The subway shooting in Brooklyn on Tuesday that left at least 29 people injured underscores how our deeply divided political system is utterly failing our nation when it comes to public safety.
Our politics treat crime as an issue to be exploited, not a problem to be solved. Violence becomes just another excuse to fight culture wars, which exploit our discontents rather than healing them. Our debates are oriented toward the next election, not what’s happening on our streets.
This all makes it more likely that potential solutions are ruled out rather than ruled in. We should prefer a robust discussion of what works.
Since the 1960s, “law and order” has been a rhetorical banner used to divide our society along racial lines. We would do well to think more about security and justice as preludes to a coherent approach to fighting crime — more effective policing and police reform efforts, stronger gun laws and greater access to mental health care. We need to deal with crime’s social causes, too.
It’s maddening that doing the obvious thing — strengthening our gun laws — is off the table. Our permissive gun statutes are insane, which is why no other advanced democracy has anything like them. Even if states enact tough gun laws, weapons can pour across state lines. The easy availability of guns is a national problem, not a local one, as is the robust underground trade in weaponry.
But the conservative politicians who work relentlessly to tie their moderate and progressive foes to slogans such as “defund the police” — which is currently being advocated by virtually no one active in politics — reject national action on weapons. Republicans proudly shout about “Second Amendment rights” and tell rural voters that urban Democrats championing gun control disrespect them and want to undermine their way of life.
It’s ridiculous. It’s shameful. And we keep seeing the fatal consequences.
Despite all this, a U.S. Supreme Court stacked with conservatives might soon undercut even those remaining state and local laws aimed at regulating access to firearms.
Progressives need to be very clear that in addition to regulating guns, they want better police strategies that include deploying more officers and other first responders where they are needed, with the resources and training they require. As supporters of public services, progressives must defend public spaces, including mass-transit systems. New York’s subway system will collapse if order is not restored.
“Riders need to feel safe,” Tony Utano, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York, said in a statement after Tuesday’s shooting. “My members need to feel safe. We don’t just dip in and out of the system. We spend entire shifts down there every day and night.”
But embracing robust policing where necessary should not mean abandoning efforts to reform police practices and prevent abuses — from petty harassment to the killing of unarmed people — that have created anger and mistrust among Americans of color. On the contrary, effective policing depends on bonds of trust between police and the communities they serve.
Within Black communities, there is a strong desire both for more effective policing and an end to abuses. Rod K. Brunson, a professor at the University of Maryland, got at the problem in a 2020 Post commentary article underlining concern in Black communities with both “over-policing and “under-policing.”
Black and brown communities, he wrote, “now suffer from the worst of all worlds: over-aggressive police behavior in frequent encounters with residents, coupled with the inability of law enforcement to effectively protect public safety.”
Rod K. Brunson: Protests focus on over-policing. But under-policing is also deadly.
This dual worry is a central reason that New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), a former police officer, was elected last year as a tough-on-crime candidate with strong support in Black precincts. Against a backdrop of rising crime in the city, he promised he could square the demand for police reform with the desire for reduced violence. He knows the success of his mayoralty hangs on keeping his pledge.
It’s easy, of course, to call for balance and care on an issue that arouses passion and does not yield to simple solutions. The trade-offs in fighting crime are necessarily controversial. But recognizing that there are trade-offs is the first step toward honesty. And getting past a binary debate that focuses on slogans rather than solutions is essential.
“As is often the case, we may need an ‘and’ approach rather than an ‘or’ approach,” my Brookings Institution colleague Rashawn Ray and the American Enterprise Institute’s Brent Orrell wrote in a 2021 report, “A Better Path Forward for Criminal Justice.”
“Policies need to address recent rises in crime and overpolicing,” they continued. “Most people do not want less policing. They want equitable policing, and equitable treatment once interacting with the criminal justice system, either as a victim or perpetrator.”
Fighting crime is hard. Our politics should stop making it harder.