer to this as “white backlash.” My research partly supports and partly challenges these findings. Through a survey experiment, I found evidence that both black and white Americans support directly investing in community institutions like schools and health clinics to fight the social causes of crime. However, whites were less likely to support targeted investment in African American communities.

The George Floyd protests generated more media coverage than any protest in 50 years

How I did my research

In September and October 2016, I conducted a survey to measure public opinion about justice reinvestment, a very similar approach that calls for diverting funding away from prisons and instead investing in communities with high rates of poverty and crime. The survey was administered to a national sample of about 2,000 black and white Americans through KnowledgePanel (then maintained by GfK, now by IPSOS). I instructed participants to imagine that they were the governor of a state that has recently saved money and asked how they would invest those funds. Here were their options:

  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Hiring more police officers’, ‘_id’: ‘3NY5TYZX4BBM5O4UPELWVGTXXE’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Hiring more probation officers’, ‘_id’: ‘3J5RFNOAPVGM7G36P6T42XOCMQ’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Funding community health-care clinics’, ‘_id’: ‘R5XJQS5D6NAPDJOCME6BJCF4T4’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Increasing funding to community public schools’, ‘_id’: ‘2RP3IFBDZNG5JO5EHXRYXA5XHI’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Funding economic development programs in communities to create jobs’, ‘_id’: ‘UZN6PH74CBF3JMLF6PAQ3VKROA’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘Returning money to citizens through a tax rebate.’, ‘_id’: ‘WMZPCYZOCFCN7IKJF77VHRN67A’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}

To test whether racial cues create backlash, I altered the adjectives used to describe the communities that would receive funds. Some respondents read about communities described with adjectives that were implicitly racialized (“high-crime communities,” “inner-city communities,” “rural”) or explicitly racialized (“African American communities”), while a control group read only about “communities,” with no modifier. I then compared the amount of money that respondents allocated toward each category by the type of community that would benefit from investment.

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Black and white Americans favor a variety of approaches to crime prevention, but framing about race matters

As you can see in the figures below, whites and blacks made different choices about how to allocate the funds, but for the most part those differences weren’t about community characteristics. Black respondents allocated smaller percentages of their budgets toward hiring more police and probation officers than white respondents. Black respondents also allocated larger percentages toward public schools, health-care clinics and job-creation programs.

For the most part, white respondents allocated similar amounts of money toward public schools, health-care clinics and job-creation programs as they did toward hiring more police or probation officers.

Figure: Kevin H. Wozniak
Figure: Kevin H. Wozniak
Figure: Kevin H. Wozniak
Figure: Kevin H. Wozniak

Only two descriptions prompted whites to give significantly more money to criminal justice rather than community services: “inner-city communities” and “African American communities.” When asked about “inner-city communities,” whites allocated about 10 percent more money toward hiring police officers than whites who were just asked about “communities.” But “African American communities” triggered the most backlash. When asked about “African American communities,” whites allocated about 8 to 10 percent less money toward public schools, health-care clinics and job-creation programs — and about 8 to 11 percent more money toward hiring probation officers or giving all citizens a tax break. The only description that changed black respondents’ allocations was “African American communities.” At that, they directed about 9 percent less money to public schools.

Think racial segregation is over? Here’s how police still enforce it.

Implications for “defunding the police”

Here’s what my research might suggest about the politics of “defunding the police.” Both black and white Americans support preventing crime by investing in both criminal justice and community institutions — though black Americans more strongly favor the latter. But whites reacted against funding communities explicitly tagged as “African American.” Politically speaking, that suggests that reform advocates might wish to emphasize the need to fix community social problems, such as crime, poverty and welfare use, to appeal to the broadest group of Americans.

Of course, the recent Black Lives Matter protests appear to have shifted public opinion on race and policing significantly, at least for now. The percentage of white Americans who recognize the social symptoms of systemic racism that social scientists have long documented has jumped by double digits since 2014. That might mean that white Americans would be more likely to embrace investments specifically directed toward black communities than in 2016, when I conducted this experiment.

My results cannot directly speak to the question of how much money Americans want to take away from police, if any. But they clearly indicate that Americans do not want to rely solely on criminal justice institutions to fight crime; they want to fund neighborhood institutions so that they can be partners in making communities safer.

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Kevin H. Wozniak is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

This project was supported by Award No. 2015-IJ-CX-0003, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Justice Department.