“What do you mean ‘Defund The Police’ Mrs Whatsit? Are you crazy? You’re just going to let criminals run wild? It’ll be like ‘The Purge’ – or, worse, the early 1990s – out here!”
Most of the folks – not all – using this slogan do not literally mean “zero police and zero dollars for police.” Some do, but not most.
And one could debate the wisdom of framing the issue this way if “Literally zero police and zero dollars for police” is not what you actually mean.
Counterpoint: Hecate’s favorite Overton Window. Republicans have been yanking it to the right with all their might for decades, while Democrats negotiate against ourselves, fearing to propose anything “too radical” in case we scare off the elusive centrist independent voter (who basically doesn’t exist). Which is how we end up with the wildly asymmetric polarization we have now. So maybe choosing something truly radical as a slogan is a smart strategy, so that when Dems propose reforms – even really significant, substantial reforms – to policing, they sound totally reasonable to the majority of people by contrast. Just a thought.
Anyway, as I see it – and remember, this is just one person’s perspective – there are three major policy positions common across the Defund movement:
Police Are Tasked With Doing Too Much
Even cops freely admit this.
Police should be focused on crime, criminals, and solving crimes. That’s what they’re trained and equipped for, and that’s ostensibly the extent of their responsibilities.
In practice, that’s only a tiny sliver of what we’re asking them to do and be responsible for.
Republicans – sometimes with the acquiescence of Democrats – have been defunding all kinds of social safety net programs for at least the past 40 years: school nurses and psychologists, welfare and food assistance, social workers, community mental health services, housing programs, drug treatment – you name it.
Meanwhile, there was a large surge in violent crime in many cities in the late 1980s and 1990s that scared the pants off everyone, including many folks in the Black community. The infamous 1994 crime bill was actually supported – grudgingly, but supported – by many members of the Congressional Black Caucus. I’m just pointing this out for those who didn’t live through it: the situation was a little more complex that it now appears in hindsight.
One of the results of that bill was that police forces got a LOT more funding.
The thing is, *since* the early 1990s, violent crime has decreased DRAMATICALLY, which you might not be aware of, particularly if you’re a devotee of the “if it bleeds, it leads” local television news. Depending on whose numbers you use, violent crime is down 51% or 71% between 1993 and 2018.
(There are lots of theories as to why. The most plausible, to me, is that it’s a combination of two things: getting lead – early exposure to which permanently reduces intelligence and impulse control – out of paint and gasoline, and legal abortion, where women are no longer forced to bear children they can’t or don’t want to care for and raise.)
But, rather than redirecting those funds from police forces back into a strong safety net, local, state, and national officials continue to shovel money towards policing, because it’s rare to lose an election running on “I’m tough on crime.”
The thing is, once you’ve spent money on one thing, you can’t spend that same money on something else.
What that means, in reality, is that there are still kids with health and emotional problems. There are still people who are homeless. There are still adults in mental health crisis, with substance abuse problems, or, sometimes, a combination of both.
And the only public servants left to deal with them are the cops, who are neither trained nor equipped to do so.
Per an article in today’s Washington Post, less than 5% of arrests are for violent crimes.
The rest are for things that would definitely be better handled in some other way, only there are no resources available to do that.
Kids who are acting up in school don’t need to arrested – they need a caring, trained adult who can help them understand their emotions and develop skills to express them in more constructive and appropriate ways.
People who are experiencing homelessness don’t need to be arrested – they need housing first policies, to get them a safe and stable place to leave, after which they also need wrap around care support to help them work through the life issues that caused them to become homeless in the first place.
People who are addicted don’t need to be arrested – they need treatment and wrap around care support to help them work through the life issues that caused them to become addicted in the first place.
As Dr. King was fond of noting, budgets are moral documents. Taking *some* (not all) money away from the cops means communities can invest those resources in interventions that are more in line with their values and more effective.
Demilitarize the Police
I want you to close your eyes and picture a police officer.
What do you see?
Is it a guy – or a woman! – walking the beat in a Barney Fife uniform, or maybe something a little more up-to-date fashion-wise, even if “walking” the beat means the officer is on a bike or a Segway, or even in a squad car?
It’s probably NOT the disturbing images of police we’ve seen at protests against racial injustice going back to at least 2013 and Trayvon Martin, where they’re outfitted and equipped like soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, with frightening weaponry and large, military vehicles.
What is going on here?
In short, we throw so much money at the military – budgets are moral documents – that they have all kinds of surplus gear, because that’s how government budgets work. If you get to the end of the government fiscal year with money left over, you go on a spending spree, because it’s “use it or lose it.”
Now, the Pentagon used to sell all that extra equipment to other countries, but in 1997, President Clinton’s (him again) National Defense Authorization Act request included the 1033 Program, which allowed the military to transfer surplus equipment to police departments ostensibly for use in the (notice the framing) War on Drugs.
And if you could buy a cool-looking tank for pennies on the dollar, why *wouldn’t* you want that, right?
Thing is, you know how when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail?
Well, when all you have is a grenade launcher, machine guns, and a tank, every protestor looks like an insurgent who’s out to kill you.
Quoting that same Post article from this morning:
“The increased use of military equipment has coincided with an increased use of military tactics, such as SWAT teams and no-knock raids, by law enforcement agencies…One study found that use of paramilitary-style teams by law enforcement increased by more than 1,400 percent since 1980.”
No-knock raids? You mean like the thing that led to the Louisville police murdering Breonna Taylor in her own bed?
There are two main mental models of policing: Guardian and Warrior. Which one do you think is most beneficial to the communities the police forces are supposed to be serving? Which one do you think is dangerous to those communities? Which one do you think is encouraged by military gear and military-style training?
Police Unions Are Too Powerful
Here’s the thing: If you call yourself liberal/progressive/leftist/a Democrat, you CANNOT advocate for busting police unions, full stop.
That said, police unions are FAR too powerful.
Every time an officer is recorded engaging in what, to all appearances, is excessive force, there are immediate cries to fire the cop, arrest him (or, occasionally her), throw the book at them, etc. Today. RIGHT NOW.
But those are unionized jobs. Which means the chief, in many cases, is prohibited from firing those officers without going through a formal review process as dictated by the union contract. While that review process is going on, that officer is often placed on administrative leave with full pay, again, as dictated by the union contract. Even if the officer is fired for cause, he often retains his pensions and other benefits, as dictated by the union contract.
For the rest of us suckers out here operating under “at will” employment, not being able to be fired without cause and without due process sounds pretty sweet, if we’re honest with ourselves. And, even with video evidence, we do still have a presumption of innocence in the US. And police officers are the ONLY people who are given firearms and the power to use them and other types of force against American citizens as a specific responsibility and requirement of their jobs, so shit can get complicated.
Unions usually control the entire disciplinary processes, often without the input of anyone “outside,” including members of the community they’re supposed to be serving.
“We police our own” sounds real nice, until you realize that it often doesn’t work that way in practice, and in fact, cops who attempt to “police their own” are often ostracized, punished, even fired.
Chiefs’ hands are often tied, and they’re forced by the unions to rehire cops everyone knows ARE the “bad apples,” because those cops have managed to wriggle out of accountability, in part because juries are loathe to convict officers accused of misconduct, even when the evidence is clear.
There are larger internal police cultural issues at work here, but one of the ways departments can start getting at the culture change many claim to want is by reducing the power of their unions – which is probably going to require municipal legislators to step in; it’s unlikely the unions will voluntarily give up power – and increasing their accountability to elected officials and the communities they serve.
There are many, many other issues at play here, things like: ending qualified immunity, changing the rules around use of body cameras and release of the footage, following known best practices around things like chokeholds (don’t use them – ever), and chemical agents and rubber projectiles with people exercising their First Amendment rights (also, don’t use them – ever), citizen review and advisory boards (the best of which set aside seat/s for people who’ve been victims of inappropriate police use of force), preventing bad cops from going one town over and getting another job, and even completely reconstituting the entire police force from the ground up (as Camden did successfully, and the Minneapolis city council just this week voted to do).
But if we can maintain the focus and momentum of this moment in time and convert it into the political will to make some of the structural reforms I’ve summarized above, perhaps all these Black folks whose names we’ve been saying for years will not have died for nothing.
And there won’t be any more names to say.
Header image from the Boston Globe.
Names image from babynames.com.
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