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Defund the Police?

This is Part I of a two-part post on defunding the police.

In light of the civil unrest over the last few months focusing on the interactions between law enforcement and communities of color, the call to defund the police has emerged as a rallying cry for people exhausted by examples of violence visited upon people of color by the police. As such, I’d like to explore what I think it means to ‘defund the police’.

Before I discuss what this might look like, in practical terms, I’d say the simplest and most direct answer is that it means we need to dramatically shrink their function. This idea is not new, but has gained traction since the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, and was ramped up after the killing by police of Rayshard Brooks outside a Wendy’s in Atlanta.

I have witnessed, and engaged in, online discussions about this issue with police officers around the country and mostly I have heard individual narratives. “You don’t know what it’s like if you’re not a cop”, that type of thing. I believe this is “not seeing the woods for the trees”. The ability to step back and view this as an outsider is what sociologist C. Wright Mills called the “sociological imagination”. There doesn’t need to be a final agreement on right/wrong, but simply the ability (or at least willingness) to see outside your own experience. I believe many police officers feel attacked by the national dialogue and become defensive, digging in their heels. To wit, I read the following post written by a police officer in south Florida:

"When I call the police for help, I want wolves to show up. I want the biggest, baddest, nastiest wolves with sharp teeth and big bites, to protect my family… God created Cops! Cops do the Lord’s work! Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9"

I responded to this post by pointing out that America has a different relationship with cops than most places (more below). Another police officer on the string replied to me, “You think you could be a good cop, put your money where your mouth is… and see how much you can deal with people trying to kill you, and for 30 years having your head on a swivel 24/7, making sure even when you’re off duty, your family members and you can go anywhere without worrying about being killed. Until then, shut the F- - k up!”

First, this type of interaction does not engender constructive dialogue. “I don’t like your view, so f—k off” is embarrassing if it is representative of the career as a whole, and this person was speaking for the career, whether or not he had permission to. Additionally, according to a study compiled by police reports open data and published in the New York Times, the share of time devoted to handling violent crime in police departments is very small nationally, about 4 percent. Surely some jurisdictions have more, and some have less. But overall, the “head on a swivel 24/7…making sure you are not killed” is not indicative of most police officers’ reality nationally.

One way to try and understand the role of police is to examine international data and how the U.S. compares. The U.S. doesn’t have to be the exact same as other countries, but there seems to be a huge difference, as a study from the University of Chicago has found. Researchers in the university’s law school investigated the lethal use-of-force policies of police in the 20 largest US cities and found that not a one was operating under guidelines that followed the minimum standards laid out under international human rights laws. “Some departments allow deadly responses in cases of ‘escaping suspects’, ‘fugitives’, or ‘prevention of crime’ – all scenarios that would be deemed to fall well outside the boundaries set by international law”. I recently spoke to a close friend that I’ve known all my life who is a police officer in south Florida and he assured me his department is progressive in these areas- they are not permitted to shoot at cars or chase stolen vehicles, and they are required to document with photographs any use of force. This is definitely better than the alternative, but is it enough, and does it address deeper, underlying issues?

By comparison, in Spain, for instance, officers have to use verbal cautions and fire warning shots before they are permitted to aim at anybody. Chokeholds have been banned in Europe for many years, and all member nations of the United Nations, including the United States, have signed on to a code of conduct for law enforcement officials adopted in 1979. Yet, last year over 1000 people were killed by police in the U.S., while most European countries have less than 1 person killed by police per year. Even taking into consideration relative size, the numbers are skewed. For example, the U.S. has roughly 28 times more people than Germany, but less than 300 people have been killed by the police in Germany over the last 30 years.

So, the United States IS different. How much of it is our police, and how much of it is our citizenry? Perhaps it’s both. Therefore, how do we effectuate or expect changes in the police without changes in the larger society? I think the first step is to honestly reckon with the history of law enforcement in the country.

The role of the police is built into our national narrative. The side of the car says “to protect and serve”, but what is being protected and who is being served? The genesis of police departments in the U.S. was to protect and serve those with power. Keep in mind that there were no police departments anywhere in Europe or the U.S. prior to the 19th century. (See, The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850-1894, by Sam Mitrani, Associate Professor of History at the College of DuPage, for a detailed explication of early policing.)

In large cities, particularly in the North, police departments developed as a way to control immigrants and repress working class citizens who were seen as a threat via organized labor. Immigrants from all over Europe and beyond were arriving on America’s shores in the 1800s and municipalities began to hire and train people to keep them within the confines of the established social order. This essentially shifted the economic burden from capitalist elites, intent on protecting their investments, to the public sector, paid for by tax dollars. For example, the New York City police force wasn’t formed until the 1840s and the Chicago police force arose in the 1850s. If the police were really “created by God”, as the aforementioned blogger stated, then God must not have been too concerned before the threat of working-class rebellions in the mid-1800s.

As for the South, the official law enforcement apparatus arose directly as a response to slave revolts, and, in particular, a response to white folks and people of color getting together to foment rebellion. Indeed, the National Law Enforcement Museum has a quote on their webpage from a Slave Patroller’s Oath in North Carolina, 1828, that reads: “I [patroller’s name], do swear, that I will as searcher for guns, swords, and other weapons among the slaves in my district, faithfully, and as privately as I can, discharge the trust reposed in me as the law directs, to the best of my power. So help me, God.” Policing began, and continues to be, in large degree, intrinsically linked to serving and protecting the interests of a certain class in society, in contrast to the honorable notion of a servant of “the people”.

In Part II of this post, I will offer some ideas on how monies can be shifted within the public sector to provide for a more civil society.


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