What would a society with less policing look like? As calls to defund the police echo across the country, that’s the question activists have to answer from concerned citizens who can’t picture how less police could lead to more safety. When someone asked Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez this question on Instagram, she gave an answer that’s appeared frequently across the internet: “It looks like a suburb.”
People have pointed to the suburbs as an example where cops are more invisible than they are in cities, but it’s important to note the other half of her answer: that “affluent white communities” are less likely to interact with police. “The suburbs” might not actually be a good model for people who want to end police brutality and lower arrests, because even if you live outside of a city, how present the police are in your life still comes down largely to race and class.
Since 1990, arrest rates have trended downward nationwide. In suburbs, though, they have been leveling off or actually increasing since 2015, says Leah Pope, a senior research fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that aims to address the causes of mass incarceration and the loss of public trust in law enforcement. Arrest rates have declined faster in cities than suburbs.
This largely comes from a drop in “Part II” crimes, she says, which covers “less serious” offenses such as vandalism, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, loitering, and more. More serious, “Part I” crimes—including murder, rape, and robbery—have been declining as well, but arrests for Part II crimes have seen a sharper drop in cities than suburbs. These are arrests for crimes that many don’t think should necessitate an arrest anyway, Vera Institute research associate Frankie Wunschel notes: They could be citations, or warnings, or simply decriminalized, in the way that marijuana has been decriminalized, but not legalized, in some states.
Some suburbs are seeing their jail populations grow, too. According to 2015 data, nearly 9 in 10 large urban counties saw their jail populations decline. Between 2014 and 2015, the jail population in the country’s 61 large urban counties fell by more than 18,000 people total—equivalent to emptying Los Angeles County jails. The jail population grew, though, in 40% of suburban, small, and midsize counties.
Racial disparities also play a role in arrests for Part II crimes. Narcotic drug laws fall under these “less serious” crimes, and in 2015, more than one in four people arrested for drug law violations were Black, although drug use rates do not differ substantially by race. “There are huge racial disparities in arrests, and those racial disparities are more prevalent in suburban areas than they are in urban areas,” Pope says.
When the suburbs are cited as an example of what a future with defunded police looks like, it’s important to specify “white, affluent” suburbs. Otherwise, the racial injustices at the core of policing aren’t addressed. “Suburbs are not meccas of invisible police in this country” Pope says. “It’s some suburbs that are largely white and affluent.” Police violence can and still does happen in suburbs—Ferguson, Missouri, is a suburb, she notes—it just tends to be in non-white, non-affluent suburbs.
Police funding in cities has come under debate recently, but suburban budgets are often more opaque and it’s hard to determine if police departments are funded disproportionately more than other local services. Especially outside of cities, departments like education get more money from state and federal budgets than from local sources, while police are still largely funded locally. It’s difficult to compare funding accurately, but Pope says the Vera Institute is working on getting more data on police budgets to analyze if police expenditures have risen over time, and how those increased expenditures relate to racial disparities and arrests. The Institute is also working on analyzing 911 responses to shed more light on why people are even calling, and what possible services could answer those calls besides police as the default first responders.
Lack of data is a big issue when it comes to quantifying this problem of arrests and brutality in general, and that’s another reason the suburbs might be seen as a police-free haven. “Data transparency drives accountability,” Wunschel says. “In cities where data has been forced to be more and more public, those spaces are expanding change because they have data to drive the narrative. In suburbs, data hasn’t been as accessible.”
That was a goal of the Vera Institute’s research into arrest trends: to take disparate national databases—which tell one larger story of arrests declining nationally—and put them into a tool where someone can look at their own community to see how arrest rates change over time—which tells another story of over-policing in the suburbs. As the demographics of suburbs change to become more diverse, it’s not enough to believe that Black and brown Americans will be safer there when it comes to interactions with the police, simple because these aren’t urban areas. “Not only are not all suburbs created equal, but residents are not created equal,” Wunschel says. The historical narrative of cops over-policing Black and brown people also holds true in the suburbs.
This topic is more complicated than just pointing to the suburbs as an example of how we should police the rest of the country, Pope says. “The first overall point in entering this conversation is, when we’re talking about suburbs, [asking] what are we talking about and what trends are we seeing in arrests?” she says. “It’s actually kind of contrary to what we think of as these protected areas with nothing going on in terms of police. There’s a lot of arrests happening in suburbs.”