What is Defunding Police and Why Is This Needed Even More Now?

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Given the ongoing uproar over police brutality and the escalation of racially charged assaults and murders at the hands of police officers under authority, there has been a groundswell of support for ‘defunding police’. Long before the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Derek Chauvin, there have been countless cases of black men, black women, and black LGBT who have lost their lives at the hands of police officers under the guise of conducting their official duty. Such violence is not new but it is newly revealed for the world to see and bear witness.

With the proliferation of viral videos of police officers brutalizing and mercilessly killing persons of color flooding our smartphones and devices, it is hard to question or deny the level of corruption and vile behavior of our once vaulted “Men In Blue” who are sworn ‘To serve and protect’. There must be a change and the only viable avenue for such change is a call-to-action for police reform, up to and including police defunding…

What does it mean to defund the police? In its simplest terms, it means what it says, take the funding away! We can all agree that to fully defund police departments around the country would not be practical and could be dangerous in the base case. Alternatively, reallocating tax funds from police departments and reassigning the funds to other government service agencies including and not limited to: pre-school education, food and housing, mental and physical healthcare, and employment services, to name a few. 

Social Services that can effectively help in support of marginalized communities’ everyday problems with compassion and measurable results. Underserved communities are currently left to their own devices in addressing shortcomings related to homelessness, poverty, and mental illness, as well as major and minor social dysfunction and disagreements, and any call for help begins with a police officer who brings a gun and an attitude that the solution lies with an arrest or at worst violence that too often leads to the death of an innocent person. When police are brought into communities of black and brown people, it’s like bringing gasoline to a campfire, nothing good can come of that, but we keep expecting a different outcome.

With the broad-based national and international protest against police brutality, violence, and murder, arguments for defunding police have gained lots of unexpected traction from local organizations and government councils, as well as lawmakers willing to consider everything from complete defunding to radical remodeling of local policing organizations and their practices. This is hard work, but it’s the right work to focus on. Abolition was hard work, eliminating Jim Crow Laws and adopting Civil Rights was hard work, ADA, LGBT, and marriage equality reforms were all herculean undertakings, but we did the work to make a change because it was necessary and right. I believe, that you believe, that we believe, that police reform is right and worth it! It is necessary and through a deliberate and determined effort, it will be done. 

What if we insist on diversifying police forces to gain greater representation? The optics are truly encouraging, but it takes a bit more than that. Training to equip police officers to deal with mental health crises and to keep the communities safe by de-escalating encounters rather than seeking to justify an arrest would be helpful, but reserving and committing the time may present a challenge. 

Current police training regimens typically involve 60 hours of training in shooting techniques but less than 8 hours of training are de-escalation techniques, even though 9 of every 10 daily encounters start with conversations. Given the myriad of challenges, it is really important to start by identifying the problem and developing a holistic approach to fixing it that considers the likelihood of daily encounters, as much as the risk of bodily injury. Providing for, encouraging, and where necessary, insisting that officers live in the neighborhoods they serve is a must! 

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Accumulated data reveals that all police officers have implicit bias and are trained to respond to it, assigning such feelings and impressions to their gut instincts that will keep them alive. It is an absolute fact that police officers show bias against black people. They are more likely to associate a black man with a weapon than a white man, and to assume violent intentions to a black person while giving a white person the benefit of the doubt, instinctively. Police officers are found to speak less respectfully to black people they encounter during traffic stops and other encounters than toward white people under similar circumstances where they apply social scripts that engender rapport and respect while viewing blacks as typical perpetrators with ill-will or nefarious intentions.

To say the least, the reality of what we are up against is indeed daunting with all sorts of incredible challenges. Optimistically, this current environment of protest and rebellion may be the perfect opportunity to rethink policing and to re-engineer the criminal justice system. The perfect time to redirect the emphasis of police services on community wellbeing, and the strict avoidance of unnecessary arrest and cruelty at the hands of ill-equipped and unsympathetic offices hell-bent on criminalizing anything that disturbs the peace and tranquility of the community. 

So what has happened to make this so necessary?

From a historical perspective, in the South, from the 1600s through the mid 19th century, policing in America centered principally on “Slave Patrols”, established to empower the entire white population in policing the movement of black people

After the Civil War, the “Black Codes” were enacted to maintain absolute control of black people. With the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery except as a punishment for a crime, “the genius of the former Confederate states was to say, if all we need to do is make them criminals and they can be put back in slavery, well, then that’s what we’ll do.” And that’s exactly what the black codes set out to do, enforced by vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan. 

In the North, policing was a little different but similarly employed to maintain racial norms of white supremacy. Given the historical and systematic criminalization of black life, police science from the 1930s into the 21st century begin to draw on crime statistics and sociological research about the innate or cultural tendencies of black people to criminality. Their data and studies all served to legitimate racist notions of black people as a race of criminals. Given the racist history of policing in America, today we are left to decide whether we are willing to sacrifice the rights, freedom, dignity, and lives of black and brown people to maintain a system that only serves them coincidentally, but typically destroy their lives. From slave patrols to Jim Crow laws, institutionalized racism has been pervasively ingrained in policing culture and practices, and despite laws against racial discrimination and the legacy of the civil rights movement, little real progress has come from these well-meaning progressive efforts and we obviously have a whole lot of work to do.

So let’s check the facts. With over $100 billion spent in the U.S. on policing, studies show little to no correlation between dollars spent and reductions in overall crime [1]. As such, some of the money should be redirected. In 2014-2015, the New York Police Department pulled back on active policing reducing stop and frisk encounters, with reports showing that there were 2,100 fewer crime complaints during that time. [2]. Again a case that proves the point. We need to reassign resources and money to solve the problems of our everyday lives, not try to lock them away, out of sight and out of mind.

Police reform was brought up in 2014 during the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson, MI police officer Darren Wilson under the Obama Administration [3]. However, the reforms discussed were abandoned and were never escalated to become part of the public criminal justice system.

Unconscious bias training and body cameras may have introduced a higher level of transparency into the issue of police violence, but thus far, that added disclosure has not been enough to actually convict policemen or abate their willingness to apply brutality in exercising their duty. The general result has been more acquittals, job demotion and suspensions, and under some of the most egregious worst-case scenarios: 5-years of probation and community service.

Given this deep and uninspiring history of Policing in America, we obviously have a long way to go to reform the practices and install the right training and get the police out of the business of rendering social services. The police are poorly suited to render aid when a delicate touch and compassionate spirit is needed. We can and must decide when they are needed for policing and when other services are more appropriate. That’s gonna take some work and time. We are likely to see some mistakes, and wrong turns along the way but we can’t be complacent and we can’t give up. Lives are at stake. Black Lives Matter and are well worth the effort.

So what next?

Protest and demonstrate your discontent. Go to city council meetings and county commissioner meetings. Ask them to respond to the policing issues of our day. Do your homework. Get to know your local officials. eMail and call them to have them share their views and challenge their bullshit when necessary, and commend them when they show promise. Go to school district meetings and challenge the police presence in schools that only contribute to the school to prison pipeline. Write your congressman and your senators to let them know you are paying attention. Offer ideas that point to redirecting funds to social services that serve your community. Talk to your friends and neighbors about the issues and encourage their involvement. Vote for candidates who are not only listening! Hold them accountable! 

Featured Photo: Al Jazeera

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