What do people really mean when they say they want to “defund the police,” and who wants to do it? In a new paper, “Reconstructing Justice: Race, Generational Divides, and the Fight Over ‘Defund the Police'” this week’s guest, Michael Fortner, shows, among other things, that differences in opinion over police reform reflect age differences more than racial differences. We talk about how living through the crime wave of the ’80s and ’90s continues to affect the views of older Americans, black and white alike. We also explore how the logic of negative partisanship combined with Donald Trump’s overt racism has pushed white liberals toward wokeness. And we dig into proposals for fixing law enforcement that are, unlike proposals to defund or even abolish the police, actually popular. Michael Fortner teaches political science at the CUNY Graduate Center and is the author of the prize-winning “Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment.” He’s also, it’s worth mentioning, a newly minted Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center.
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Readings: “Reconstructing Justice: Race, Generational Divides, and the Fight Over “Defund the Police” by Michael Fortner
Will Wilkinson: Hi, Michael. How are you doing? Welcome to Model Citizen.
Michael Fortner: How are you?
Will Wilkinson: I’m great. Thanks for coming on.
Michael Fortner: Sure.
Will Wilkinson: I wanted to have you on to talk about a great new paper that you wrote for the Niskanen Center called Reconstructing Justice: Race, Generational Divides, and the Fight Over “Defund the Police”. I think just the title will give people a pretty good idea of what the occasion for the paper is. But do you want to just lay out some of the context of the project?
Michael Fortner: Sure. So, since the murder of George Floyd, we’ve been in this national racial awakening. As a black man in American society, as someone who has had people in my family going through the criminal justice system, I’ve been deeply impacted by this moment. And I wanted to think through what might be some of the policy implications of it.
At the same time, I was also struck by the push for abolition and defund the police in a lot of elite publications. So, I wanted to figure out what are black folks saying, thinking about this issue. And then how can we use their attitudes, their sentiment as a guide for criminal justice reform?
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I mean, it’s been really striking to me, the defund and abolish stuff seems like it came out of nowhere. That was not in the air when I was growing up. That wasn’t in the air two years ago. Where did that come from?
Michael Fortner: There has been a robust abolition movement when it comes to prisons. That has been far more successful. That has shaped a lot of thinking in academia. We do have a problem with mass incarceration in the United States, and the prison abolition movement has organized, over the past 20 years in particular, a lot of important energy around criminal justice reform when it comes to prisons.
At the same time, over the last decade, I think, and the last five years, a small group of academics have been applying the concept of abolition to policing. And there was this big book that was published, I think, two years ago, The End of Policing, which made the case for abolishing the police.
Black Lives Matter, actually, in their policy platform in 2016, made a case for ending policing as we know it. So, it was in the air over the last couple of years. But then after the murder of George Floyd, activists sort of embraced it in a robust way.
You started to see for the first time, Black Lives Matter activist students marching in the streets arguing for defund in a dramatic way. And it was a major break from the last decade or so.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. It’s fascinating. I’m super interested in this issue. Personally, my father was the chief of police in the town that I grew up in. So, from a law enforcement family, I’ve been pretty libertarian for a long time. I’ve got a little bit of A.C.A.B. in my system that is not part of my upbringing.
I noticed that after Ferguson and after Black Lives Matter really got going, that my dad, who’s been retired for 20 years, sent me one of the only personal emails he’s ever sent me, and he was really grieved. Felt like there was this … Like a ton of ingratitude that people didn’t understand the danger that the police are putting themselves in. How they’re putting their lives on the line for public safety, and how order would just break down if they weren’t there.
He wasn’t seeing the same thing that I was seeing. I’ve become fascinated with that disconnect. And as you mentioned in your paper, the disconnect is largely generational. It’s not just a white-black thing. It’s an older-younger thing. I think I see that in my own life, but we’ll get deeper into that.
I would write it into the autobiography, but I wanted to back up a second and ask you the very difficult question that I like to ask people at the beginning of the show, which is, what belief have you recently decided that you were wrong about, or that you needed to change your mind about? I know that’s a hard question. It doesn’t have to be recently as in last week, but something that you’ve been grappling with over the last couple years.
Michael Fortner: So a belief. I’ll start with a specific claim that I think I got wrong, and then move to how it’s part of a broader belief. So, four years ago, I was asked to write a piece at Democracy Journal about the election. The title of it was The Last Hurrah of the Silent Majority.
I argued in the piece that it’s unclear who’s going to win, Hillary or Donald Trump, but the polling is telling us that college educated individuals, whites in particular, and college educated women are sort of horrified by the President. I argued that this may be the last time we hear this mantra about the silent majority. I was sort of wrong about that.
He won a large amount of women, college educated women, who I thought would have been horrified by him, voted for him. And that forced me to rethink a lot of my beliefs about American politics, about race in politics, about that election. I think I was wrong in that being in my bubble in the East Coast, and in academia, I don’t think I understood the anxiety or frustrations with a polarized political system that most Americans actually felt experienced, and their deep need for fundamental change, and their willingness to risk everything for it. To have a new paradigm of politics that might be more responsive to them.
I think that episode has really caused me to rethink what I think about people who live in the middle of the country, outside of New York and Los Angeles, and to sort of take seriously what might be their legitimate, authentic concerns about our polity.
Will Wilkinson: I think most of us got that one wrong. After Trump’s election, for the next couple years, my dominant concern was just like, “What the hell happened?” I didn’t think that this reality show host who, I bet, was a transparent huckster from the second I saw him come down that elevator, I was like, “What was the appeal?”
I wrote a big long paper about how we’re polarized along population density, but that’s also a proxy for ethnicity, education and personality even. The personality traits that correlate with conservative versus liberal ideology.
I went deep into this stuff, because it was so vexing. Looking at the cross tabs, that’s one thing that really struck me too is a very thin majority, but still, it was like 51% of white women with a college degree went for Trump. Now, that’s collapsed completely, but there was something odd going on there that I didn’t think I understood. Now, you say you’re in New York, right?
Michael Fortner: Well, now, I’m in Philly. I mean, I work in New York, but I live in Philadelphia.
Will Wilkinson: You live in Philly. Do you commute?
Michael Fortner: Yeah. Take Amtrak up a couple times a week.
Will Wilkinson: Why don’t more people do that? It just makes a lot of sense. Philly’s [crosstalk 00:10:04] way cheaper.
Michael Fortner: [crosstalk 00:10:06]. Yeah. A lot. It does make a lot of sense. It’s way cheaper, and Philly is a great city. You don’t deal with all the frustrations of being in New York.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Well, clearly, you got it figured out. So, you commute up to New York to CUNY. That’s where you teach. What college are you in?
Michael Fortner: The Graduate Center.
Will Wilkinson: At the Grad Center?
Michael Fortner: Right.
Will Wilkinson: Great. Great. Okay. Well, this is a good time to back up and actually talk about the paper again. I think we’ll be able to bring some of what we just talked about back into it, because there’s just incredibly polarized beliefs in the American polity about law enforcement and crime.
Michael Fortner: Could I just add one more thing?
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, absolutely.
Michael Fortner: Into the last couple points I made. I mean, one of the big things I learned too was, the extent to it, the media that I consume is dramatically different from … Or the claims in it are dramatically different from the claims that normal folk who were not consuming that media actually make about their life and their life chances in politics.
I am now much more focused in my research, not just on what elites in media are saying. Early in my graduate career, I was all focused. I thought everything was about political elites, and political institutions, and sort of people that followed.
After the last election in the last couple of years, I think there is a real need to take seriously the experiences of everyday folk. And the extent to which the media academics and elites in New York and Los Angeles create and consume do not reflect their values and experiences.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I don’t know what to do about that. It’s this deep problem with the way the economic incentives that are built in the media markets. It just makes more sense to micro target demographics and tell them what they want to hear.
It’s inconvenient. There’s a big range of opinion in the audience that you’re trying to cater to. So, it was an incentive to try to shift everybody’s opinion, so that it’s more uniform, so that it’s easier for you to market to all of them. Fundamental market forces have reinforced this wedge that was already there.
Michael Fortner: Perhaps. I mean, but I honestly think it’s cultural, and so it’s about leadership, right? One of the things coming out of the racial awakening is media organizations putting a whole bunch of money around diversity initiatives in their organizations and having reporters devoted to diversity or to identity.
The question I have is are you just going to … Are those reporters, are they just going to talk to the same people? Are they going to talk to activists in New York and Los Angeles? Or are they going to talk to people who, in terms of black folks, are they going to talk to black folks who attend church every Sunday? Are they talking to black folks who say grace after every meal?
There’s particular choices, I think, elite media is making when it comes to covering race, and class, or the lack thereof in terms of class that could be different, regardless of what the media forces are. That if editors, I think, were a bit more creative and sensitive to the diversity within and across communities, we would have, I think, a more robust dialogue at the elite level.
Will Wilkinson: Absolutely. I think that’s a fantastic point. It’s actually a good point to bring us back to your paper, because it’s just not the case that African American activists for racial justice, especially younger ones, it’s just not the case that their opinions represent the mainstream of African American opinion. Especially not among older, churchier, more conservative African American citizens.
At the beginning of your paper, you do a little bit of … I don’t know if debunking is the right word, but there’s a sort of assumption that the tough on crime, the very punitive criminal justice system that the United States developed in the ’80s and ’90s that, that was kind of a left right thing, and something that conservative white people in particular wanted.
But you point out that, that’s not the case that, in fact, African Americans, most of them, endorsed the same tough on crime policies that white Americans did. So, tell me a little bit more about that.
Michael Fortner: About five years ago, I published a book, Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment. And in it, I made what I thought was a sort of a simple, controversial argument that middle class and working class black folks at Harlem didn’t like living around crime, like getting robbed, drug dealers in their neighborhood. And so they mobilized aggressively for very tough drug policies and created a context that made it possible for Rockefeller to pass the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
When the book came out, people thought I was absolutely crazy. That I had lost my mind. That I was a bad researcher. A review in The New York Times was sort of scathing, saying that I missed a whole bunch of things, that I don’t understand the black community, and on and on and on.
And so this time around, I thought, “Well, let me look systematically at this question historically. And not just sort of a case study of New York, but let me look at some of the survey data on black attitudes and crime, particularly around 1994.” Because many of those same critics and a lot of academics, historians of mass incarceration argue that the Clintons and Biden were responsible for pushing this on black folk, and imprisoning them.
So, let’s take this moment and look at what’s happening. And the survey data is remarkable. African Americans supported three strikes and you’re out, over 60% in some surveys. An insane amount, over 50% in some surveys, supported treating teenagers as adults in court. 60%, 70% thought that judges should be harsher in their sentences.
So, this narrative that the punitive turn in American politics happened to African Americans is fundamentally flawed. If we look not at racial divides, but actually take what African Americans are saying, feeling, expressing in these surveys seriously, you see that they, in response to rising violence, took a punitive turn on their own.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Could I ask you to just back up for just a second?
Michael Fortner: Sure.
Will Wilkinson: Because not all of our listeners know some of the context. Can you say just a little bit about what the Rockefeller Drug Laws were?
Michael Fortner: Sure. So, in 1973, the governor of New York, Republican Nelson Rockefeller passed a series of measures that created mandatory minimum sentences for possession of small amounts of drugs. The potential effect of the drug laws was that if you got caught with a small amount of drugs in New York State, you could go to jail for a long period of time.
A lot of historians of mass incarceration have viewed that moment, the passage of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, as a critical moment in the prison boom, because it created a model of punishment that was different from anything that had preceded it. And it created the conceptual framework for the war on drugs that dominated American politics and policy around drugs for the next 30 years.
Will Wilkinson: Excellent. Thank you. And then basically, the next big kind of watershed policy move was this 1994 crime bill signed by Bill Clinton. But it was clearly a pretty bipartisan effort, right?
Michael Fortner: That’s correct. That’s correct. And most of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for it, in fact. And they voted for more policing on the streets. There were some funds for youth programs. And also sort of a ban on assault weapons, I believe. Violence Against Women Act was a part of it.
So, it was this sort of big package of measures around criminal justice issues that historians have described as punitive. And some have argued, helped expand the prison system post 1994.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And it’s been coming up in this campaign where, slightly incoherently, Trump will try to hammer Biden for being bad for black voters, because he was instrumental in the passage of the ’94 crime bill. But that he’s both too tough on crime and too soft on crime, which is a kind of a confused message. But it’s interesting that it’s come up again.
Michael Fortner: The way it comes up is hilarious, because Donald Trump is like, “Joe Biden hates black people, because he authored the crime bill,” which we all know put a whole bunch of black folk in prison. And so Trump has taken this progressive, academic point about the ’94 crime bill and used it against the democrat in the race thus far.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. But in every other context, he’s like, “We need to crack down harder.”
Michael Fortner: That’s right. Law and order. Law and order.
Will Wilkinson: In particular, the really punitive measures in the ’94 crime bill, what were the things that made the criminal justice system harsher than it had been previously?
Michael Fortner: Well, the key thing, I think, for the purposes of this paper is the adding money for cops on the streets. They wanted to put over 100,000 cops on the streets in cities. I think many people have argued that, that bill, in funding that, helped to create a more aggressive policing regime in American cities.
That, I think, people are now … I’m arguing that the young activists, in particular, are mobilizing against that sort of seeing police and policing as the only way of ensuring public safety was a fundamental flaw of the bill. And a fundamental problem with the way America approaches our problems today.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I think, probably, one of the keys to this generational divide that you’re mentioning is just whether or not you lived through the crime boom. And as you mentioned in your paper, attitudes about how punitive the criminal justice system ought to be just seem to go up and down with the violent crime rate. So, when was the period in which was rising, and when did it peak?
Michael Fortner: It started this uptake in the late 1960s, and then it sort of doubled around the 1980s. And then it had a peak in the early 1990s. And in many cities, the murder rates are at insane levels, including in New York City. And then it begins to go down. We have this period, which a lot of people debate about what actually happened, this period where we went back to early 1960s level of violence and crime in American cities.
The survey data suggests that attitudes, the punitiveness of the American public, in general, follows the logic of passing the crime rate. And the same is true for African Americans, and that they … Looking at their beliefs around the death penalty or other measures, it goes up as violent crime goes up. And then it goes down as violent crime decreases.
And one of the things that I think was clear from writing the paper was that individuals who lived through the 1990s, what some people call the crack epidemic, believe Police are still critical in ensuring public safety. Young folk who have no clue about what that period in American cities was like are more likely to be focused much more on police brutality.
In fact, there are some survey questions. In some surveys, it shows older people are more concerned about crime than police brutality. Younger folks are more concerned about police brutality rather than crime.
Will Wilkinson: So, it does seem like one of those things like where it is, like what was especially salient in your formative years. So, if you’re going through this historic crime wave, that’s just going to stick with you. But if that subsides and violent crime just isn’t a very big issue, like New York City became incredibly safe for instance in terms of violent crime rates, so that’s just not going to stick out to you. But Eric Garner’s death or Michael Brown’s death, those things, especially when you’re a younger person, you feel like that’s a danger for you. Those things stick with you, so you prioritize police brutality instead of the crime.
Michael Fortner: Absolutely. And also at the same time, it is also the case that in New York City there’s stop and frisk, where young black and brown folk are being stopped. It’s not just them experiencing the media presentation of police brutality, it’s also that they have a darker, awful experience with policing in these cities that older folks just don’t have.
Will Wilkinson: You probably know the statistic. What percentage of black and Hispanic New Yorkers of a certain age would like … It’s like an astonishing number.
Michael Fortner: I have to check, see what is it.
Will Wilkinson: So, it’s like your lived, day-to-day, visceral experience is one where, just in virtue of your race, the cops are just targeting you and hassling you ostensibly to reduce violent crimes by just searching anybody who they suspect might have a gun, and they just suspect that black and brown guys are more likely to have guns, I guess.
Michael Fortner: Blacks and Hispanics represented 51% and 33% of the stops. This is from 1998 to 1999, while representing 26% and 24% of the state’s population.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. So, like more than double.
Michael Fortner: Yeah. [crosstalk 00:25:06].
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, that’s going to really mark a lot of people and their attitudes to it. My background is as a political theorist. I’ve gotten into republican, neo-republican political theory. You’re thinking about domination all the time, and freedom as non-domination.
And in that sense, if the armed agents of the state are just picking you up off the street, pressing you against the wall, rifling through your pockets, there’s a really important sense in which you’re not free, even if they’re not keeping you from doing anything. You just feel like you’re under the thumb of the state, and it has to do with arbitrary characteristics that have nothing to do with your likelihood of guilt of having done anything wrong. You just don’t deserve it. It’s unfair, and that’s going to piss people off.
Michael Fortner: And it ruins your quality of life, right? Quality of life policing for young people have ruined their quality of life in profound ways. I think that comes out in the data. At the same time, older folks who are less likely to experience that, tend to see that kind of policing is useful and improving their own quality of life.
Will Wilkinson: And it’s not unreasonable, because it seems to have been effective at some level in reducing violent crime rates. One question I have for you that I have no idea what the answer is. That seems to have been a very salient policy in the New York City area. Were other cities doing something similar to stop and frisk at the same level? Is that going to be a more general experience for urban black and Hispanic populations?
Michael Fortner: Yeah. From one particular reason, a lot of the NYPD leadership migrates to other police departments, right? These methods of policing and punishment are being shared across the nation, and you also have the data gathering systems and everything.
What happens after the 1990s is you get this new type of data-driven, aggressive policing model that’s floating throughout the country and endangering the lives of a lot of young black and brown folk.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, it’s interesting how these practices tend to diffuse around the country. I grew up in a pretty small town in Iowa. Marshalltown, Iowa is about 28,000 people. It’s where my dad was the chief of police. After that, he was the chief of police in Council Bluffs, which is the Iowa side of Omaha. It’s a bit bigger, 100,000 maybe.
But he was always kept abreast of those things where there’s an annual National Association of Chiefs of Police conventions where you go to them every year. You’re going to get these presentations on the state-of-the-art in Boston, or Houston, or these much bigger cities.
And then there are also these federal programs that he would end up going on a week-long junket to Quantico to learn about the latest profiling methods, or whatever it was that they were doing. That’s a small town, a relatively small town Iowa cop. So, there’s actually an interesting infrastructure in place for the diffusion of law enforcement practices. So, it tends not to stay isolated in a big city like New York City, because if they’re doing it there, and it seems like it’s working, it’s just going to spread pretty quickly.
Michael Fortner: Hopefully, that works with reform. Hopefully, if we have a new administration, we’ll have police chiefs who will go to Quantico and get lessons on how to remove problematic officers and how to have better relations with communities.
There’s a way in which that infrastructure became extremely problematic in the 1990s, in the early part of the century. But there’s also a way in which, potentially, it could be an infrastructure for a dramatically new paradigm for reform.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, I hope so. I’m a little worried that it’s a bit of a one way ratchet. Partly maybe for some of these generational reasons. The senior ranks of big city police departments are going to be relatively older people. I think police, in general, are a relatively dispositionally conservative, self-selected group of people.
Their profile demographically, in terms of their age and their conservative versus liberal inclinations, are going to put them in the group of people who really disapprove of a lot of the liberalizing reforms. I’m a little concerned that it won’t spread real quickly until there’s some generational changeover.
Michael Fortner: It depends on what reforms you’re talking about. I think this is the downside of the debate we’re having today in which it’s been polarized in many ways by defund and abolition. And I do think there is a center here that even some of the leadership of police departments might find appealing.
Again, I don’t study police attitudes and police leadership, but my sense is that police officers and police leaders don’t want to be social workers. They don’t want to be doing all the things, many of the things that they’re doing in the community.
And so if we can find a model that allows them to focus on the things that they feel like they’re good at and provide them resources and best practices that allow them to be good at that, and focus our reform efforts on that sweet spot of moving some services to other agencies, other actors, community groups, et cetera, and then supporting police at what they’re supposed to do. I do think the leadership, as conservative as it may be, may get around to supporting some of that.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, I agree with it when you put it that way. I was just worried about these old grizzled conservative cops. But yeah, none of them want to be social workers. It’s a funny thing that runs through a lot of this, which is that there’s a huge amount …
Historically, there’s been this really overwhelming consensus that is pro law enforcement, pro tough on crime. The reason we have just crazy incarceration rates, to a large extent, is just that prosecutors are more likely to get elected if they’re tough on crime. There’s no upside to being soft on anybody.
If you ever don’t go for the maximum sentence, that guy gets out, and rapes a grandmother, then you’re going to lose an election. So you just go for the max sentence, every time … Everything has been so tough, everybody has been so behind it for so long that police just get a huge pool of resources dedicated to them. And there’s so much public support for it, but there’s so little public support for other forms of municipal governance that the public frequently interfaces with.
And because those things are funded so poorly, in relative terms, the cops end up, de facto, doing a bunch of those jobs. And they resent it, but it’s stuff that needs to get done, but we haven’t allocated the funds to the infrastructure and the personnel necessary to do that kind of work, so they end up doing it.
Michael Fortner: I’m actually, again, a bit more … This is a great conversation, because you’re a bit more cynical than I am at this moment. I’m actually hopeful. In part, if you think about the prosecutor situation, what we’ve had over the last three years, perhaps four years, is a new generation of prosecutors who are not shaped by those kinds of impulses towards punishment, who are sort of progressive prosecutors. They were put into office by these criminal justice reform movements.
And the attitudes in all communities, black, white, Latino, Asian, is that people want to see some of this stuff move to other agencies, move to community groups. And so I do think there is, from the bottom up, a dramatically new context for criminal justice leadership. The only thing we have to do is to seize the moment.
This is why I’m so worried about the polarization around defund and abolition, because I think it can get in the way of this moment that’s been bubbling up from below for a while now for a variety of important reforms.
And as long as we are fighting over defunding the police, as long as we’re fighting over abolition, and as long as the President can say that Joe Biden hates cops and wants to defund cops, we are not talking about how do we fund certain programs. What kinds of agencies ought to be involved? And what part of the process when someone is called to someone’s house, and there’s a mental health issue? How do we gather data on all of that? I wish the discussion and elite publications was more focused on that center where most Americans and reformers are actually.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, I completely agree. We are trapped in the tough on crime, weak on crime frame.
Michael Fortner: That’s right.
Will Wilkinson: We’re just trapped in it. In a way, almost everybody wants to get past it, but in terms of the electoral politics and the habits of media narrative construction, we just get stuck inside that framework. Yeah, police departments totally want to talk about how they deal with mental health issues.
A while back, I was talking with … I’m forgetting his name, but a scholar who does study police. And one of the things he said that police are most positive about in terms of trainings is they would love to get more education on how to understand when an encounter that they’re having. What are the indicators that the person that they’re confronting has mental health problems? How do you tell what kind of mental problem they’re having? How do you know if they’re dangerous or not? Who should you call to intervene?
They just don’t know, because nobody gives them that training. What they get trainings in is they go in junkets that are funded by their city to these nutjob seminars where some ex-marine tells them to like, “If you think you’re in danger, you better shoot first, because your first duty is to come home alive to your wife.” They get those trainings, but nobody is giving them education about how to recognize mental illness, how to assess the threat, or just complete absence of a threat.
And so you just get police just shooting a harmless autistic kid or something like that, because they’re freaking out, and they won’t respond to orders, but they can’t. Nobody wants to just shoot a helpless autistic kid. Nobody wants to, but people need a little bit of education.
Michael Fortner: The fundamental question is, and I think our society, for the most part, is into this, is that should an agent of the state that’s carrying a weapon be the person that responds to a mental health crisis? In a just society, in a smart society, should an agent of the state carrying a gun be the person that responds to that situation?
And I think we’ve said no, but our politics is such that we’re not hearing that. We’re so polarized that we’re not able to move on concrete, clear areas of consensus. I hope, once we move past this election, that changes, and we can sort of actually do real reform.
Will Wilkinson: Me, too. Let’s move on with the story a little bit. I think you say well into 2014, 2016, even after Ferguson, just a bunch of these Eric Garner I was blanking on his name. Still, there was a pretty strong consensus in favor of more law enforcement, relatively strict policing methods, still relatively tough on crime. And that persists until … When is the breaking point when you start to see a real division in public opinion, both among African Americans and whites?
Michael Fortner: So, Floyd’s murder is the big break. Before that, you get sort of mostly African American saying police brutality is a problem and policing is flawed, even though they tend, at the same time, to report that they support police officers in their community.
After Floyd, you get whites saying, for the first time in large numbers, 50% to 60%, saying that there’s a problem in policing in the United States, and that race is connected to that problem. And we need to do something fundamentally about the system of policing we have here in the United States. And all of that is happening after Floyd. Some of those numbers, it looks like, are coming down back to their pre-Floyd levels, but it’s his murder which really changes everything.
Will Wilkinson: So, what is your theory of why that particular case precipitated this rapid shift in public opinion when it had been so stable before? Despite the rise of Black Lives Matter, a bunch of really visible salient public episodes of police killing guys that just aren’t really doing anything, the fever didn’t break then, but it did just now. Why now?
Michael Fortner: So, I think there are two things. One is the incident itself is uniquely egregious. He was stopped for writing a bad check, and he ends up dead. I think most people left, right and center, they could probably debate if they thought you had a gun or a knife, and the police murdered you. You look like you were attacking them.
There was some kind of violence at the core of why the police stopped you. But the idea that you can die for something like that, and then have it be on videotape, I think, was sort of a major shift.
The other thing is, to be quite honest with you … This is, of course, just a hypothesis, we’ll see, if evidence will support this. I think we’ve been broken by the time Floyd happened with COVID and everything. I think we were just broken as a people. And there was something about government failure, government brutality in that instance that went to the core of everything that we were feeling at that moment.
A lot of the pain, a lot of the desperation that we were feeling at that moment. And so I don’t think you can take the Floyd murder out of that context and have the same type of response. Also, we’re home. The cost of collective action in this moment is not as great as before. So, I think all those things come together to …
Will Wilkinson: And people are just dying to get outside.
Michael Fortner: Yes. Yes.
Will Wilkinson: I think it’s sort of underestimated. These people, they’re just bored and bottled up, undersocialized, and here comes this thing that is a really great excuse to go out in the streets. It’s not insincere, but there’s a lot of these small contributing factors that …
Michael Fortner: Again, we’re also, I think, just broken.
Will Wilkinson: What do you mean by that?
Michael Fortner: As the people feeling like … Well, I’m just going to speak for myself for now that after COVID hit and the way that the Trump administration handled it, it was hard to have faith in government to do the basic things it needs to do. Seeing people die needlessly, hearing members of his party suggest, “Let’s open up, and if people die, whatever, the economy is more important.”
It took a toll on me in terms of my own faith in the system, and my belief in government to do important things when it matters the most. Depending on what you thought about Trump, you can sort of say, “Look, his incompetence didn’t really affect me, so I’m willing to ignore it.”
But here’s a moment in which we need smart, good government, and it didn’t happen. I think then sort of seeing government being effective at murdering an innocent man really takes a toll on your … It took a toll on my soul in terms of my own belief in our system of government and what it’s supposed to do, what its purposes are, what it can do. I think that a lot of people are going through this questioning of the legitimacy of the system at that moment.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, I agree 100%. I feel you completely. I mean, it broke me. Before George Floyd, the COVID thing. I was working for months with this group out of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard led by Danielle Allen, with this big coronavirus policy plan, like what to do. Worked really hard on that stuff. I was helping to try to get it into Congress to try to get Republican senators to take it seriously, to get a big test and trace, supported isolation program in place. And it just wasn’t going to happen.
It’s already taken a toll on you. You’re trapped in your house. I’ve got young kids, it’s horrible. When you directly see that the system is so broken, there are hundreds of thousands of people dying, and you’re like, “We know how to deal with this. We know how to save these lives.” And you just run into this brick wall where they’re like, “We don’t want to get on the wrong side of Trump.” It’s dispiriting. It sent me in a total, like a genuine depression, because people are dying by the droves, and we’re not going to do anything about it.
Yeah. That is the context in which this sort of thing happens. My experience isn’t necessarily representative, but I think millions of people are having their own version of something like that. I’ve never felt that the system was less functional. It can’t do the basic thing. It can’t keep people alive.
Michael Fortner: And in some cases, though, it can kill people.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Exactly.
Michael Fortner: Innocent people. Again, going back to your question of what belief have changed. For a second, my belief in the state to do basic things was fundamentally challenged, at the same time reading pieces in the New York Times and others saying, “Well, the state is doing what it’s designed to do when it comes to killing black folk.” And you have to think about that. What is it? What does it say about us when the state can’t keep innocent people alive, but it seems effective at killing innocent people?
That really messed with my mind for a while. It took a while to get myself together and to think clearly about what we can do as a society. But seeing the survey evidence where people were feeling like me, gave me hope again, and that I’m not alone. And that there is sort of a mass of people who want effective governance in general and effective policing in particular.
Will Wilkinson: I’ll ask you in a minute more about the divide and opinion, the real Gulf that opens up between younger and older African Americans. From my perspective as a 40 something white guy, I know, for me, a lot of it just is Trump. I’m one of those people that’s gone through the Great Awokening thing.
So, my own convictions in the reality of structural racism, my sense of obligation of learning more about the history of the United States, and the ways in which it’s been structured around racial hierarchy and the protection. Those are things that I semi-evaded most of my life with the regular excuses that white people have. But at a certain point, I started to feel guilty about it.
Trump really brought it home. Seeing this incredibly overt ethnocentrism. Really, white supremacy. You don’t really have to read between the lines that much when he’s talking about who counts as a real American. When he goes to Minnesota and talks about the people there having good genes.
There’s something that was really eye-opening to me about Trump and the logic of negative affective polarization. If this is what this guy is, who I just loath with the fire of 10,000 suns, I’m going to get as far away from that as I possibly can.
And so, all of a sudden, I find myself reading Ibram X. Kendi books, which is something that wouldn’t have happened, but I think Trump did it to me. And the logic of negative polarization did it to me. You see that in the data. There’s this huge, huge shift in the racial attitudes of white liberals.
One of the things in my paper on the density divide that I studied quite a bit was this literature on ethnocentrism and in-group favoritism. The degree to which you like your own ethnic group more than you like other ethnic groups. It doesn’t mean you dislike other groups, but it’s just like you like yours more.
And white liberals now have negative in-group bias. They like white people less than they like black and Hispanic people. And it’s because of, again, the logic of negative polarization. It’s because I hate Republicans and all Republicans, to a first approximation, are other white people.
But the knock-on effect of that is you get just a really crazy shift in the racial attitudes of white liberals. And all of a sudden, there’s this receptivity to what black activists who are talking about things like prison abolition or police abolition or defunding the police are saying. And then you get public opinion numbers for like white support of these things. It seems like it would have been absolutely insane to think that it would ever occur just five years ago.
Michael Fortner: No. That was very useful. I mean, to be quite honest with you, I don’t know what’s going on with white folks, and why so many have embraced Ibram Kendi, and all this other kind of stuff.
I’m still struggling with that. My concern, though, is that they see these activists, they see these authors as being representative of black folk writ large, and that’s fundamentally wrong. So, I do think there are a lot of editors across the country who are as you described, that make the mistake of thinking the authors that have educated them on race actually share the same political beliefs and political ideologies of most black folks, especially older black folks.
And you don’t have to look no further than the Democratic primary this time around and last time around to see that. I will never forget Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, the famous book that I think helped galvanize much of this criminal justice reform movement. She wrote a piece in The Nation magazine right before the South Carolina primary when it was Hillary and Bernie. And the title of it was, Black Folks Can’t Trust Hillary, or something like that.
And then a few days later, black folks gave Hillary this huge win over Bernie, and the same thing happened this time. For a year before the primary, writers on the left started talking about mass incarceration, Biden and Kamala Harris as a cop later on. Thinking that somehow that this separated these candidates from the black community. Comes time to vote, and they supported these people who, again, activists and intellectuals will tell you, “are responsible for mass incarceration.”
How do we explain that? One, they weren’t just responsible for mass incarceration, black folk like we talked about earlier, were there as well. Two, older black folk are practical as hell. They don’t have much time for these broader ideological battles that are fought on the pages of elite periodicals.
They want good government services. Who’s going to give them good government services? Who’s going to give them safe streets? Who’s going to give them quality health care? Who’s going to create jobs for them and their kids?
Will Wilkinson: And also, who’s electable? Who would win the election against the bad guy?
Michael Fortner: Exactly right. I’m glad that a lot of white folks are woke in this moment, but I hope they don’t make the mistake of believing being woke means they automatically understand the black experience, or what black people feel or think, because the two are not the same.
Will Wilkinson: I think it’s a real problem.
Michael Fortner: Agree.
Will Wilkinson: I really do think it’s a real problem that people like to posture and signal their virtue and rectitude. And right now, I think we are in a moment where white liberals are very concerned to broadcast that they’re with the good guys, not the bad guys. But I do think that you’re completely right that there is just this misconception that BLM activists are somehow representative.
Again, I keep bringing this paper up because I learned a lot about demographics writing it. In terms of the parties, the Republican Party is basically all white, and the Democratic Party is a multiracial coalition. And among whites, there is a liberal conservative split with the party. So, the parties for white people line up with conservative liberal.
If you’re a white Democrat, you are liberal in your instincts about social issues and social policy. Non-white people are overwhelmingly democratic, but the dispositions that tend to predict whether you’re just kind of temperamentally conservative or liberal, there’s a normal distribution of those in any population. And about half of the populations is going to lean one way, and about half is going to lean …
So, there’s a ton of just extremely conservative Hispanic voters. There’s a ton of extremely conservative black voters. And they’re mostly all Democrats, which is always a problem for the Democratic Party, because it’s got way more internal diversity. Not just in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of ideology. It’s not unified, at least in terms of these instincts, because black church ladies are not the same as your English professor in the leading university, but they’re just not the same people.
Michael Fortner: That’s right.
Will Wilkinson: But republicans are way more homogeneous. There’s a little heterogeneity. It’s like, are you a plutocrat versus are you like a relatively rural working class person? There’s a lot of differences between those people, but a lot of their instincts still remain similar.
So, there’s this variety, and I do think people really overlook it. I think it’s a real problem in the Democratic Party where the party is dominated, the leadership of the party is dominated by white Democrats. And white Democrats are liberals. They’re very socially liberal, and I think that creates a problem in the party where it’s actually difficult for more temperamentally conservative black and Hispanic Democrats to get representation in the party structure.
Michael Fortner: On this point, I think in cities, it’s slightly different. In a lot of cities, the party leadership consists of these black church women. What the last two presidential election seasons revealed is that they are in tension with this new generation of young black, white and Latino activists in a lot of cities.
And so, you’re seeing Justice Democrats, for example, who are running against traditional black leaders in these communities for power. I think that is a lot of the tension. And so, you have two different generations, but also two different power bases. One informed by Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie campaign. The other traditional civil rights organization, black churches, and black Democrats, and they don’t agree.
I mean, they agree on sort of racism in general, but in terms of what to do about policing and some other things, they don’t agree. I think that’s an under-examined story going on now shaping a lot of policy development in the cities.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. So, that’s really the focus of your paper. Those are the big split in attitudes toward defund and other police reform proposals. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how that breaks down both within races and between generations?
Michael Fortner: Yeah. In general, what you find is that abolition, for example, is unpopular across all racial groups. Should we abolish the police. Most people say no.
The group that are more likely to say, “Yes, we should,” around 30% or so are young individuals. Individuals below 30 are much more likely to embrace abolition by 10% or less of individuals over 65 embrace abolition.
And the same happens with questions about should we have more policing, the same amount of policing, less policing. Older people across all races are more likely to say, “Stay the same.” In some polls, a higher number say increase more than, say, decrease. And young people are more likely to say, “We should decrease funding, decrease the number of police officers in the communities and decrease funding for cops.” And again, that’s across all racial groups.
Will Wilkinson: I think it’s really striking the degree to which it’s more generational than anything. That older, black Democrats are closer to older white Democrats than they are to younger black Democrats.
Michael Fortner: That’s right. That’s right. One of my colleagues said that my work was counterintuitive. I thought it was nice, but I think there’s a way in which it also makes sense. Again, going back to the point that you made, if you lived through the 1990s, I understand why you don’t want to give up policing.
If you saw crime and violence decline as police were getting aggressive in the cities, I understand why you don’t want the police presence in your communities to decline. If you are young, and a person of color, and you or your friends or people you know have been stopped and frisk, I understand why you would like to decrease the number of police officers in your community. I understand that you would like to defund the police and move some of the money to social progress.
I think the question for us as a political community is, what do we do next? Where is the consensus? And I do think there is a way in which we can have our cake and eat it too. That is to say, we can have effective police strategies that target hotspots and violent neighborhoods, and also implement new strategies that use community groups, doctors, social workers, and other agencies involved in solving a lot of the problems that police now are asked to solve.
Will Wilkinson: That really is the question, like what to do next. Can you just tell me what it is that … Because I’m still a little hazy about what abolition of the police is supposed to mean. Does it really just mean just not have a police department at all?
Michael Fortner: I’m not an abolitionists.
Will Wilkinson: I’m just trying to understand the view, because it’s not clear to me.
Michael Fortner: So, let me say this. If you think that policing in this country was designed as a mechanism of social control for African Americans, for working people, then you see police and policing as a fundamental problem in our society that cannot be fixed, and must be ended as such.
If you think that police officers kill black folk not because they lack training, or because of bad leadership, but if you think they kill black folks because they’re meant to kill black folk, then your argument is we need to end that as such.
I think that’s the abolitionist position in terms of policing. And there’s a logic to it. It makes sense to me. I don’t, in the paper, take a sort of philosophical stance against it. My only point is that the politics at this moment is not necessarily conducive to abolition.
And, in fact, a lot of the communities that it’s meant to save have been rejecting it. And so given that, why are we fighting about the least popular framing, the least popular policy intervention, when we could be joining forces around a whole toolkit of interventions that could actually save black lives?
Will Wilkinson: Your explanation of abolition sounds right to me. It feels very analogous to pretty radical socialist thinking, just in the sense that it’s really comprehensively structural. That all the injustice is a function of the way the entire system is built.
So, if we’re ever going to get things right, we have to, in some sense, have a revolution. Fundamentally revisit the basic structure of our polity and economy and all of that stuff.
Michael Fortner: That’s right. It’s not. It’s not. At the moment, I think that’s right. Yes. If you believe, which I think a lot of smart people that I respect believe, that policing is meant to serve a certain purpose that’s anti-black. Why would you advocate for policing? Reform doesn’t make sense. It’s fundamentally flawed, fundamentally problematic, fundamentally racist.
Let’s move on to something else. My point here is to say, ending it is a losing battle at this point, so let’s try to move on to something else instead of fighting about ending it.
Will Wilkinson: What do people think that defund means? When Republicans are arguing against it, they act like it is abolition. You just want to strip law enforcement of all its funding. But my sense is that’s not what people who are positive toward the idea actually think it says.
Michael Fortner: So, this was one of the most surprising findings in the paper. I’ve been following on Twitter, and every once in a while, someone would say something like, “Black folks oppose abolition and defunding.” And then someone would sort of say, “Well, look, here’s a survey where 60% of black folks say they support defunding police and moving the money towards social programs.”
And so, I wanted to find out, what does that mean? When people say that they support defunding, what are they actually signing on to? And there is this one poll, I believe it’s Monmouth that asked respondents. When you hear defund, what do you think about? And 90% of African Americans said they thought it meant changing the way police operate. Only a fraction believed that it meant getting rid of police.
And that was sort of universal across all groups, for the most part. I think it’s important to say that when African Americans say that they support defund in some of the surveys, that they’re not saying that they want to get rid of police in their communities. What they are doing is pleading for reform.
And so while activists will tell you that defund means it’s closer to abolition than it is to reform, in black folks’ hearts and minds, it’s closer to reform than it is abolition.
Will Wilkinson: When I was listening to people and just talking about it, it really sounds like reallocation. That’s largely what people want, because there is just an astonishing level of funding for law enforcement.
It just swamps every other bit of municipal spending by orders of magnitude. It’s crazy. And especially when you have a big city like New York that has these massive budgets, it’s incredible just how much is spent on law enforcement.
What I hear people say defund, it’s sort of like my attitude toward the US military. I want there to be a military, but I don’t think we need to spend a full however many percent of GDP on the Navy. I think we’re okay. I think we’ve got enough battleships and aircraft carriers, and we don’t need to spend $35 billion on a bunch of new …
Maybe we should take some of that money and give it to people so that kids aren’t hungry. That seems like that would be a good use of money. It’s a much more pressing problem than some crazy counterfactual about what if China attacks you.
I would like to defund the military in the sense that I would like them to have less funding. And I would like that funding to go to something that’s more urgently needed. And that’s what I feel like people are talking about.
Michael Fortner: I think that’s right, but I just would add a clarification, that they would support shifting more resources to social services, et cetera. But they don’t necessarily want or think about defunding as sort of a mechanism for decreasing the amount of police in their communities, right?
So, there was an interesting poll of voters in Minneapolis where defund passed very early on after the protest. One question was, do you support redirecting money from police officers, policing to social programs? Over 70%, 76% of blacks said, “Absolutely.” Do you want to decrease the number of cops in your community? No. It’s 35% of African American voters said, “We want to decrease the amount of policing.”
So, while there’s broad support for shifting around resources and funding, or saving the social safety net in a lot of these communities, most black folks don’t want that to translate into less policing in their community.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And it’s something that is an important feature of the entire discussion that we haven’t brought up, which is that black neighborhoods in big cities have higher crime rates. So, African Americans are more likely to be victims of both violent and property crime. Obviously, if you think that having cops on the street really helps, you’re not going to want them to go away.
Michael Fortner: That’s right.
Will Wilkinson: You just want them to not stop you for no reason and throw you up against the wall. You don’t want them to arrest you for no good reason. You don’t want them to sit on your neck, but you still want a deterrence to whatever crime is a problem in your neighborhood.
Michael Fortner: So, my brother, let me tell you, what you just said is fundamental truth that some people think is insane. When I say what you just said, a lot of people, particularly on the left, think that, that observation is sort of crazy. They don’t buy it. It’s not what you read in a lot of articles. I think we need to get past that. Your observation is fundamentally right.
Black communities are over-policed and under-protected. And yes, they want to end police brutality. They don’t want disrespectful police. They don’t want sort of random race-based stops. But they do want a police presence there as a deterrent to decrease the level of violent crime and property crime in their communities. I think that is sort of a simple observation, but it’s not one that’s driving the policy conversation for some reason.
Will Wilkinson: Why is that considered crazy, Michael? It seems kind of intuitive to me. Is it that it doesn’t line up with some kind of ideological agenda? I don’t understand why it would be crazy.
Michael Fortner: I agree with you. I mean, one objection to this and to the findings in my paper, some people say things like, “Well, if you give black folks a choice between social programs and policing, that they would choose social programs rather than policing.” That the problem is that the way white supremacy and capitalism operates is to remove from the agenda a whole set of potential options for dealing with violence and violent crimes that don’t rely on police.
And so, the critique of some of the findings might be that, look, in general, that might be right. They may say they want police, but they really don’t want police. If you gave them more choices, they would choose other things.
I think there’s some truth to that. Yes, in a perfect world, people would not choose to have police officers marching up and down the streets. That is the case. It is also the case that black folks see, for whatever reason, right or wrong, policing as a critical part of a broader public safety strategy. That it’s not a question of whether they want policing or social programs that they want both.
They would like to see a robust social safety net in these communities to deal with mental health issues, to deal with a whole bunch of other stuff, but they would also like for those instances, where people are shooting down the block, a police presence to deal with that violence.
I think the opposition to the framing of these questions and reliance on survey evidence is not really supported by, I think, the views that African Americans actually have in which they endorse a variety of approaches to the problems in cities, including policing.
Will Wilkinson: If I’m trying to think about why somebody would think that position is crazy, I might say something that actually reflects one of my own views, which is that people have pretty systematically misattributed the drop in crime to increases in funding and toughness of police.
When you actually look at the crime wave and its peak and decline, and you do the statistics, and you try to figure out the causality, there’s a small effect of policing on the crime rate, but it’s falls crazily short of explaining the precipitous decline, which remains one of the big mysteries in social science. Like why the spike happened, and why it went away. Is that lead in the air?
Those crazy ideas. Because it’s fundamentally mysterious and unexplained, it’s such a huge shift. And statistically, the things that you would think would explain it just don’t. So, you get a post hoc fallacy that is really understandable.
The ’94 crime bill comes along, there’s a ton of money for more cops on the street. There are more cops on the street. Things like stop and frisk happen, stuff like that. And the thing is places that didn’t get more cops in the street, places that didn’t do stop and frisk. They had the exact same decline in crime rate. That’s one of the things that mitigates against the explanation.
If you’re living in a city, and you see these changes in law enforcement, this increase in funding, the changes in tactics that are maybe a little rougher. But at the same time, you experience a really marked increase in safety in your community. It would just be irrational not to attribute it to that. Right?
Michael Fortner: Right. I think that’s right. I also think some people don’t understand what crime feels like. I think it’s easy to make abstract intellectual claims about options or what people would do given a different set of opportunities. It’s one thing to live in the context of violent crime, and then have to make political choices or to reach out to people for help.
I grew up in New York City, Brownsville, Brooklyn, which is today rough neighborhood. I lost a brother to violent crime. My brother was murdered.
Will Wilkinson: Oh, my God, I didn’t know that.
Michael Fortner: Yeah, my brother was murdered. I lived in a housing project that had a lot of criminal activity. I think one of the things people who argue about social programs or a variety of things miss is that people don’t want to feel unsafe in their home.
People don’t want to sort of walk out their apartment and walk through the hallway of a building or walk out on their stoop and see people they don’t know or people who they think may be up to no good in these neighborhoods, and having someone remove that from them makes them feel better. It improves their quality of life right or wrong.
I think a lot of the discussion on the left, it really fails to appreciate what less crime feels like for folks in these cities. And how easy it is for you to attach, like you said, whether right or wrong, some punitive solutions to that, and to embrace those solutions over time.
That’s why I take seriously what black folks say in these surveys when they do say we want policing, when they do say … And in some cases, they want quality of life policing. They don’t want people sell loose cigarettes on the streets, et cetera. I take that seriously. It may not mean we need to sort of follow what their recommendation, but I think we have to understand the legitimate fear that can take place among people who are dealing with high levels of violence for long periods of time.
Will Wilkinson: I do think, especially white people who live in very safe communities, do not connect to what it feels like, what it’s like to be in a high crime neighborhood. The constant low hum of stress and the cumulative effect of that. It’s really toxic. It hurts people a lot. And so just easing that a little bit makes a huge difference.
So, one thing that it seems like it would be useful to the extent that you think that people are wrong … I’m not saying you, but to the extent that one thinks that people are wrong, that they have false consciousness, that they really don’t want cops. Because in some sense, it’s true that the increase in policing, and the increasing punitiveness of policing doesn’t explain a whole lot of the dropping crime.
So, one thing, you want to try to get that across to people. That the danger of withdrawing some officers isn’t as big as they might think it is, even though it’s just indisputable that just putting an extra cop in the corner keeps things from happening on that corner. The data on that is pretty clear.
They just don’t have to get out of their car and frisk somebody. All that does is makes people in the community mad at you and less likely to constructively interact with the police.
But if you just have the guy park there, it stops things. I think it’s just dumb to not think that having cops around doesn’t have an effect. But just letting people know that we probably could spend less on it. We could spend less and not get rid of police, because the public financing of law enforcement is stupid like in big cities especially. They have these gigantic, incredibly lavish pension plans that are massively expensive. They consume a huge amount of city budgets. We have to pay for these pensions over time.
And part of the problem in policing is it’s hard to attract good people. And so you get a lot of self selection by people who would like to lord power over vulnerable people. It’s a kind of compensation for them. You could actually pay beginning police officers more to start, but shifting their total compensation over their lifetime toward the front and making their pensions a little less lavish. And you can spend less overall by paying people more now. So, you don’t necessarily have to take cops off the street to spend less on cops.
Michael Fortner: But again, the problem is our conversation isn’t this nuanced. In many ways, my paper is suggesting we need to create space for the type of analysis that you just gave. Again, regardless of where we end up, that’s where the American people are. That’s where black folks are.
Like you said, black folks don’t want to be brutalized, but they might want to see a cop on the street every so often. We can do that. That’s doable without having to fight about whether or not we want to abolish police or whether or not we want to cut huge sums of money from the police budget.
And when it comes to funding, it could be creative ways to both improve public safety and policing methods, while also moving some of that cash someplace else. But that’s not the conversation we were having, but we need to get there as soon as possible.
Will Wilkinson: Public opinion being in favor of something isn’t a cut and dry argument for it, but political will matters a lot when you’re going to make a reform. What does have public opinion behind it? What reforms are relatively popular and seem like they’re feasible politically to get done?
Just given the way things are, without having to re educate people about all the causal factors involved in the drop in crime, or the degree to which social services and law enforcement are complements or substitutes. Given what people think, what has support right now?
Michael Fortner: So, transparency. Making sure that police records are available to the public, so that we know who the bad actors are in a police department. And then also, revisions and collective bargaining agreements that will allow management to remove, make it easier for them to remove these bad actors from police departments. That’s popular. Creating a national registry of use of force is popular.
The idea that we can move some type of services away from policing to social service agencies. So, that social workers, doctors may show up in a public health crisis instead of police officers. That’s popular. It’s unclear exactly how we can get there immediately, but I think there’s will around funding for pilot programs, grants to community groups to do a variety of things.
Also, funding community groups who are intervening in violence in communities, that’s sort of popular. And so the more money we can funnel to those community-based organizations that are intervening, in violent crime, property crime, I think we can do that easily forgetting who wins the election. I think Republicans or Democrats can both get around that.
I think that’s generally it. So, sort of transparency, revising collective bargaining agreements to weaken police unions when it comes to disciplining bad actors, and moving some of these services to social service agencies.
Will Wilkinson: Well, just those things would make a big difference.
Michael Fortner: Yes.
Will Wilkinson: What’s the state of opinion on changes to qualified immunity?
Michael Fortner: So, that’s a difficult one to read. In some surveys, it looks like it’s broadly popular, like 40% to 50% of whites, depending on survey, I think, would support it. It’s supported around the same level, 50% over for African Americans, and I think other groups.
The problem with that one is that I fear that it’s the one issue that could be the subject to party polarization. That’s the one issue that I think Republicans in Washington can use to divide people. And so although there is some support for doing that, I fear that the politics of our time may sort of undermine that support going forward. And then you will have Republicans all opposing any kind of revisions and Democrats supporting it.
Will Wilkinson: That makes me mad, because Republicans always want originalist judges, and qualified immunity is just something that’s just made up out of thin air by some judges a couple decades ago. That’s not anything James Madison had in mind.
Michael Fortner: Right.
Will Wilkinson: That police ought to just be able to do anything they want to anybody at any time. And as long as nobody ever told them before, that they couldn’t do that specific thing, then it’s legal. I don’t think that was the original idea. Anyway. Well, thanks so much for a really fascinating conversation. I learned a lot.
Michael Fortner: Thank you for having me. This is [crosstalk 01:24:47].
Will Wilkinson: And that was fun. The paper is Reconstructing Justice: Race, Generational Divides, and the Fight Over “Defund the Police”. You can find it on the Niskanen Center website. I’ll drop a link into the show notes. Thanks so much, Michael. I really appreciate it.
Michael Fortner: Thank you.
Will Wilkinson: Model Citizen is brought to you by the Niskanen Center. To learn more about the Niskanen Center, visit niskanencenter.org. That’s niskanencenter.org. To support this podcast or any of our programs, go to niskanencenter.org/donate.