When a person or group cries “Defund the police!”, it could mean several things:
1.) Completely eliminate the budget of the police department, and hence the department itself. This is the demand that the University of Chicago’s #CareNotCops group makes for our campus police, saying they want the University Police gone by 2022. For a case like this, the police department (PD) isn’t supposed to be replaced with another law-enforcement organization.
2.) Reduce the police budget, spending the extra money either on social-service programs or grants given to minority or crime-ridden communities.
3.) Change the method of policing, for example eliminating no-knock warrants or chokeholds.
4.) Supplement police services with social services, like having psychologists or psychiatric social workers respond to calls instead of the cops. That’s not practical, but some places have “ride along” programs where social workers go to relevant calls (domestic violence, child endangerment) with police. Other places have services in which cops refer people to social workers or other helpers after the police visit, and in still in other places police get social-work and psychological training. Many people who argue for this don’t realize that this is already a practice in some places.
After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, according to the New York Times article below, the Minneapolis city council voted to defund the city police department. I believe the text of the amendment is here, and does call for “the removal of the Police Department as a Charter Department.” The motion was passed by a majority of the Council, with some dissent, but what happened afterwards shows that such votes aren’t necessarily a good idea.
Click on screenshot to read:
First of all, options 1) and 2) above are generally bad moves, especially if you want to completely get rid of the police department, either replacing it with some kind of “community policing” (i.e., mob rule and possees) or getting rid of it entirely with no replacement. Both of these are boneheaded and disasterous moves.
But in Minneapolis the city council doesn’t even have the ability to get rid of the police department, so their resolution was toothless. Also, most of the citizens don’t want the police to be cut. A few quotes from the article:
In interviews this month, about two dozen elected officials, protesters and community leaders described how the City Council members’ pledge to “end policing as we know it” — a mantra to meet the city’s pain — became a case study in how quickly political winds can shift, and what happens when idealistic efforts at structural change meet the legislative process and public opposition.
The pledge is now no closer to becoming policy, with fewer vocal champions than ever. It has been rejected by the city’s mayor, a plurality of residents in recent public opinion polls, and an increasing number of community groups. Taking its place have been the types of incremental reforms that the city’s progressive politicians had denounced.
And of course the “defund the police” mantra plays right into the hands of the Republicans, for if most Americans want anything, it’s to feel that they’re safe, and cutting back on cops is not the way to do that. Perhaps if the “defunders” were more specific in what they wanted, they wouldn’t be energizing the Right so much.
At any rate, all Minneapolis has done so far is to ban chokeholds (a very good move) and “changed reporting measures for the use of force since Mr. Floyd’s killing.”
It’s striking that minorities, whom this issue is supposed to help, often object to “defunding”. (The “charter commission” described below is a group of citizens, appointed by a judge, to consider the legal and technical ramifications of amendments like the above before they go to voters for approval.):
As the commission weighed its options, evidence mounted that the public wanted police reform, but did not support the actions of councilors or share the aims of influential activists. A poll from The Minneapolis Star-Tribune found that a plurality of residents, including 50 percent of Black people, opposed reducing the size of the police department. Councilors said they repeatedly heard criticism from business owners and residents in more affluent areas of their wards who feared for their safety, as misinformation spread that the end of the police department was imminent.
In the charter commission, however, city councilors and their activist supporters found a common enemy.
“A majority-white, unelected board of people can’t decide that they knew better than the community,” said Miski Noor, the Black Visions organizer.
The charter commission voted down the “defunding” amendment 10-5, so it won’t be on the ballot this November.
The lessons here are threefold:
First, specify exactly what you mean when you say “defund the police”. If you envision a substitute kind of police, you need to specify what form. If you are vague about that, just shut up.
Second, consider the wishes of the community. They may not WANT less policing (if that’s what you intend by “defunding”). Here the “white savior” trope can be very real.
Third, consider the consequences. Reduced policing leads to increased crime, and, as one site reports, it already has in Minneapolis—not because the police were defunded, but probably because of “reduced policing”.
“…Just months after leading an effort that would have defunded the police department, City Council members at Tuesday’s work session pushed chief Medaria Arradondo to tell them how the department is responding to the violence…More people have been killed in the city in the first nine months of 2020 than were slain in all of last year. Property crimes, like burglaries and auto thefts, are also up. Incidents of arson have increased 55 percent over the total at this point in 2019.”
Bear in mind this is coming after just a few months of reduced policing, due in part to extra demands and difficulty and probably in part due to police pulling back either out of fear or reluctance (blue flu) as also happened in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray killing and consequent protests and riots.
Of course the police aren’t perfect, and they (and the law) need some serious reform, including more training in nonviolent intervention, making it illegal to shoot fleeing weaponless suspects, reducing the penalties for victimless crimes like drug use, having more programs that have police learn from social workers and psychologists, and so on. And of course more gun control would be immensely useful in reducing crime, but in America these days that is but a pipe dream.
But defunding as the first option? I don’t think so. We need better policing, not fewer police.