For decades in California, law enforcement unions have positioned themselves as the ultimate authorities on public safety. They have spent big broadcasting their mantra: unless we have more police, more arrests, more prosecutions, and longer sentences, our communities will be dangerous cesspools of crime and disorder. We know that this claim is false. In 2019, for example, California had its lowest crime rate in state history, and this followed a decade of realignment laws that decriminalized certain behavior and kept people out of prisons and in their communities. We also know that prosecutions and sentences do not materially deter crime, and that we are safer when we invest our tax dollars in education, job training, and treatment for substance use disorder instead of prisons.
Recent evidence shows the influence of these law enforcement unions over California voters is waning, as their tired rhetoric is increasingly falling on deaf ears. Over the last fifteen+ years, police unions have consistently opposed major ballot initiatives designed to roll-back incarceration and limit policing. They’ve spent big money to increase or maintain harsh punishment; they’ve flooded the airwaves with promises that reforms would result in increased, skyrocketing crime, and they’ve amplified outlier cases involving violence to try and scare people into resorting to regressive policies reliant on incarceration.