Perceptions on crime rates among American citizens radically differ from the truth of the matter.[i] Who is to blame for this widespread misinformation? The very people Americans hire to reduce the supposedly out-of-control crime rates: the police. Several characteristics unique to police rhetoric threaten American democracy. Police union rhetoric magnifies threats of violence, which creates a cycle of insecurity from which democratic backsliding arises. Moreover, police rhetoric is not race-neutral, and the excitement of inter-subcultural antipathy which emerges from police rhetoric threatens the degree to which citizens can trust democratic institutions for democratic outcomes. Rhetoric, a common feature of political regimes since ancient Athens, provides the opportunity for entrepreneurial demagogues to abuse democratic institutions in the name of power. Police rhetoric, if left unchecked, will worsen the quality of American democratic institutions.
Police rhetoric inherently relies on the threat of violence. The thesis is that if police budgets are reduced, violent crime will increase. Not only is this narrative demonstrably false, but it also contributes to democratic backsliding. After New York City terminated its stop-and-frisk pedestrian search policy, which disproportionately targeted young black men, the city witnessed no correlative response in crime levels.[ii]
The data show that policing had no effect on crime. Proponents of stop-and-frisk argued that the program would reduce the quantity of firearms on the street, thus corresponding to a reduction in violent crime.[iii] According to the New York City Civil Liberties Union, however, guns were only recovered in 6.5% of pedestrian stops under the policy.[iv] In this instance alone, police rhetoric regarding their impact fails to match with reality. Another example of police rhetoric’s divergence from reality is shown in the massive disparity between how crime rates truly are and how they are perceived to be. A report by the Pew Research Center found that 57% of voters surveyed in 2015 believed crime rates to be worse since 2008.[v] The reality: violent crime had fallen by 19%, property crime by 23%.[vi] Moreover, false rhetoric about police efficacy threatens the strength of American democracy. Political science research has identified the simple violence of extremist terrorism as a contributor to democratic backsliding. In 2017 Pippa Norris described how violent extremism created emotional insecurity among citizens, which manifested itself as increased support for illiberal policies.[vii] Police rhetoric manifests democratic backsliding through a similar mechanism. The violent threat—that “defunding” the police will incur greater violent crime—in combination with the misrepresentations and falsehoods—that violent crime is on the rise, for example—incur no safety for citizens, but instead only the steady erosion of democratic institutions.
Police and racial excitement often go hand-in-hand. Example after example demonstrate that there is an institutional racism issue within police departments: in Florida, being black makes a person four times more likely to be shot in the back by a police officer;[viii] in New York, 27% of black men had been jailed by age 38, compared to 3% of white men;[ix] nationally, in 1997, 1 in 3 black men could expect to be incarcerated during their lifetime.[x] Such evidence alone is enough to generate racial excitement, but the co-option of racial justice rhetoric by police is sure to amplify racial excitement. In response to Black Lives Matter, a movement directed at racist police abuses, emerged the movement in opposition: Blue Lives Matter. The similarity is no coincidence. Police rhetoric on the issue of racial inequality not only drives racial excitement, but also constitutes a threat to national unity. By framing police brutality as a Manichean, us-vs-them struggle, police rhetoric—Blue Lives Matter being the perfect example—implies that one cannot support racial equity in policing without also supporting harm towards police. The threat to liberal democracy here is in the threat to national unity. The rhetoric is populist, or at the very least populist-approaching—it is determined to divide citizens into two groups: it us-and-thems citizens. This phenomenon is dangerous in its own right, but exceptionally dangerous when it arrives at the feet of citizens from officers of the state. Traditional thinking would indicate that police are accountable to democratic decision-making, and that, in some sense, they serve a role to protect democratic institutions. By embracing populist rhetoric, police undermine their own accountability. By obscuring the democratic institutions they (ostensibly) are around to protect in questions of “who is us” and “who is them,” police remove the certainty that democratic institutions can be relied upon for democratic outcomes. A distance from accountability and a haziness of democratic outcomes both undermine confidence in liberal democracy.
Police rhetoric is not merely language: it is a danger to American democracy. The policy the rhetoric advances put aside, the rhetoric itself poses severe threats to the strength of liberal democracy. It targets American democracy where it is weakest. Police rhetoric misrepresents crime rates and police program efficacy, threatening a violent outcome if police budgets are reduced. The threat of violence itself has anti-democratic outcomes. Police rhetoric hits at a sensitive vein in American political development: race, and does so in a populist effort to divide citizens. The division of citizens, especially at the hands of public employees, clouds the security of the democratic bargain, and weighs heavily on the strength of democratic institutions. These characteristics of police rhetoric all contribute to democratic backsliding.
[i] John Gramlich, Voters’ Perceptions of Crime Continue to Conflict with Reality,” Pew Research Center, accessed April 4, 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/16/voters-perceptions-of-crime-continue-to-conflict-with-reality/.
[ii] Alex Chohlas-Wood, Marissa Gerchick, Sharad Goel, Aziz Z. Huq, Amy Shoemaker, Ravi Shroff, and Keniel Yao, “Identifying and Measuring Excessive and Discriminatory Policing,” University of Chicago Law Review 89, no. 2 (March 2022): 260.
[iii] Todd Blodgett, “Stop-and-Frisk Works. Democrats Condemn Legal Practices that Reduce Crime at Their Peril,” Des Moines Register, accessed April 4, 2022, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2020/02/28/stop-and-frisk-legal-effective-democrats-attack-mike-bloomberg/4856378002/.
[iv] Christopher Dunn and Michelle Shames, “Stop-and-Frisk in the de Blasio Era,” New York Civil Liberties Union, March 2019, 14.
[v] Gramlich, “Voter’s Perceptions of Crime Continue to Conflict with Reality.”
[vii] Pippa Norris, “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks,” Harvard Kennedy School, Faculty Working Paper Series, March 2017, 8-10.
[viii] Neil Bedi and Connie Humburg, “If You’re Black,” Tampa Bay Times, accessed April 2, 2022, https://projects.tampabay.com/projects/2017/investigations/florida-police-shootings/if-youre-black/.
[ix] Bruce Western, Jaclyn Davis, Flavien Ganter, and Natalie Smith, “The Cumulative Risk of Jail Incarceration,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 16 (April 2021): 3.
[x] Thomas P. Bonczar and Allen J. Beck, “Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison,” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, March 1997, 1-13.