A 2022 study published in the journal of Criminology and Public Policy showed that police abolition significantly increased crime during the 2020 Capitol Hill Occupation Protest (CHOP) in Seattle.
Following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, tensions between the public and the police increased greatly and protests erupted in cities throughout the United States. Seattle was no exception, with protestors gathering nightly at the Seattle Police Department (SPD)’s East precinct. The protests often turned confrontational and dangerous as people set fires and caused property damage, while officers took to deploying riot control weapons to control the scene. On June 8, 2020, in an attempt to calm the situation, the SPD suddenly abandoned the East precinct, and officers were instructed to no longer patrol nor respond to calls for service in the area unless there was a mass casualty event.
Closing the precinct led to formation of the CHOP occupation in the six-block area. The CHOP occupation received support from the municipal government, with the utilities department providing portable toilets for the area, and the Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan comparing CHOP to a “block party atmosphere” that could lead to a “summer of love.” Police presence was absent from the protest zone for 24 days, until July 1, 2020. At this time, Mayor Durkan ordered SPD to re-occupy the zone after four shootings (two fatalities) occurred over a ten-day period.
The CHOP served as a natural quasi-experiment to test the effect of police abolition (i.e., the “autonomous zone”) on crime. The researchers examined changes in crime in three separate areas (the CHOP zone, the CHOP zone plus the surrounding two blocks, and the entirety of the SPD East precinct) and compared them to changes in crime in other areas of Seattle. Authors were able to generate equivalent treatment and control groups by matching street segments from each study area to equivalent street segments from other areas of Seattle. This approach ensured that groups were similar to each other in terms of pre-existing crime patterns, number and type of business establishments, concentrated disadvantage, demographics, and other factors.
The data for the study were obtained from the City of Seattle Open Data portal, and crime data spanned from June 2019 through July 2020. This allowed researchers to examine crime occurrence during the 24-day CHOP occupation relative to the 12 months prior, which accounted for seasonal crime trends. The researchers also included information on businesses in each street segment, categorizing them as four types: retail, restaurants, food/drug stores, and services. This allowed the researchers to measure increased level of foot traffic related to consumer activity and general ambient population generated by employees of corporate institutions. Sociodemographic data for Seattle were obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau, which was used to create demographic indices for each area. Lastly, map files of Seattle were downloaded as a way to look at spatial crime effects.
There were a total of 23,806 street segments that were included in the study. The entirety of the East precinct area included 2,860 street segments, 273 of which fell within the CHOP zone and the two blocks immediately surrounding it. 36 street segments were within the boundaries of the CHOP area specifically. Six-day calls for service totals were calculated within each beat to measure changes in crime. All recorded crime types were aggregated into the crime count to boost sample size and statistical power, particularly with such a short (24-day) post period. In addition, researchers examined weekly crime levels throughout the CHOP to see whether there were any great shifts in crime during the post period.
Results indicated that crime significantly increased in the CHOP zone, the encompassing two-block area, and the overall East precinct service area. The largest increase was observed in the immediate CHOP zone, which saw a 132.9% increase in crime relative to the control area (90 incidents vs. 39 incidents). In the two-block CHOP zone, there was an increase of 77.5% relative to the control area (235 incidents vs. 132.42 incidents in the control area), and in the overall East precinct, there was an increase of 28% (640 incidents vs. 500.81 incidents in the control area).
When looking at the weekly trends, the three intervention areas look a little different from each other. First, in the two-block CHOP area, the significantly heightened crime levels were observed largely during the first week of the post period (at this time there was a 174% higher crime count compared to the control area), but significant crime increased were observed across each subsequent week as well. In the entire East precinct, crime increases achieved statistical significance by week two, which also significant increased across each subsequent week. In the smaller CHOP-only area, crime increases were not statistically significant until weeks three and four of the post period.
Due to the short post period and the concise geography of the CHOP zone, there was an insufficient sample size to include individual crime types. Thus, authors grouped crimes into categories, including crimes against society, crimes against persons, and crimes against property. In the East precinct area as well as the two-block CHOP zone, all three crime types increased steadily over the four-week post period. In the CHOP-specific zone, crimes against persons and crimes against property increased steadily, but crimes against society remained flat for the first two weeks before substantially increasing in week three. Overall, it appeared that no single crime type was responsible for the significant crime increase.
Overall, the results suggest that significant crime increases can be expected absent police even within a short (24-day) timeframe, especially at micro-locations. The significant crime increase is particularly noteworthy given the short post period. Further, retreat of police from the area would theoretically make it more difficult for crimes to be reported or proactively discovered by officers. The negative effects observed in this study are stronger than what has generally been observed in prior research, which might be explained by the fact that most prior research relies on reductions in formal enforcement activity (e.g. arrests, stops) quantified changes in police presence, or changes in police staffing levels to measure de-policing. Importantly, the CHOP occupation is the first true manifestation of police abolition at the neighborhood level, and represents the most extreme form of de-policing. Thus, it is not surprising that the effects seen here were greater than those observed in prior research.
Properly funding community institutions can help promote public safety, especially via violence prevention. The main argument advanced by the police-defunding movement is that properly funding community institutions can help promote public safety via violence prevention, and thus, funds should be diverted from the police to alternative approaches to public safety. However, such an approach will likely not fund alternative approaches to the extent envisioned by advocates, as policing accounts for very small amounts of state and local funding (approximately 6% and 1%, respectively). As such, the diversion of resources from police to other agencies would not have much impact on the budgets for other community institutions.
Relatedly, if this approach were implemented, it is unclear how many law enforcement calls for service would actually be diverted to other community responders. For example, a 2021 study in Philadelphia found that only 8% of calls for service in 2019 were public-health related events, and about 20% of these incidents were likely not predictable from the initial call type. Similarly, another 2021 study examined nine police agencies and found that the majority of calls for service were not “obviously” transferable to other organizations or government sectors simply based on information received by the dispatcher.
Police abolition, the most extreme form of the police defunding movement, may significantly compromise public safety. Moving forward, a better solution may be to view community-based institutions as a way to complement police work, rather than replace it. When it comes to replacing the police with other civilian agents (e.g., violence interrupters), the effects documented in the literature are still too inconsistent to justify abolishing the police. Perhaps, a blended type of approach would boost violence prevention but without risking crime spikes. At present, what remains clear is that certain police approaches (e.g., place-based approaches such as hot spots policing or foot patrols) are effective in reducing crime, and wide-scale adoption of these evidence-based approaches is recommended to truly achieve widespread police reform.
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