Police don’t stop or prevent crime, but you wouldn’t know that from how the mainstream media discusses them as the solution, parroting talking points directly from police departments. If larger police forces make us safe, then by that logic, the U.S. would already be the safest society in the world as over $115 billion is spent on policing a year, a budget larger than any other country’s military budget except for China. Even after the 2020 racial justice uprisings and widespread discontent with law enforcement, the media still actively manufactures consent for status quo policing.
There’s little evidence that police stop crime. Over 50 years of crime data shows only 2% of crimes end in conviction. Police don’t stop crime that has occurred, nor do they prevent it from happening. The common refrain in the press is that crime is on the rise, but is that really true? And even if it is, are police the solution?
“I think there’s this sort of culture and prestige inherent in the journalism world generally where if … you have career ambitions … it’s never lost on you consciously and subconsciously the kinds of things you can say and the kinds of things you can’t say if you want to be taken seriously … ultimately you know what the political desires are of the interests that are making the decisions,“ said Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights lawyer based in Washington, D.C.
Prisons and policing in the U.S. are the legacy of chattel slavery in the South and protecting the rights of wealthy property owners in the North. Police and prisons in the U.S. didn’t originate out of a genuine desire for public safety but rather to maintain and uphold white supremacy and defend private property.
“In the case of policing, we have the media dramatically over–cover low-level crime by the poor,” Karakatsanis said. “And so you see local news media every single day all across the country, in the national media as well, constantly talking about shoplifting, robbery, carjacking, shootings, things like that. When you compare them to the leading causes of suffering and death in the U.S., [low-level offenders are] minuscule contributors … which criminal violations and which forms of harm the media talk about skew our understanding of what’s urgent.”
Many publications may not be as critical of those in power because that will threaten their access to certain sources. In addition, we can also consider what is considered “objective” by the press and how that leads to whiteness being the default perspective.
The press twists the narrative to build support for police, who continue to murder and brutalize Black people. This embrace of pro-police framing shows up in many ways. For example, members of the press have claimed there is a “war on cops” without evidence, and many reporters trust police reports as reliable primary sources without questioning their narratives. This is exacerbated by the lack of diversity in leadership roles within newsrooms and publications, especially among the gatekeepers: editors and people with the most power and influence within the press ecosystem.
Contrary to many popular media narratives, the police were never defunded. However, many outlets like CNN, USA Today, Politico, and The New York Times have blatantly lied and created an urgent narrative that cities were defunding their local police forces and causing an increase in violence against police. Data shows that about 20 cities reduced their police budgets by a few percentage points, while nationwide, over half maintained or actually increased budgets. Cities where police budgets were reduced by a few percent were framed by the press as completely defunded, without mentioning the vital context that police spending had nearly tripled over the previous four decades.
In Austin, following the nationwide racial justice uprisings of 2020, the police budget was cut by 30%, the highest cut by far out of U.S. cities that did this, but a year later, the police budget was the biggest it had ever been after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill penalizing cities that reduce police budgets below 2019 levels. Many police departments were given more money, but fear-mongering pieces in USA Today and the Wall Street Journal falsely stated otherwise and said that crime was rising due to defunding police.
During the 2020 election campaigns, outlets pushed the narrative that Democrats were running on defunding the police, however, this was also false, and it ignored the fact that the call came from grassroots organizers and abolitionists whom they were conflating with the party. In Burlington, Vermont, the press framed defunding the police as a failed experiment, but buried that incident reports to the police actually fell by 11% after the department budget was reduced. A study of data over the past 60 years shows there’s actually no correlation between spending on police and crime rates.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been regurgitating “tough on crime” talking points from their ’90s playbook when they moved to the right on crime. President Joe Biden’s embrace of police and the rhetoric and actions of the current mayor of New York City, former police officer Eric Adams have illustrated this.
Organizers and abolitionists have noted that the mainstream media frames defunding the police as a way to discredit the movement for abolition and to paper over the calls to stop the everyday violence of policing.
Todd St. Hill, a long-time organizer against police violence, criticized the media’s “war-like drumbeat of increasing cops in particularly poor working-class Black and brown communities.”
“I think in the media in the last year, one of the things that has fallen to the wayside is the demands that people were making or coming from the streets during the 2020 uprising that pointed to actual solutions and alternatives to policing and ways to reallocate funds to those things like violence interrupters and an extension of counseling programs, things of that nature,” said St. Hill. “Those demands were discredited, and discrediting happened … in the mainstream media.”
The 2020 uprisings demonstrated shifts in the general public’s view of the role of police in America. Unlike in the ’90s, we now have access to social media platforms where we are witnesses to the state-sanctioned murders of Black people. Yet we’re still given countless excuses—in particular by mainstream news outlets as they manufacture consent for a continued war on Black people—for why things can never change.