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Following the recent release of the FBI’s crime data for 2020, which shows a 30 percent rise in homicides, proponents of the status quo in our criminal legal system doubled down on their demands to roll back reform and increase our investments in conventional policing strategies. This knee-jerk reaction reflects overly simplistic and outdated thinking about homicide. To break our overreliance on policing, we need to reframe how we discuss homicide trends in the first place.
Understandably, we tend to think about homicides in the context of other crimes—but we should also look at homicides in the context of other deaths. Homicide is not the only sort of death that implicates how we invest in policing. In fact, the three other significant causes of death alongside homicides among those under forty—deaths by suicide, drug overdose, and vehicular accidents—are all strongly influenced by our reliance on, or unwillingness to move away from, policing.
Police departments often consume a significant portion of city spending, with many police departments receiving something like 20 to 30 percent of city budgets; in Milwaukee it’s over 50 percent. So investing more in policing—which, for all the “defund” rhetoric, has been the general pattern over 2020—crowds out other spending, often on mental health care and drug treatment centers, the sorts of interventions that reduce deaths by suicide and drug overdose. Investing in police also increases the political power of an institution that has frequently opposed successful programs such as safe injection sites and other responses to drug use that are centered around treatment instead of punishment.
In 2019, the last year for which the CDC published public death data from the National Vitality Statistics System, homicide is the smallest cause of death for those under forty among homicide, death by suicide, drug overdoses, and vehicle accidents (and even less a major cause for those over forty).
Overall, in 2019 for those under 40 there were ~12,500 homicides, ~18,500 suicides, ~17,500 vehicle accident deaths, and ~28,000 deaths from accidental drug overdoses. And while it is true that homicide is the leading cause of death for Black men under forty even here there are fewer homicides than deaths by suicide, drug overdoses, and vehicle accidents combined. And vehicle accidents and drug overdoses each kill more Black women under forty than homicides. These results hold when looking at the country as a whole.
Moreover, preliminary data for 2020 indicates that while the total number of homicides across all ages rose by about 5,000 from 2019, the total number of drug overdose deaths rose by about 20,000. Assuming the over/under 40 ratios for 2020 will be roughly the same as in 2019—age-specific data for 2020 deaths is not yet publicly available—these increases translate into additional 3,500 homicides but 9,000 drug overdose deaths among those under forty.
Yet the political debates about policing and crime and mortality have barely mentioned overdose deaths, despite their far bigger toll across young and old. Thus even if hiring more police reduces homicide, we need to consider the impact of such hiring on mental health and drug treatment spending—and thus on the levels of deaths by drug overdose as well as by suicides, which appear to have slightly declined in 2020, but will still cause roughly the same number of deaths among those under forty, if not slightly more, than homicides.
Of course, not every type of death has the same social costs. Homicides, for example, are frequently caused by firearms, though it’s important to note that while it’s been reported that 2020 saw the highest fraction of homicides committed by guns ever, at 77 percent, that share has remained over 70 percent for at least the past five years.
And gunfire has additional costs that other causes of death do not. Seeing or hearing firearm violence, for example, can lead to PTSD in children, a risk that isn’t present with deaths by drug overdose, and one that is less likely for deaths by suicide, which are more likely to happen in private, and involve a gun in less than half the cases. It might thus make more sense to invest a dollar in reducing homicides than, say, deaths by suicide—although there were still be substantially more gun-related deaths by suicide overall, and almost as many gun-related deaths by suicide as homicides for those under forty. And given the significantly larger rise in drug overdose deaths, it is hard to imagine that our emphasis on homicides to the near total exclusion of drug overdose deaths is at all justifiable.
The importance of thinking about the impact of policing on deaths by suicide and drug overdose becomes even more critical once we appreciate the mixed results of policing on crime. There’s an increasingly popular talking point among some progressive reformers that policing has no impact on crime. This is unambiguously false. But what is, I think, the best study on this issue to date paints a nuanced, and complicated, picture of policing. Its results suggest that to eliminate one homicide we need to hire ten police officers, who will then prevent ~15 higher-level arrests and ~200 serious felonies, almost all via deterrence. But these officers will also make ~70 more low-level arrests—which a recent study from Boston suggests could impose net social harms—and cause ~8 more police use-of-force incidents.
This means we should think more carefully about the opportunity cost of policing. Even if more police reduce crime, given its various collateral costs—and benefits!—is policing the best place to spend another dollar? One study suggests that a dollar spent on policing reduces crime by ~$1.60—which may seem effective, until we note that a different study indicated that a dollar spent on drug treatment reduced the social costs of just crime by ~$4—on top of the health benefits of treatment which, given what we’ve just seen about drug overdose deaths, are likely quite substantial as well.
Moreover, the cost-benefit studies of policing do not exactly measure the impact of policing, but of eyes on the street, a sort of “sentinel” who can intervene. That person can be a police officer, but nothing in the studies show it must be a police officer. Given that we employ more (usually unarmed) private security in the US as we do (usually armed) public-sector police, and given evidence that private security can also reduce crime, the opportunity costs of focusing on formal state policing become greater still.
Similarly, interventions like violence interrupters that may have less solid empirical evidence of their crime reducing impact than policing almost surely also have fewer collateral costs than policing. Even if violence interruption is less effective at reducing homicides than policing—a point I am not necessarily conceding—interrupters are also less likely to kill a suspected shooter, or to stop and frisk them in a way that often feels equivalent to a sexual assault. Which just further complicates the argument from those defending the status quo that the homicide spike compels us to turn away from reforms.
Finally, it is critical to note that many of the efforts by police and those favoring the status quo to directly blame reforms for the rise in homicide lack empirical support. One striking feature of the homicide increase from 2019 to 2020 is how uniform and pervasive it was: it rose in big cities and rural areas, in more conservative and more liberal cities, as well as in places with progressive prosecutors and in those without. The timing of the homicide increase also defies any sort of simple explanation. When looking at city-specific data, it’s clear that some cities saw homicides rise at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, others around the time of George Floyd’s murder, others later in the year, and still others simply had higher levels of lethal violence right from the start; there is no clear, single story about what happened.
It is essential to confront the costs of the homicide spike head-on, and to avoid downplaying its importance. But it is also vital to note that the way in which we choose to respond to homicide will impact the risks that people, especially younger people, will die from such things as drug overdoses and deaths by suicide. Making this point is not in any way diminishing the significance of the homicide spike. Instead, it highlights that our near-exclusive emphasis on homicides downplays the risks a police-centered response to homicides poses to overdoses and other deaths—deaths that pose a far greater cumulative risk to human life than homicide.
John Pfaff is a Professor of Law, Fordham Law School, criminal justice and mass incarceration quant, and author of Locked In.