Project Fortress: The Thinning Blue Line
There are moments in time and in life that serve as striking metaphors for deeper truths, that provide clarity in an otherwise-murky world, that remind us of the fundamentals we too often take for granted. The riots that marred the summer of 2020 and the violent assault on Congress that scarred the Republic in the winter of 2021 are two such moments—reminding Americans that our system of law and order is essential if we want to remain a self-governing people; that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are impossible without respect for law; and that those who enforce the law and defend us from lawlessness are essential, not optional, elements of our Republic.
Regrettably, the 2020 riots and 2021 insurrection were just exclamation points to years of contempt for law enforcement and the rule of law. America’s cities are now reaping the whirlwind.
First things first: There are bad cops, just as there are bad physicians and pharmacists, lawyers and landscapers, telemarketers and teachers, CPAs and CEOs, software designers and soldiers, waiters and writers. Yet many of us overlook a truth all of us know—that a bad individual does not make an entire vocation or institution bad. As Loretta Lynch, who served as Attorney General under President Obama, observes, there is a “loss of humanity when any of us are judged at a glance…whether by the color of our skin or the color of our uniform.”
The vast majority of police officers, state troopers, sheriffs and deputies do what’s right under incredibly difficult circumstances. And unlike the vast majority of the people they protect and serve, they leave home each day knowing they may never return.
U.S. law enforcement agencies have sustained 405 line of duty deaths so far in 2021—already higher than 2020’s toll (379), which was more than double the 2019 toll (155). The number of law enforcement officers intentionally killed in the line of duty jumped 28 percent in 2020. Literally serving as the last line of defense between order and chaos, 2,000 law enforcement officers were injured during the summertime riots of 2020.
As we saw in the summer of 2020 and again in the winter of 2021, that last line of defense—that veneer of civilization—is precariously thin. And it’s getting thinner.
“Across America’s 50 largest cities, at least 23 have seen chiefs or line officers resign, retire or take disability,” writes the Manhattan Institute’s Charles Fain Lehman. “Nearly 3,700 beat cops have left…with big drops in Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Atlanta.”
Indeed, 5,346 NYPD officers retired/filed for retirement in 2020—a 75-percent increase over the previous year. The Philadelphia Police Department saw a stunning 507.7-percent increase in 2020 in the number of officers filing for deferred retirement. In Seattle, 287 police officers have early-retired or resigned since the chaos of 2020. San Francisco has lost 30 percent of its police force. More than 70 Capitol Hill Police officers have quit since the January 6 insurrection. Seventy-five members of the Milwaukee Police Department resigned or retired in the wake of 2020 budget cuts.
This blue exodus is also hitting smaller cities: Eight percent of the police in Norman, Oklahoma, quit in 2020. The Colorado Springs Police Department is 25-percent shy of its new-recruit target. Research conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank focused on law enforcement, reveals a 45-percent increase in retirement rates nationwide among law enforcement officers and an 18-percent increase in resignations among law enforcement officers in 2020-2021, as compared to 2019-2020.
Why is this happening? The answer is obvious: Cities are slashing police funding and resources. Some cities even mull eliminating their police departments. Mayors and city councils in Seattle, Minneapolis, Portland, Louisville and elsewhere have literally prevented police from enforcing the law. All of these municipal policymakers have been encouraged by high-profile federal lawmakers chanting a mindless “defund the police” mantra. Thus, law enforcement officers are caught in the crosshairs of a double-barreled onslaught from criminals who ignore the law and lawmakers who violate their oath to support the law. And thousands of them have concluded that the risk, the sacrifice, the PTSD, the disrespect, the emotional and physical scars are simply no longer worth it.
This thinning of the already-thin blue line is just the initial consequence of our culture’s contemptuous treatment of law enforcement. The secondary consequence is worse.
With police forces demoralized and downsized, large cities have weathered a 33-percent increase in homicides. Nationwide, the number of murders has skyrocketed, jumping 30 percent in a one-year span. Homicides have spiked by nearly 68 percent in nine of the cities that made the biggest cuts to their police budgets.
Shootings and homicides are up considerably in Seattle. In the three-month period after the Minneapolis City Council passed a budget that cut $8 million from the police department, the number of murders increased 46 percent.
Faced with a hemorrhage of homicides, city leaders in Portland tried to reboot an anti-gun violence unit. Predictably, the city experienced a 60-percent increase in murders after the unit was shut down in 2020. But now the city can’t find enough personnel to reconstitute the specialized unit. Equally troubling and predictable, Portland PD’s entire Rapid Response Team—a specialized crowd-control unit comprised of 50 officers and detectives—resigned this past summer.
In Austin, city officials slashed the police budget from $434.5 million in 2019-2020 to $292.9 million in 2020-2021. Homicides have spiked. And as the Wall Street Journal reports, the Austin Police Department has asked the public to not call for help if “there is no immediate threat to life or property,” “where crimes are no longer in progress,” and “when the suspect(s) are no longer on scene or in sight.”
There may be some silver linings breaking through these dark clouds.
Average Americans—Americans who aren’t pushing agendas or shaking down corporations or sowing chaos—know that their local police departments are comprised of good men and women; that law enforcement officers do their best in an incredibly difficult job; that law enforcement is essential if we are to remain a nation under the rule of law. In fact, polling conducted after the George Floyd riots reveals that there is broad and deep agreement among the American people in support of the police, with 72 percent of Asian Americans, 73 percent of Hispanic Americans, 81 percent of black Americans and 88 percent of white Americans wanting police to spend more time or the same amount of time in their neighborhoods.
Municipal and statewide elections this month underscore that average Americans are pushing back against the professional protesters and mindless mobs that assaulted the rule of law in mid-2020 and early 2021. Virginia voters elected a candidate who vowed to “defend—not defund—our law enforcement heroes.” Repudiating years of lawlessness in city hall, New York City elected a retired NYPD captain who ran on a law-and-order platform. In Seattle, law-and-order candidates for mayor, city attorney and city council defeated candidates who advocated defunding or in some cases even eliminating the police force and the jail system. Minneapolis soundly rejected a referendum that would have eliminated the police department.
The Portland mayor this month announced plans to hire back 25 retired police officers and recruit 200 new officers. And the Texas governor and legislature have enacted a law that bars municipalities that decrease funding for police from raising property taxes, increasing utility rates or annexing new land. The new law, in effect, defunds cities that defund the police.
Taken for Granted
Too many Americans forget that the natural order of this world is not orderly. We take our freedom for granted; we take the absence of chaos for granted; we take security and safety for granted—somehow convincing ourselves that the blessings of freedom don’t need to be protected. But without law and without a system to enforce the law, freedom can descend into license and then into anarchy, as we re-learned in the summer of 2020 and winter of 2021.
“Our Constitution,” President John Adams argued, “was made only for a moral and religious people.” And indeed, morality and conscience prevent many of us from breaking the law. A healthy respect for the law—or a fear of getting caught—prevents others. As for those bent on wrongdoing—those who lack conscience and the moral constraints of faith, those who neither respect nor fear the law—all that protects the law-abiding from the law-breakers are the law-enforcers.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog.