'Defund the Police' Isn't Causing Crime to Spike. My Family Is Proof | Opinion

If I had been invited to White House this week to meet with President Joe Biden, law enforcement and elected officials, I would have told them not to forget what happened the last time they gave in to tough-on-crime talk. I would have told them about my brother Moochie.

My brother Moochie's story took place during another episode like ours. A few decades ago, Americans were engaged in a similarly heated debate over police funding. And it reached Bonneau, a quiet town in South Carolina where murder happens once in a generation, where Black and white residents alike used to congregate at a local "juke joint" to play pool, drink beer and shoot the breeze; the owner, James "Jim" Bunch, helped keep the town's lights on when it ran into financial trouble.

And then, in 1982, the residents of Bonneau got angry at the police, whom they believed had turned their town into a speed trap. They thought officials had begun to rely on traffic tickets to keep the general fund afloat, and their anger had grown so fierce the police department was temporarily shuttered.

Shortly thereafter, late on April 27 under cover of a dark sky, a man in his early 20s crept into Jim Bunch's yard, startled Bunch and eventually stabbed him dozens of times. It was a brutal crime for which the defendant faced the death penalty before pleading guilty to first-degree murder and receiving a life sentence. He would spend 32 years in prison, including seven in solitary confinement and another five under the supervision of a probation officer.

At the time, the crime was directly connected with the shortage of policing by locals, just as a spike in crime today has been. "If at the time in question Bonneau still had a professional police department, would Mr. Bunch's assailant still have attempted his plan?" George Farrey, a former police chief, wrote in a letter to the editor of a local paper a week after the murder. "Or would he have changed his mind if the Bonneau police car, with that so-much-disliked blue light operating was writing a traffic summons on U.S. 52?"

But George Farrey was wrong to tie the lack of policing to the murder of Jim Bunch, just as those tying the current spike in homicides are wrong to tie it to the Defund the Police campaign.

I know this because I know the man who committed the murder. He's my oldest brother. I was a nine-year-old boy that April in 1982. And I know Farrey is wrong because even after all these years, I still don't fully understand why my brother Moochie did what he did. That's after spending years researching the crime, questioning the emergency officials and police officers who showed up on the scene first and interrogated my brother. That's after spending years using every journalistic skill I have to quiz my brother, having him take me step-by-step through what happened in the hours before the murder and, more importantly, the years that led up to an event that changed the course of two families and scarred a small town.

The author's mother holding a photo
The author's mother holding a photo of his brother Moochie Janet Blackmon Morgan, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, 2008

I don't know why Moochie killed Jim Bunch. But I know what wouldn't have stopped him: I know that having a police officer on patrol somewhere in the town that night would not have mattered to my brother. He was high on drugs and alcohol. He wasn't in his right mind. His plan that night, if you can call it a plan, was to kidnap, not kill, the man he eventually murdered, to convince him to drop charges of petty theft my brother was facing.

My brother wasn't thinking about police. He wasn't thinking about long-term consequences. He was barely thinking at all.

And the truth is, the seeds of the murder were planted long before that April night. Maybe they were planted during the time Moochie spent in the U.S. Army, or when he was discharged for fighting and for debilitating, chronic migraine headaches. Those headaches had scared my mom enough that she'd asked a bevy of counselors in the area to intervene, to help my brother, to no avail.

Or maybe the seeds were planted all those times my brother watched my alcoholic father beat my mother, before my brother grew strong enough to protect her from my father's fists, after years of enduring beatings himself.

Or maybe they were planted when he was born to a Black woman who had been forced into marriage at the age of 13 to a much older man in the Deep South, where they all endured poverty and daily racism and lived in a sundown town where our schools were woefully underfunded and segregated, decades after Brown v. Board of Education.

I know it's tempting to believe that the murder was a spur-of-the-moment crime and could have been deterred by a man wearing a badge driving a patrol car. But the truth is that April night in 1982 was the culmination of a series of ugly events. That is the truth, and admitting it does nothing to minimize the horrific nature of the crime.

There's no other honest way of looking at it. Unfortunately, discussions involving race and violent crime often aren't honest. They are overheated and misleading. People hoping to gain or retain power use these discussions to ease the minds of frightened people. They convince them and themselves that the solution can be found in the spark, instead of in the conditions that turned the spark into a wildfire.

The truth is that criminologists really don't know why crime rates rise and fall. The period from the late '80s to the early '90s was proclaimed the beginning of the age of the "super predator"—remorseless young Black men who would devastate communities for decades to come—when the truth was the opposite: It was the beginning of a historic downturn in the crime rate that lasted until the onset of a once-in-a-century plague that literally changed the world.

No one—including no one invited to the White House this week—really knows why crime is spiking today. But I if we give in to our fear, we'll make the same mistakes that made things worse the last time crime rates spiked. We must not settle for an increase in the police force that puts real reform on the back burner or scuttles it altogether, which happened in the '90s when activists around the nation wanted reform but mainly got harsher sentences and three-strike laws that helped destroy their communities.

Those mistakes led to families like mine being targeted and my youngest brothers following my oldest brother's path into prison—without improving the plight of families like the one on the wrong end of my oldest brother's knife. Bloodlust and ignorance were our guide then. We shouldn't allow them to lead us again.

Issac Bailey is a veteran journalist based in S.C., and the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He's the author of "My Brother Moochie" and "Why Didn't We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland." You can follow him at "Proud Black Southerner" on Substack or @ijbailey on Twitter.

The views in this article are the writer's own.