Why California Is Swinging Right on Crime

As Gavin Newsom rose from mayor of San Francisco to governor of California, he championed progressive efforts to reclassify various felonies as misdemeanors, to end the death penalty, and to legalize marijuana. After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, he signed laws barring cops from using a controversial chokehold and requiring independent probes in police shootings, bragging that “California has advanced a new conversation about broader criminal justice reform.”

But since his second term began last year, he has more often talked like a tough-on-crime conservative, promoting efforts to hire more cops; to surge state police into high-crime cities; to impose harsher penalties on drug dealers, car burglars, and retail thieves; to install more surveillance cameras; and to deploy state prosecutors to Alameda County, where the progressive district attorney is flailing. “An arrest isn’t enough,” Newsom said this year, urging more prosecutions. “Whether it’s ‘bipping’ or carjacking, attempted murder or fentanyl trafficking, individuals must be held accountable for their crimes using the full and appropriate weight of the law.”

That hard pivot to the politics of law and order describes not only California’s governor, but the Golden State as a whole. Voters and the politicians who represent them, mostly Democrats, embraced progressive attitudes and rhetoric toward criminal-justice reform for at least a decade. By the summer of 2020, the University of Southern California politics professor Dan Schnur told the Financial Times, “it appeared we were witnessing a seminal shift in public thinking on these issues.” But just two years later, he continued, “more traditional approaches to public safety” were resurgent.

San Francisco recalled its progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, in 2022. That city’s progressive mayor, London Breed, now says, “Compassion is killing people. And we have to push forth some tough love.” Los Angeles’s progressive mayor, Karen Bass, keeps trying to hire more cops. Many Californians favor harsher penalties for what are now misdemeanors.

Why did the politics of crime change so rapidly? Rising crime surely played a major part. Still, crime does not approach the rate that afflicted California during the 1980s and ’90s, when law-and-order concerns last dominated its politics. And there is intense new concern about crime even in Orange County, Ventura County, and the Central Coast, where it has increased less than elsewhere and most residents are neither unsafe nor governed by overreaching progressives. I doubt the pendulum would be swinging as far or as fast but for changes in the tenor of crime that Californians have seen, most often via video. In fact, viral videos and their outraging, perception-changing, galvanizing effects may have propelled both outraged skepticism of tough-on-crime tactics and the backlash to it.

For a case study in the changing rates of crime, consider Oakland. After averaging 80 murders per year from 2014 to 2019, Oakland suffered 97 murders in 2020, 132 murders in 2021, 119 in 2022, and 124 in 2023. That’s when the local NAACP, which had focused on stopping police violence on the first anniversary of Floyd’s death, published an open letter demanding a state of emergency. “Women are targeted by young mobs and viciously beaten and robbed in downtown and uptown neighborhoods,” it declared. “Asians are assaulted in Chinatown. Street vendors are robbed in Fruitvale. News crews have their cameras stolen while they report on crime. Everyone is in danger.”

The tenor of the crime changed as well—it feels newly brazen, in your face, unapologetic. This shift is vividly captured by the writer Matt Feeney, a resident of Oakland, in an insightful 2023 essay, “California’s Criminals Need an Audience.” He opens the essay by describing a crime he recently experienced: A car braked hard on a busy commercial strip on a Saturday afternoon and a young passenger in a hoodie and mask emerged, then calmly smashed a window of a parked vehicle, stole something, and leaped back into his own car, repeating the crime farther up the street. Rather than immediately fleeing, they even made a U-turn so that they could rob cars parked on the opposite side, “the whole time holding the stunned attention of Oakland pedestrians, who are well accustomed to car burglary but conditioned from earlier years to think of it as something done in stealth.” Onlookers felt they ought to do something––but they did not, Feeney explained, because he and they feared that the robbers had guns.

Witnessing acts like that altered how Feeney thinks of crime. Before, if he woke up to discover that someone had smashed his car window in the night, he would try, like many in progressive communities, to think of the crime as “structural,” flowing from societal forces such as poverty, inequality, and racism, rather than the product of bad choices freely made by individuals. But a window-smasher “doing his thing in broad daylight,” close enough to make eye contact with those too fearful to stop him, “appears to have not just agency but a bubbling surplus of it,” he wrote. “He looks like the most purposeful, composed, indeed self-realised person on the street.”

Of course, even in an era of rising crime, most Californians haven’t seen any such spectacle in person. But “this sense of full agency and conscious, vigorous industry also comes through in surveillance videos of recent local crimes,” Feeney adds, “videos of a robbery team carefully using a car to break into several auto repair shops on the same block; a young man calmly pistol-whipping a woman across the face as he begins to rob her; another young man who, showing real commitment to his task, drags a screaming woman down a street by the strap of her purse.”

Such footage has repeatedly gone viral on the major social-media platforms and has been highlighted by almost every news organization that serves Californians. Politicians are pressed to address it. Drive-time talk-radio hosts rant about it. It is hard to escape.

Back in 2014, reflecting on the Rodney King tape, and the later explosion of citizen videos that smartphones enabled, I published an essay called “Video Killed Trust in Police Officers.” In ensuing years, as social-media users shared videos of police abuses, viral clips continued to change the impressions of many Americans and radicalized some. But even as such videos fueled the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps making it inevitable that the Floyd video would galvanize public support for a generational reckoning, I failed to grasp something important: The same technology would propel the pendulum in the opposite direction.

A different sort of outrageous behavior––brazen lawlessness and disorder––is just as easily documented by video cameras and just as easily amplified by algorithms. As the tenor of crime changed, that footage also altered the impressions of Americans, outraging many. Past studies suggest not only that media influences public perceptions of crime, but that seeing crime on local TV news in particular has a greater effect on fear of crime than reading about it. This result is relevant not only because TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube are platforms where viral videos of today’s lawlessness and disorder routinely amass lots of views, but also because some of those viral videos are then broadcast on local TV, embedded in the web versions of local newspaper articles, and circulated in the Nextdoor feeds of people in the communities where they occurred. The videos reach every generation where they get information.

An illustrative example is a 2023 news segment broadcast on KCAL 9, a station in Los Angeles, which then reposted the segment on YouTube. It contains several scenes of surveillance footage of retail thefts where a crowd of people rush into a store in a coordinated surge to grab as much as they can as quickly as possible before fleeing the scene. News producers presumably first saw the footage on TikTok or YouTube.

Rewatching the segment, I’m struck that it contains more outraging footage of robbers wreaking havoc in stores than anything I had witnessed since the 1992 L.A. riots. Perhaps because, when I was a newspaper reporter in the aughts, I interviewed shop owners and retail employees terrorized by crime, I find that footage particularly outraging. Others might feel more upset or anxiety watching a city block filled with people taking fentanyl in the open, or footage of criminals captured by the Ring doorbell of their own neighbor. Whatever kind of lawlessness or disorder bothers you most, odds are that it’s only a click away. As San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said, addressing viral videos of lawbreaking in his own city and their predictable effects, “People then start fearing crime, even if they haven’t been victimized.”

When I ran my theory by the criminologist Peter Moskos, he agreed that routine exposure to such footage changes some of us, because seeing video of lawlessness feels less abstract than hearing about it.

Don’t forget about the “order” part of law-and-order sentiments, he added––lots of people “want to and even enjoy playing by the rules, and expect things to go well if they do,” he said in an email. So “unshameful public rule-breaking bothers people viscerally, even if it doesn’t directly affect them.” Consider this video of two well-dressed women shoplifting from a San Francisco boutique. No one is frightened of those two, but many people are outraged by them.

In 2020, when many Californians were newly awakened to flaws in the criminal-justice system, progressives were seduced by a politics of outrage. I understand why. After decades of relative indifference to police abuses, viral videos of bad behavior by cops were fueling highly emotional protests, extreme rhetoric, righteous indignation, social pressure for solidarity, and strident anger at anyone who urged nuance or expressed skepticism about the prevailing narrative. That “reckoning” struck many at the time as a rare opportunity for overdue change.

But outrage politics proved a poor foundation for lasting criminal-justice reform. A movement powered by outrage turned out to be too unfocused to identify the most prudent reforms, too radicalized to avoid overreach (like the ill-fated push by activists to focus on defunding the police instead of improving it), and too shallow and fleeting in the support it commanded to survive a sustained increase in crime––a pitfall progressive activists failed to anticipate. Many were too young to remember a time when crime was rising, too privileged to worry about how quickly a spike in murders would end more lower-class lives than many years of police killings, and too self-righteously indignant to engage with their best critics or even to guard against grift.

Californians are correct to react against the progressive excesses of 2020 and its most harmful consequences, largely borne by the poor and vulnerable. As the Oakland NAACP put it, “Failed leadership, including the movement to defund the police, our District Attorney’s unwillingness to charge and prosecute people who murder and commit life threatening serious crimes, and the proliferation of anti-police rhetoric have created a heyday for Oakland criminals. If there are no consequences for committing crime in Oakland, crime will continue to soar.”

But as Californians apply pressure on the state’s leaders to address lawlessness and disorder, I hope they avoid new excesses by learning a key lesson from the moment they are reacting against: that unless outrage is tempered and mastered, it fuels maladaptive responses.

In 1994, during a high-crime period in California history, Republican Governor Pete Wilson boosted his reelection campaign by signing a law mandating life sentences for most criminals convicted of a third felony. Voters overwhelmingly reaffirmed that approach, passing a “three strikes” ballot initiative that same year with 72 percent of the vote.

In ensuing years, the state’s prison population soared and violent crime declined, ultimately reaching 50-year lows in 2014. The incarceration rate was so high that a backlash to it was inevitable. And more safety created new political possibilities. For example, that year, nearly 60 percent of voters supported Proposition 47, a ballot initiative that aimed to reduce prison populations and save money by making most nonviolent property and drug crimes misdemeanors rather than felonies. Given an opportunity to reverse course in 2020, voters rejected it: So long as crime was under control, the progressive new approach to punishment proved politically sustainable.

This November, voters will get a new opportunity to amend Proposition 47. Should they? I have doubts. I suspect that when 2024 is over, we’ll look back and see crime falling even without any changes to the law. I wonder whether police and prosecutors more aggressively enforcing misdemeanors would do more good and cost less than changing some misdemeanors back to felonies. Having lived through the “law and order” politics of the ’90s and the “defund and disorder” politics of recent years, I am wary of yet another excessive swing of the pendulum.

But more than the outcome of these policy fights, I care about how we decide them. Californians can master our outrage by prizing data over anecdote, greeting viral videos with circumspection, and tempering rather than cheering rash, emotional responses to infuriating injustices. Mediating the pendulum’s swing makes it less likely to swing back too hard.

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