Let’s Talk About “Defund the Police”

A Philadelphia police officer was just arrested for killing a 12-year old boy. Evidence indicates the boy was unarmed and shot in the back. The officers were plain clothed and were not wearing their body cameras. This tragedy is not an outlier in an otherwise well-functioning bureaucracy; it is the latest death in a gruesome pattern. As we continue to see year after year police kill over 1,000 Americans, the majority of whom unarmed, it’s time to ask ourselves whether shrinking the role of police in our lives or replacing them entirely can actually make us safer.

Before I give my two cents on the discourse around the term “defund the police,” and its implications on our political landscape, I want to preface that I, as most of you know and the rest of you can see, am a white person. My experiences with policing are vastly different then people of color, immigrants, and even low-income white people. I come to this discourse with a great deal of humility, a genuine drive for justice and understanding, and a keen eye towards moving the country towards a future in which public safety truly serves all.

The Case for Defunding the Police

“Defund the police” is a prominent slogan racial justice advocates have chanted in rallies and hashtagged on twitter. Advocates are split on whether the phrase commands a policy solution in which police funds are partially reallocated towards social services that better serve the goal of public safety or the total and complete abolition of policing as we know it. This slogan did not arise from a vacuum. It has come about after a decade and a half of videographic proof of a system in which police use violence unjustifiably and heinously and disproportionately towards people of color. The movement to envision a world with a dramatically different criminal legal system has been a multi-generation struggle; scholar Angela Davis has been calling for prison abolition since the 1970s. At a time in which even the most watered-down police reform efforts are left dead on the floor of the Senate cloak room, the movement for justice is undeterred. New organizations, new organizers, and new elected officials come to the movement with each passing month collaborating, interrogating, strategizing, and innovating. We owe it to ourselves, our neighbors, and those we do not know but share a common humanity to listen, engage, and attempt to understand in good faith.

The case for defunding the police differs on how you define it. Whichever interpretation most represents your viewpoint, the case that police receive too much funding can be made easily by assessing how police spend their resources. Here are the facts. Less than 5% of police responses are for violent crimes such as armed robbery, battery, sexual assault, or murder. The majority of calls to police pertain to misdemeanors, substance abuse/disorderly intoxication, welfare checks, homelessness, incidents involving people with disabilities, and handling traffic infractions. Advocates argue that many of these public safety calls require a diverse array of first responders better equipped to handle these incidents than police. Denver, Colorado’s STAR program and Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program are two examples of these alternative first responder models. Both of which aim to address a variety of public safety issues with various non-police units including mental health counselors, social workers, and conflict mediators. While the slogans behind the policy can trigger negative reactions, the idea of diversifying our approach to public safety by reallocating some police funding towards various other professionals using evidence-based, public health-conscious approaches to public safety is generally quite popular.

Defund, divest, reallocate, transform?

If the policy, or a variation of it phrased the right way, is popular but the slogan isn’t, why not change the slogan? Well, first of all, it’s not our job to tell racial justice advocates particularly those with deeply personal connections to police violence how to phrase their message. Defund is out there. It’s not going back in the bottle. And let’s face it. This is about more than just replacing some responsibilities among various bureaucratic agencies. This is a movement born out of deep pain and trauma from the harm policing has inflicted upon Black and Brown communities. There is righteous anger at a system that has since its inception seen people of color as less than human. You can personally choose to use or not use “defund,” but you cannot police the language of activists who are sick and tired of seeing people that look like them injured and killed.

An American Crime Story

We can’t talk about how policing should be reduced, let alone entertain a future without police entirely without underscoring the underlying causes of why they exist in the first place. The United States is, arguably, the crime capital of the industrialized world. We have less than 5% of the world’s population but more than 60% of the world’s serial killers. We have the highest rate of gun violence per capita by a long shot with over 40,000 people dying annually. Approximately 100,000 people die from drug overdoses every year, the majority of deaths due to opiates like Fentanol. We have been taught that policing and incarceration are the solution to crime. If that were the case, then why is it we spend more on our criminal punishment system than most countries spend on their military with worse results? Our police are tougher, our prison sentences are longer, our prison conditions are crueler, yet they have systematically failed in deterring crimes from occuring in the first place. We have been conditioned to believe a lot of things about our criminal legal system that have been scientifically proven to not be true. Human caging as it is practiced most stupendously in this country, in which we house one in four of the world’s prisoners, does not reduce crime.

Defining ‘Copaganda’

One of the main reasons why it takes Americans a long time to reconcile with the evidence of the failures of policing in delivering public safety is because we have grown up in a society dripped in copaganda. Copaganda refers to media programming that portrays police as trustworthy, decent, and even heroic. Police departments spend millions of dollars every year on public relations to push stories in local and national media to justify their increasingly expansive role in our lives and line items in our municipal budgets. Hollywood screenwriters have been more than willing collaborators. From television to movies, police are almost always portrayed as heroes, model citizens even. You would never know from watching Law & Order SVU that police spend far more time issuing parking citations, destroying homeless encampments, or arresting people for non-violent drug possession than they do solving rape, catching bank robbers, or hunting down murderers. We have absorbed narratives about policing that are wholly detached from reality, and it has slowed our ability to comprehend the need for change.

Why do people commit crimes?

If we can agree, and I hope that most of you after reading this will, that policing and incarceration are ineffective at preventing crime, then what are the alternatives? How do we fix the underlying causes of crime? We can’t prevent crime until we understand why people commit crimes in the first place. The majority of people in this country are living paycheck to paycheck. In major cities, we continue to see the segregation and ghettoization of Black communities in which concentrated poverty persists. One in five Americans do not have access to basic banking and financial services. The median white family holds nearly 8 times the wealth of the median Black family. Nearly a third of working people earn less than $15 an hour, a wage that is still too low to afford the average rental unit in any major city in America. I think ya’ll are picking up what I’m putting down. People don’t choose to risk incarceration because everything’s fine. Folks are desperate. Our system of neoliberal, capitalism and legacy of racial discrimination and inequality has left tens of millions of people living in poverty and tens of millions more living right on the edge. Our chronic failure to invest in infrastructure and our defunding of environmental protection has led to nearly one in five Americans drinking contaminated water, which has been linked to a propensity towards violent behaviors, lower brain development, debilitating disease, and death. You get the picture, and it isn’t that complicated to understand. People who are desperate to survive are more likely to commit crimes. If you want to prevent crime, you need to change the conditions that lead to desperation. I would argue that a society with a higher minimum wage, a guaranteed minimum income, universal collective bargaining and unionization, stable, affordable, and abundant housing, reparations/baby bonds, rent stabilization, free and accessible healthcare, free or deeply subsidized child care and higher education, and a Green New Deal that ends fossil fuel pollution creating tens of millions of good-paying jobs in the clean energy space is one with wayyyyy less crime (and thus way less theoretical need for police, jails, and prisons). We have made choices to leave large swaths of this country desperate for financial security and punish those who go outside the confines of the law to try and provide for themselves and their families. We can make different choices to transform the very nature of our economic and political systems into ones that guarantee that people’s basic needs are met and discriminatory systems are a thing of the past.

What about violent crime?

Violent crimes like sexual assault, battery, and homicide are moral abominations that people generally trust and rely on police to address. As we have previously underscored, policing and incarceration remain ineffective deterrents in preventing crimes, even violent crimes. The desire to see perpetrators of heinous affronts to humanity suffer consequences is natural, especially for the victims. But is a system in which less than one in five sexual assault arrests result in convictions one that is working for victims? Is a system that commodifies mental health care including trauma-informed care working for victims? Don’t even get me started on our loose gun laws. It’s not just that police do a poor job at addressing violent crime; they’re committing it themselves. Research indicates that police are two to four times as likely to commit domestic violence than members of the general public. There has been an abundance of reporting in recent years of rampant sexual and physical violence committed by law enforcement in our immigrant detention centers. In Miami a few years ago, prison guards trapped Darren Rainey in a scolding hot shower and quite literally burned him to death. No charges were filed. I don’t know how we interrupt the cycles of violence in our society that spring from racism, toxic masculinity, patriarchy, the celebration of violence, and other forms of oppression, but I have little confidence that our system of policing and incarceration is providing any sort of improvement. I want to reiterate that I don’t believe that anyone is advocating for or would tolerate a society in which those who have committed such heinous acts of violence should be immune from accountability for the harm they have caused. However, if we are truly committed to building a society with less violent crime, we must imagine, strategize, agonize, and interrogate how we can eliminate these toxic hateful ideologies that lead to violent crime from our society altogether.

Final Thoughts

The greatest way I hope to be an ally, an advocate, and an activist is by listening. If you take away anything from this essay, I hope it is that. I highly recommend reading Alec Karakatsanis’ law review article “The Punishment Bureaucracy” and Derecka Purnell’s book “Becoming Abolitionists” to learn more about the movement for racial justice. My hopes for the future are that more people will demand action from their public officials, circulate literature among friends and family on the issues, have uncomfortable conversations, and stay vigilant for change.

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