What Does “Defund the Police” Really Mean?

While the international community watches, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States continues to dominate the news cycle as people march the streets in protest. What began as a protest regarding the brutal killing of George Floyd, an African-American man who was killed on the street in Minneapolis after a policeman kneeled on his throat for nine minutes and cut off his breathing, has turned into a movement for the restructuring and perhaps even de-funding of the entire police structure. His death was not just an individual event, rather a symbol of the deep racial tensions that still run through the veins of the country.

This is not the first of these kinds of protests, the previous well-known ones being the Race Riots of the 1960s. Beginning in 1967, an uprising swept through more than 150 cities across the US, provoked by police brutality and social inequalities such as in housing and education. Lyndon B. Johnson was the president at the time and had recently pushed through the Civil Rights Act and The Great Society legislation that he believed would help alleviate the inequality that caused these racial tensions. Despite this, the protests continued as cities burned in what Time magazine referred to as “the bloodiest uprising in half a century”. To determine the causes, a special commission was appointed in which interviews were conducted across the country to better understand the concerns and anger of the people.

The report concluded that there were deep cultural divisions in the country and that the United States was on track for two different societies: black and white. The commission suggested a thirty billion dollar infusion of support for the educational and social services of black communities, to provide more opportunities and therefore lessen inequalities. The report also had suggestions for the police which included higher standards, more professionalization, extra training, standardized educational standards, and community relations programs that allow citizens a voice in local policing. However, the high price tag, defensive nature of the police departments, and Johnson’s personal anger that his previous work was not recognized, combined to block any implementation of the recommendations. The finding of the report, which for the first time, identified “white racism”as a factor in the repression that the black community was protesting, proved to be a step too far for many politicians, and the report’s findings were tabled. Indeed, the report would never have seen the light of day had it not been for the findings being leaked to the press, published, and becoming a bestseller. Despite that, no meaningful changes were implemented.

Less than sixty years later, the United States is facing similar issues. Once again, racial inequalities and increasing cases of police brutality have brought these long-simmering issues to public scrutiny. The police are highly militarized and unionized, and while crime rates continue to drop, police brutality rates continue to increase. For comparison, “since 2000 the police in Great Britain have killed a total of 42 people. In March 2016 alone, US police killed 100 people”. The End of Policing, is a powerful account of the current crisis, authored by Alex S Vitale, a professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and essayist whose work has crossed the pages of newspapers such as the New York Times and the Guardian. He explains the current policing situation and the actions that need to be taken in order for sustainable change to occur. He posits that police today exhibit a “warrior mentality” where they believe that they are in a constant battle with a disorderly public. This is further exacerbated by their training, in which they watch training videos of everyday encounters such as traffic stops turning violent. An ethos of keeping officers safe becomes harmful when they assume danger in the most mundane interactions with the public, this is demonstrably true when police are interacting with members of minority groups. This is associated with their inclination to use force that can quickly escalate into violent scenarios.

As seen in the mostly peaceful protests across the US, the police have responded to disturbance and blocking the streets with the use of rubber bullets and tear gas, a threatening show of force. In Buffalo, New York, a 75-year-old man was shoved to the ground by two officers, left unconscious and bleeding as the rest of the force police marched past him. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, cameras caught police officers shooting a young woman with rubber bullets, fracturing her eye socket. In Kansas City, Missouri, police officers walked up onto a sidewalk to spray pepper spray at protestors. This violent response has only exacerbated the calls from the public for the end of police brutality. When the public itself gets violent, the police are well within their bounds to get involved in a calm and efficient manner as they are meant to be the guardians of public safety. Their training should not only prepare them for these scenarios, but they should be educated in proper de-escalation techniques rather than a war in the streets with civilians.

Alongside the violence, the subject of racism has once again become the center of the debate. Racism is undoubtedly present in the US and this includes police forces where black teens are up to twenty-one times more likely than white teens to be killed by police. Black communities are stuck in a never-ending loop where as inequality increases, despair and public disorder do as well. The policy, known as “broken windows”, which became popular in the ’90s, encourages police to crack down on small infractions in the hopes that it will prevent bigger crimes from being committed. While it was well-intended, it has resulted in the police, which are supposed to be the peacekeepers of the streets, becoming the enemies of many minority communities. Now, protesters are marching the streets chanting “defund the police”. 

So what does “Defund the Police” actually mean?

Despite the provocative title, the policy does not call for the eradication of police. It is a multi-step process that includes changing the role that police play in the community, and greater accountability for officers, as well as transferring some responsibilities that currently fall on the police to other, more qualified professionals, such as social workers or mental health professionals. This, of course, would result in the reallocation of funds in order to commit those monies to more specialized agencies.  

Greater relations with the public not only decrease violence but also brings more accountability to the police department. Rather than funds for local government coming from the number of tickets and fines, police should be focusing on supporting their communities. Former Police Chief Scott Thomson of Camden, New Jersey, initiated the successful overhaul of their police department, heralded by activists as a success. He said that by stopping the reward system for arrests made, police officers were able to connect with people more. Thomson also implemented a program in which he dropped his officers off on corners and instructed them that “I don’t want you to write tickets, I don’t want you to lock anybody up. I’m dropping you off on this corner that has crime rates greater than that of Juárez, Mexico, and for the next twelve hours I don’t want you to make an arrest unless it’s for an extremely vile offense.” “Don’t call us—we’re not coming back to get you until the end of your shift, so if you got to go to the bathroom, you need to make a friend out here. You want to get something to eat? You better find who the good cook is”. They also implemented a police outreach program where citizens are called every couple of months for a check-in of their safety and and the state of their neighborhoods. The police in Camden have taken it a step even farther and now host block parties, cooking for and mingling among their citizens, manufacturing relationships and trust while becoming part of the communities they are served to protect. The relationship established between civilians and the police help both sides feel safer in their environments and the police are seen as guardians of the peace for the people rather than “thugs with badges”

Enhanced accountability is important in every field, but especially with the police because we provide them with absolute authority and with weapons. Oversight is critically important and beneficial. When police misconduct occurs, it is essential that police cooperate with investigators so that the wrongdoings are exposed. While body and dash cams can be helpful in this regard, it is often the case that other police officers are the only witnesses. In Seattle and Oakland, they have created civilian police commissions to enforce police accountability and allow openness with their communities. Civilians on police commissions provide a community perspective on police matters, ensuring much-needed oversight as well as standardized consequences for misconduct. With their involvement, citizens feel that their voices are heard and that the investigations conducted are more legitimate, compared to internal investigations. When civilians and police work together, not only are the police more effective, but they have greater accountability and authority within their communities. 

This change of role and dispersion of responsibilities does, inevitably, result in a reallocation of funds in order to commit resources to other departments. It does not mean “stripping a department entirely of its budget, or abolishing it altogether”. We do need police to promote a peaceful society. Instead, it is “about scaling police budgets back and reallocating those resources to other agencies”, explains Lynda Garcia, a policing campaign director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Police should not be the first responders in many situations, especially non-violent ones. Dallas Police chief David Brown said in 2016, that police were expected to do too much and “every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it… Here in Dallas, we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops… That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems”. Mental health departments have been underfunded for too long and police are often called in as responders to these situations for which they are not trained. According to a study from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a person with an untreated mental health issue is 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other members of the community. Examples include the death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, reportedly behaving erratically and Jason Harris, said to have been exhibiting “bizarre behavior. These non-violent offenses should not be handled by the police. That money and resources should be committed to providing services by trained mental health workers.  Other social ills such as homelessness and drug addiction have also fallen on the shoulders of police officers. These are societal problems that need to be dealt with and not just handed off to armed police officers. 

The history of this movement displays a blatant truth: if permanent and lasting change is not enacted, these issues will continue to plague society. By understanding the role that police play in civilian lives and how that role can evolve and change to fit modern society, police can truly serve the public as guardians. Accountability for officers increases the legitimacy of the department and of individual officers as trust is raised in the community. In addition, delegating appropriate responsibilities to more qualified professionals allows the police to focus on their policing. These changes will be a meaningful attempt at creating a more peaceful and equal society for all races. To conclude with a remark from Martin Luther King Jr the day before he was shot dead, “If something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the coloured peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”


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