Policing and Violent Crime

Who will make Americans safer from violent crime?

Go straight to The Bottom Line

Over the course of 2020, safety in America has become a hot issue. Disclosure of a number of extremely questionable police actions against Black people has led to widespread protests – some peaceful, some turning violent – across the nation.  Campaign rhetoric has become similarly inflamed, particularly on the Republican side, though every candidate has had to take a position, one way or another.  Fact-checkers have been having a field day assessing whether Trump’s and Biden’s claims about where violent crime has been, and where it is going, are rooted in reality. 

So – to begin with, just what are the simple facts?  Violent crime in the U.S. has been on a downward trend since 1991, when according to the FBI, it peaked at a rate of 758.2 (violent crimes per 100,000 people).  FBI records indicate that during the eight years of the Obama-Biden administration, the violent crime rate dropped from 456.6 in 2008 to as low as 361.6 in 2014, before ticking back up to 386.6 in 2016, likely due to the unrest generated by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and additional police incidents in other cities.  Overall, during the eight years of the Obama-Biden administration, even with the uptick in the last two years, the violent crime rate dropped 15.3%, or nearly 2.0% per year. 

During the first two years of the Trump administration, through 2018 which is the last year for which FBI data is available, the violent crime rate has dropped another 17.7 points to 368.9, still slightly above the 2016 low point of the Obama-Biden years, but a 4.6% reduction, or slightly more than 2.0% per year. Overall, the trends across both administrations have been similar.   


What is Donald Trump’s Position?

In June of 2020, Donald Trump declared “I am your president of law and order”, literally as federal agents were clearing protesters from a park near the White House so he could make a photo-op appearance.  He has repeated the phrase time and time again – live and in tweets – and it has become perhaps the primary theme of his 2020 campaign.  (In 2016, of course, he said exactly the same thing, declaring himself “the law and order candidate” in his convention acceptance speech. Whatever crimes and disorder have happened since then have happened on his watch as president.) 

Trump has not released a comprehensive program for exactly how he plans to proceed, though in June he did sign an Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities a limited-scope document that experts have decried as very weak. He has, however, through his stump speeches, interviews, tweets, and actions strongly signaled his intentions. Trump has deployed federal forces – not their customary role – to put down urban protests that have occasionally turned violent. He has threatened to cut funding for “Democrat-run cities” he characterizes as lawless, anarchist jurisdictions. (While fact-checking competing claims from the Trump and Biden campaigns about who would better support police departments, PolitiFact.com has determined that in his budget plan proposal for the fiscal year 2021, Trump actually proposed to cut roughly $515 million in federal funding that supports local police.) He has promised to “save the suburbs” from an imagined invasion of crime-committing hoodlums. He has, in general, complained bitterly about violence emanating from people or groups who could be characterized as left-wing, while empathizing with violence that springs from the right. This happened recently and most dramatically at the first Presidential Debate, when Trump refused to denounce White Supremacy, urged the far-right militant group Proud Boys to “stand  back and stand by,” and maintained: “I’ll tell you what: Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.” Days before, his own FBI director Christopher Wray had told a House of Representatives panel, under oath, exactly the opposite

What is Joe Biden’s Position?

Joe Biden has a history of supporting law and order initiatives.  During his senatorial career, Biden sponsored and successfully fought for passage of ”The Violent Crimes Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1984”, and its companion, “The Violence Against Women Act.”  This legislation did lead to a reduction in violent crime, but critics –  including Kamala Harris and some others among the candidates he faced during the 2019-20 primary season – decried the impacts this legislation ultimately had on urban communities.   In mid-2019, Biden developed and released a new criminal justice policy plan that sought – perhaps with the benefit of hindsight and campaign criticism – to rectify some of the challenges and inequities in the 1994 acts.  That plan has evolved into the Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice, a comprehensive program for advancing the causes of equality, equity and justice.  The plan seeks to prevent crime, including by providing opportunities to people to mitigate factors that lead to incarceration, eliminate racial disparities, offer second chances and reduce violence while supporting survivors of violence. 

Despite the allegations of the Trump campaign, Biden has stated clearly and emphatically that he opposes defunding police.  On the contrary, his plan includes among other initiatives a $300 million investment in community policing, Biden believes that additional funding should be allocated towards developing alternative methods, both within police departments and through other initiatives, to reduce crime and ensure that the nation administers justice fairly. 

How do Americans Feel About Policing?

Pew Research Center

Of course, all Americans want to live in a safe, secure and violence-free America.  According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in June of 2020, there is little public support for cuts in spending on local policing – 74% of Americans think it’s about right (42%) or should increase (31%), while just 24% think it should be reduced.  When asked in June how they would rate police performance on several key issues, a modest majority of Americans – 58% – give a positive rating on protecting people from crime, but only about one-third rate police positively on using the right amount of force, treating racial and ethnic groups equally, and holding officers accountable when misconduct occurs. 

Particularly relevant to the Trump vs Biden question: the ratings on all four of these issues have decreased since September 2016, the end of the Obama-Biden administration.  Public opinion of police performance has not fared well under Trump – perhaps due to events that have occurred on his watch, perhaps in response to his strongly-voiced opinions.  The Pew poll discovered that there is very broad public support – ranging between 74% and 92% — for the implementation of a number of reform policies impacting policing, including better training in non-violent alternatives, better tracking of misconduct, the use of civilian oversight boards, requiring police to live in the communities where they work, and making it a crime to use chokeholds or strangleholds.  As one might expect, the detail behind these results does indicate differences in intensity when sorted by either race/ethnicity or political leaning.  However, the overall results indicate that as a whole, Americans believe some thoughtful police reforms are in order.

The Bottom Line

It is difficult to fully assess Donald Trump’s approach to reducing crime and violence, and making America a safer place to live, because most of his statements on the issue have been issued amid the chaos of a campaign. However, he seems to have a substantively poor regard for America’s cities – which house a majority (62.7%, according to the U.S. Census) of its people – and which tend to run democratic in both population and leadership. Trump clearly has high regard for the use of force, including the use of U.S. military forces in circumstances that formerly were understood to be the strict jurisdiction of local police. Further, he has energized violent white supremacist paramilitary groups. 

Joe Biden, who is historically strong on seeking to prevent crime, has over the years appeared to recognize that there is more than one way to accomplish that goal, and seeks to strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform its criminal justice system.  Given the responses in the Pew poll on the questions related to implementing policing reforms, most of America seems to agree with Biden on this topic.  As with any issue, your own decision may depend somewhat on your political leanings, but for those who remain undecided, Biden presents a much more thoughtful, even-handed while tough-minded approach on this issue.