“Defund the Police” Is Not What You Think
A few years ago, to say “Black Lives Matter” or use the hashtag was a political statement often denounced. Media outlets (including mainstream media) labeled users of the term as radical, leftist, “Antifa.” A simple matter of fact has unfortunately become a controversial political statement. Today, people scribble the phrase on posters and tag it on buildings around towns of all sizes. You will find the phrase “Black Lives Matter” painted on the street leading to the White House. In fact, the phrase has become commonplace in recent months. The masses use it to voice opposition against racial injustice in America and the many forms that it takes.
The Historical Trajectory
The phrase, as a political statement, originated from the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin. In February of 2012, neighborhood watch participant George Zimmerman murdered Martin in Sanford, Florida. A jury acquitted Zimmer in the summer of 2013. Three black organizers—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter as a response to Zimmerman’s acquittal. The movement has since evolved. We’ve watched the movement transition into a global network of over 40 chapters that help communities organize against racial violence inflicted upon black communities.
We’ve lost many more black lives due to racist violence and police brutality. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are fairly recent victims of racism and injustice. They are almost household names at this point. Protests erupted around the country and around the world calling for systems and governments to start putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to racial justice and get serious about protecting black lives.
“The world is waking up to social justice demands,” says San Diego bankruptcy attorney Tristan Brown. “We’re seeing the masses actually acknowledge racial disparities and injustice like never before.”
Seeking the Next Steps
Questions linger in the wake of the violence, anger, grief, and weariness. What is this going to lead us to? How do we arrive at the solutions that people seek? What changes need to be made? Who will execute those changes? What’s actually going to address the social inequalities that are in conversation and bring due justice to the massive worldwide protests?
The answers to these questions vary widely, depending upon who you ask. Some don’t see any problems and desire a restoration of law and order via heavier policing. Many push for reform in the form of additional training, regulations, and oversight committees. Others take a more abolitionist approach. They push for something that runs chills down spines: defunding, and even dismantling, the police. This article will take a deeper look into why the call for defunding the police has became more mainstream in recent weeks. We’ll look at the demands and consequences for this abolitionist push against oppressive policing in America.
A Look the Role of Police in U.S. History
One major claim for the call to defund the police in many U.S. cities is the fact that the police as we know it today have a very oppressive history in American society. It’s important to note that our current understanding of how policing works has not always been the standard. We socially constructed policing to appear a certain way. However, this form is not inherent to our human nature and it does not have to remain this way. We conform concepts such as policing to our social and political context, but people in different places and time periods have different notions that fit their society’s needs. As our values as a society change, we should ensure our systems change as well.
Policing in America has always evolved to the changing ideas of public order and has always been affected by the social and economic context of various time periods. Policing was informal and privately funded in colonial times. Volunteers performing “night watches” would look out for outlaws like prostitutes and gamblers. Society did not covet these night-watch officer positions and they carried bad reputations among civilians.
As America industrialized and urban areas grew more densely populated, the public believed funding policing as necessary to help control outlaws. The first of these public police forces developed in 1938 Boston. The economy relied on commercial shipping and businesses needed protection as they transported goods from Boston ports to other places. They turned to police forces and pushed for publicly funded police officers, as opposed to privately contracted. Supporters of publicly funded police spread the notion that the police force was necessary for the collective good. Policing in northern areas had much to do with protection of private property. This form of policing evolved to protecting businessmen and their wealth by suppressing workers from organizing strikes and controlling the labor force.
In Southern states, publicly funded policing had a different aim. Here, the institution of chattel slavery was a major driver of the economy, allowing big plantation owners to have access to the free labor of enslaved Africans and build their wealth in this way. Policing in the South took the form of slave patrols who worked to find and return runaway slaves. Slave patrols also served to prevent slave revolts. Even after the abolishing of slavery in 1865, sheriffs in the South continued to play the role of administers of the racial hierarchy. The activity of these sheriffs (which included enforcing segregation and disenfranchisement) carried eerie parallels to the slave patrols before them.
Reallocation of Police Funds to Other Sectors of the Economy
Today’s policing is meant to take more of the “protect and serve” role, protecting people from harm to themselves and others and enforcing local public safety laws. Police have a wide range of duties, from passing out minor parking citations to finding and arresting serial killers. However, these roles that law enforcement take up are filled by actual people. Unfortunately these people carry biases and problems of their own.
Debunking myths concerning safety
Moreover, the laws they are called to enforce sometimes aren’t actually keeping anyone safe. They simply add to the amount of people that must face and fund the court system. Moreover, they increase funding to the court system in the form of fees, fines, bail, etc. There is a big push in several states and cities to legalize recreational marijuana. The overwhelming amount of people imprisoned on non-violent drug charges motivates this push. An overwhelming amount of people arrested for marijuana possession are black people, due to the over-policing of black communities. The overrepresentation of black people in police stops, arrests, convictions, and deaths by police highlight this grave injustice.
So, what does this have to with police funding, and why is this topic being brought up now? Well, the coronavirus pandemic has been forcing local, state, and national governments to review their budgets and reallocate funds in a way that will improve public health and employment. These budget reviews have presented the opportunity to restructure the economic priorities of our communities. They also allow us to focus the health and well-being of people. COVID-19 and the consequential stay-at-home orders have put millions of Americans out of work, caused businesses to close, and increased the need for a bankruptcy attorney.
How does this impact the economy?
The economy is either diving into a recession and/or a significant decline of economic activity. Now is the time to push for a prioritization of pressing issues such as housing, mental health services, infrastructure, youth programs, etc.
Many major cities in the U.S. exceed the national average for the percentage of local public funds allocated to police departments. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), for example, receives over a quarter of the city’s general funds. Oakland is notorious for presenting its police with a whopping 41% of city funds. As police departments receive larger and larger portions of local funds, cuts are made in other areas such as the aforementioned priorities.
These budgets often do not properly reflect the needs of the communities, especially for low-income black communities. Their issues include high unemployment rates, under resourced schools, and lack of access to quality health care. Given the over-policing of black communities as detailed above, the current system needs retooling. Evidence disproves a strong correlation between over-policing and a reduction in crime. This beckons a reconsideration of this approach to public safety. Other solutions, need to be addressed; namely, preventing crime by addressing social issues like homelessness, drug addiction, other mental health issues, and poverty.
Community-based resources as a solution
Defunding the police just means cutting down on the amount of spending that cities utilize on policing people. Instead, police funds get redirected to community resources. The idea is that crime can be prevented, instead of fought. This requires funding the youth, housing, health, and other factors that create an overall healthy society. For instance, U.S. House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says we can look at affluent white suburbs to understand this logic. These communities do have police, but they also have the resources to fund public services and restorative institutions. Understandably, these additional resources reduce the need for police.
In addition to budget restructuring, defunding the police also entails reducing the amount of roles police have in society. Police currently patrol public schools, respond to mental health emergencies, and address noise complaints. Do we really need the same people who arrest serial killers to tell our neighbors to lower their speaker volume? Proponents of defunding the police say that other trained professionals, like social workers and EMS responders could handle these matters. Arguably, these personnel will perform this work more efficiently without posing the safety threats of police officers.
Not only are we, as a society, moving beyond the need for oppressive policing (did we ever need it, anyway?), but we are also growing more and more aware of another social issue: mass incarceration. The over-policing of communities intimately links with the historically extreme rates of black imprisonment. In terms of racial inequality, note that 1 in 10 black men in their thirties is imprisoned. Again, the coronavirus pandemic highlights this issue. We’ve witnessed multitudes of non-violent black prisoners get released due to overcrowded prisons fighting the pandemic. However, many non-violent people still sit in jails and prisons, torn away from their families and the communities who need them.
Consequences of Decreasing Police Funding
To understand the consequences of reduced spending on police departments, we can look at cities who have done so before. During the 2008 recession, cities across the country restructured their budgets to save money. Cities like Memphis did so by restricting funding to their police departments. In Memphis, less funding going to police departments meant that they lacked personnel. This caused more crimes to go unsolved, long 9-1-1 call wait times, and less community outreach. The cops that kept their jobs had to work overtime, which increased payroll costs.
Others argue that defunding police will actually mean that community interaction programs will be the first to lose funding. Police generally have a bad reputation due to so many instances of abuse of power. However, police officers do occasionally have a positive impact in promoting safety and in bridging the gap between themselves community members; for example, the youth through cadet programs. Some speculate police departments under financial constraint will simply cut the more positive programs. These programs may be deemed nonessential, because they don’t relate to the day-to-day duties of law enforcement.
If cities do begin to look at better ways to allocate police funds, it is important that they’re able to preserve the positive aspects; for instance, the police department positive community outreach programs. Defunding the police does not mean that police departments will cease to exist; it just means that there may be less roles for police to fill. However, as long as police exist, it is important that we improve their relationships with their communities. Let’s prevent them from carrying out further abuses, which have taken the lives of so many.