On Defunding Police

On Defunding Police June 17, 2020

The Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation show no sign of letting up, and they’re spreading into smaller cities and towns. Four hundred years of discrimination and violent racism won’t be wiped away overnight, but for the first time in a long time, there’s reason for real optimism about the future of race relations.

In New York, a package of reforms has already been signed into law, including repeal of the notorious Section 50a, which allowed violent and corrupt cops to keep their disciplinary records secret. All across the country, statues of Confederate traitors and other infamous racists have been taken down or pulled down.

But the biggest, most radical and most consequential reform that’s arisen is the call to defund the police. I wrote about this in my previous post, intending it more as a call to action than a near-term prediction; but to my pleasant surprise, it’s already happening.

It began in Minneapolis, the epicenter of the protests, where the city council announced that they intend to dismantle the police department. But the call for divestment is already spreading to other cities around the country.

The movement to defund the police arises from the observation that the current system has proven hostile to reform. Bias training and body cameras haven’t made a difference. Progressive legislators can ban chokeholds and pass other well-intentioned measures, but who watches the watchers? Who do you call when the police aren’t obeying the law?

Regardless of what the law says, thuggish, racist cops can brutalize citizens without fear of consequences. Qualified immunity shields them from liability for misconduct. Police unions make them virtually impossible to fire. And a malignant culture of silence means that other cops often assist in covering up abuse and corruption.

As the anti-carceral organizer Mariama Kaba writes:

The philosophy undergirding these reforms is that more rules will mean less violence. But police officers break rules all the time. Look what has happened over the past few weeks — police officers slashing tires, shoving old men on camera, and arresting and injuring journalists and protesters. These officers are not worried about repercussions any more than Daniel Pantaleo, the former New York City police officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death; he waved to a camera filming the incident. He knew that the police union would back him up and he was right. He stayed on the job for five more years.

Minneapolis had instituted many of these “best practices” but failed to remove Derek Chauvin from the force despite 17 misconduct complaints over nearly two decades, culminating in the entire world watching as he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.

Incremental reform has failed. The only way to rein in the police is to take away the power that they’ve proven they can’t be trusted with. Scrap their fancy weapons and their military gear; reduce their manpower and cut their budgets. It would also help to decriminalize drug use and sex work, since laws against those victimless crimes are often used as pretexts to terrorize poor people.

The bloated budgets and violent mindset of the police points to a deeper issue. For decades, America’s approach to crime has been reactive. Conservative politicians slash budgets and decimate social services, with the goal of starving poor, segregated neighborhoods that depend on those services. Through redlining and job discrimination, we’ve prevented people of color from building wealth. Through gerrymandering and voter suppression, we’ve diluted their political power. And because schools are funded by property taxes, by keeping minority neighborhoods poor and disempowered, we’ve ensured that their children will get subpar educations.

In short, we’ve deprived people of every opportunity they need to get ahead in life. And then, when some of those people inevitably turn to crime, we spend lavishly on heavily armed police to storm into their neighborhoods, spraying tear gas and firing rubber bullets.

This state of affairs isn’t good for anyone – not even the police themselves. As author Alex Vitale points out, part of the problem is that we’ve tasked the police with solving every problem. As other strands of the safety net are cut away, the police are the only agency left standing to deal with social ills like homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction, even though there’s nothing they can realistically do about them:

So instead of actually addressing that fundamental problem, we have relabeled it as a problem that is the fault of the disorderly people who we label as morally deficient. And then we use police to criminalize them, to control their behavior and to reduce their disorderly impact on the rest of us. And this is perverse and unjust. So then it places police in this completely untenable situation, because they completely lack the tools to make this problem any better.

The defund-the-police movement argues that we’ll be better off as a society if we cut police departments’ budgets and redirect that money to schools, job training, social workers, mental health services, supportive housing, addiction-treatment clinics, domestic violence shelters. We can fund services that help people in crisis, instead of responding to them with guns and handcuffs. We can invest in communities instead of repressing them. In the long run, this will lead to less crime, less social dysfunction, and less need for police.

What would this look like in practice? Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had a perfect analogy: it looks like a suburb.

Affluent white communities already live in a world where the choose to fund youth, health, housing etc more than they fund police. These communities have lower crime rates not because they have more police, but [because] they have more resources to support healthy society in a way that reduces crime.

When a teenager or preteen does something harmful in a suburb… White communities bend over backwards to find alternatives to incarceration for their loved ones to “protect their future,” like community service or rehab or restorative measures. Why don’t we treat Black and Brown people the same way?

Another possibility, as Angela Davis proposes in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, is to respond to serious crimes with restorative justice rather than incarceration.

It makes no sense that police departments span the range of functions they do. There’s no need to send an armed agent of the state, empowered to use violence and to kill, to respond to a traffic violation or a nuisance like a noisy party. These minor issues could be dealt with by more appropriate bodies. (Los Angeles, San Francisco and Albuquerque have already announced plans to do this – and, fun historical fact, this is how EMTs got started.)

If police departments were relieved of responding to issues that shouldn’t be their responsibility anyway, they could shrink and their role could be reduced to solving the small number of truly violent or serious crimes – which, despite their bloated budgets and arsenals, they’re not very good at.

There are some activists who would go beyond even this and abolish the police entirely, but I’m not ready to go that far. I agree that reinvestment in underserved communities can eliminate a huge majority of crimes. I also agree that the police as they presently exist are violent, racist and have too little accountability. But – and call me a pessimist if you must – I think we’ll always need some police, or some entity that serves a similar function.

Obviously, we don’t want a situation like the one that prevails among the Amish, where sexual predators can abuse women over and over without consequences. Or – to name another example from recent years – if a community has no overarching authority empowered to protect its citizens, what’s to stop a gang of armed white supremacists from rolling into town and declaring themselves the new rulers?

Restorative justice is wonderful when it works, but there are always going to be rare psychopaths and other deplorables who need to be prevented from causing harm. In an anti-racist future, that narrow goal can be the sole purpose of the police, as opposed to making them into general-purpose enforcers of the will of the state.

There’s nothing radical or unprecedented about defunding the police. It flows from the simple truth that where we spend our money reveals what we value. As Joy Reid writes on Twitter, conservatives have made “defunding” liberal programs their sine qua non:

It’s time for progressives to respond in kind. We don’t want a society that spends tax dollars on beating and killing its own people. We don’t want a society that spends more on punishment and incarceration than it does on education and housing. With a wave of popular support and momentum, there’s a real chance that we can bring this transformation about.

Image credit: Backbone Campaign, released under CC BY 2.0 license


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