Defund the Police: What does it mean?
By Emmet McGeown
In John Le Carré’s 1963 spy novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” the character Control, a prominent member of the British intelligence service, describes the duty of law enforcement as follows: “We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night.” The role of policing is often depicted in this light. There exists a prevalent view that the police exist in order to do things that civilians have neither the ability nor stomach to do, whether this be subduing suspects or dispersing delinquents. Yet, what if this didn’t have to be the role of police? What if the police were viewed more as a public service as opposed to a pseudo-military presence?
This is the idea presented by the “defund police” movement. Over the past few weeks, since the unwarranted and horrifying murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, there has been a significant push for police forces all around the country to receive less money in municipal budgets and federal grants. It’s a controversial plan.
Law enforcement is a sacred pillar of post-9/11 American society. To be a police officer is to be part of an institution, an illustrious and insular institution where prestige and eminence are vigorously upheld in the name of justice. The lionization of American police forces has coincided with their increasing militarization. To question the splendor of law enforcement is to express doubt in the American experiment; at least that’s how many would regard it. This is evident in the fact that even leading Democrats like Nancy Pelosi are eager to distance themselves from the potential consequences of defunding the police. Veteran Senator, Dianne Feinstein, when asked, expressed, “I just don’t believe in that as an answer.”
Furthermore, Democratic Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, anxious to appease moderates, released a plan last year that would actually add $300 million to the Community Oriented Policing Services program (COPS) which, since 1994, has invested over $14 billion dollars in local police departments to hire and train local police officers. There is no reason to believe that he intends on revising this plan in the wake of nationwide protests.
So, besides defunding, as its moniker quite blatantly advocates, what else is the “defund police” movement aspiring to achieve? Well, a concomitant effect of defunding would be extra money to potentially invest in other community programs. San Francisco, Portland, Denver and Nashville are among the many cities that are already debating diverting police funds to other first responders, schools, and community initiatives. The movement is gaining traction. In America’s second most populous city, Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti shifted $150 million from police budgets to education, healthcare, and housing in communities of color. Fueling such actions is the belief that poverty is a catalyst for crime thus tackling impoverishment is a way to reduce instances of police brutality. This is an interesting concept. In fact, a report by the Bureau of Justice released in 2014 revealed that from the period 2008-2012 persons in households living at or below the federal poverty line had more than double the rate of violent victimization than those in high-income households. More so, Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis conducted a study that revealed that areas with higher rates of unemployment and few social services also tend to have higher crime rates. In the city of St. Louis, according to the same study, firearm assault rates per 1,000 residents are more than six times higher in high-poverty neighborhoods than in low-poverty neighborhoods. Thus, alleviating poverty through allocating more money to social services, employment schemes, and public education may have a profound effect on crime rates therefore could minimize the need for heavy-handed police tactics.
This idea doesn’t seem so radical when elaborated upon. Indeed, a 2008 Yale study of the relationship between welfare and crime rates concluded that frequent welfare payments that are sufficiently large would be associated with lower levels of crime. Yet, the slogan “defund police” lacks the syllables to encapsulate sufficient nuance. Those advocating for defunding the police may want to sacrifice their snappy maxim for detailed proposals if they wish to create meaningful change.
The third aspect of the “defund police” movement is arguably the most agreeable. Many activists in the movement have outlined that police officers respond to an overwhelming number of situations for which they are not equipped nor qualified. These include dealing with people suffering from mental health issues, domestic disputes, disobedient school children and drug addiction. Activists argue that the police have become the remedy to every societal problem regardless of the magnitude. Even ancient Rome divided the role of the city’s police force into the Vigiles, Praetorian Guard, and Urban Cohorts, each being responsible for maintaining a certain type of public order. Yet, in modern-day America, 911 can be dialed in the event of a murder or because a birdwatcher asked someone to put their dog on a leash. This imprecise prophylactic policing trivializes policing as we now rely on officers to resolve even the most miniscule of disputes. This contributes, not only to wasting police time, but also to the perpetual escalation of the insubstantial into the inexcusable. After all, George Floyd was initially interacting with the police for using a counterfeit $20 bill, a crime hardly worth an arrest never mind public suffocation.
Even so, there are still many obstacles in the path of those aspiring to defund the police: “Sixty percent specifically oppose reducing the budget for police to reallocate it to other public health and social programs, while 39 percent support that move,” said ABC News.
For many Americans, the police are untouchable. This attitude is expressed eloquently, albeit brashly, by conservative political commentator Heather MacDonald in a City Journal article titled “Why We Need the Police.” Here, Ms. MacDonald decries the notion that better-funded social services would ameliorate crime rates in cities. She argues that New York City is a prime example because “No city spent more on welfare, yet crime continued to rise.” Ms. MacDonald outlines that “fewer cops and depleted NYPD funding mean longer response times and less training.”
One must concede that there is a logic to this argument. Indeed, research by Dr. June O’Neill and Anne Hill for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that a 50 percent increase in the monthly value of combined AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and food stamp benefits led to a 117 percent increase in the crime rate among young black men. So, one could argue that an increased reliance upon social services in impoverished neighborhoods will actually result in an increase of crime.
Lastly, many are weary to openly endorse defunding the police because it appears to be a tributary feeding a more radical river: abolition of the police. Abolishing the police, much like the movement to abolish ICE, is a policy idea expressed by the fringes of the left wing. The belief system undergirding this viewpoint is that the American police force is chronically racist. Its members, thus their actions, are discriminatory and perpetuate the racial inequality admonished by those calling for the abolition of the police. A NYT op-ed, written by Mariame Kaba, argues that since policing has roots in slave patrols and union busting the asphyxiation of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin is an expected and unsurprising corollary of an organization that has been marinating in a mélange of classism and racism since its genesis.
For those advocating police abolition, “reform” is viewed as insufficient. It is seen as a bromide used by moderate politicians to avoid a tangible restructuring of policing thus immortalizing the status quo. Reform is a more palatable dish in suburban dining rooms. Abolition, derived from the Latin infinitive abolere literally meaning “destroy,” makes many middle-class voters twitch as they imagine a future in which the thin blue-line restraining mayhem is snapped, unleashing a cascade of crime. Yet, the push to abolish the police may have its merits…
“Why did you have to shoot? I mean that’s the only question that matters right now. Why did you kill my son?” asked William Schultz, father of Scout Schultz who was a Georgia Tech student suffering from depression shot by Georgia Tech police in 2017. In the now infamous video, Scout can be seen holding a multi-purpose tool walking toward two police officers. After Scout’s death questions were asked as to why lethal force had to be used. Contrast this with an incident in Camden, NJ, where a knife-wielding individual threatened customers of a fried-chicken joint then walked down the street refusing to obey cops demands for him to put down the knife as he thrashed erratically. For 5 minutes, over a dozen police officers formed a loose semi-circle around the suspect, following him as he walked down the street. After repeated warnings, the man was tased, disarmed, and arrested. No death. What was the difference? Advocates of abolishing the police would argue that because the latter city had disbanded their police department and rebuilt a new, community-focused county force, violence was avoided.
In May 2013, the Camden City Council approved several resolutions that eliminated the city police department and established a new one under county control. The remaining city cops were all laid off and had to reapply to work with the county, under far less generous nonunion contracts. The Camden police was now bigger. By cutting salaries, the county was able to hire more officers, increasing the size of the department from 250 to 400. Plus, the officers were no longer rewarded for the number of tickets they had written, or how many arrests they had made. No longer would officers be the “arbitrary decider of what’s right and wrong,” Camden police chief, Scott Thomson, announced but rather consider themselves as “a facilitator and a convener.” A result of this structural innovation has been a 72% drop in violent crimes over 7 years.
It is clear that something has to change. However, this change should not be limited to the police. In order to prevent more George Floyd’s, one must approach the problem of policing as though it were a rock formation consisting of multiple compressed strata, preserved in time, now requiring excavation and examination. Such attempts have been made in the past, most notably by the presidentially appointed Kerner Commission set up to analyze the cause of the civil unrest in the late 1960’s. In the Commission’s landmark 1968 report it concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal…White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” It’s time we stopped ignoring the inequality which persists in this nation. Poverty and policing are inextricably linked, defunding police might feel good for the Left and defunding welfare programs may feel good for the Right but what will work?
We still don’t know.