This is the conclusion of a two-part post on defunding the police.
I concluded Part I of this post by discussing the role of police departments historically in the country, but what about the individual officers? Certainly, many officers have their sights set on being kind and just. However, there is no profit in trying to examine each officer (or suspect) individually. As I have written before, sociologists tend to view these issues as structural, not individual. There may be “good cops and bad cops” but we can drown in minutiae if we don’t expand our scope of analysis to the social systems in place that produce and reproduce the systems that control our everyday life experiences.
What would a structural transformation look like then, this move to “defund the police”? As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I think it starts with reducing the day-to-day functions of the police. My aforementioned lifelong friend, who has been in law enforcement in south Florida for over 30 years, told me, “I don’t think structural changes are what’s needed, I think a re-evaluation of what we as law-enforcement should be doing is more in order”.
In my view, these are one in the same. To re-evaluate what law enforcement should be doing is the first step to making structural changes. He continued, “there’s a problem with our mental health care system if the county jail is the largest mental health provider in your county. The police have become the dumping ground for every social problem that no one wants to deal with… We are not equipped or trained to be mental health professionals, yet none of them want to jump into the fray… I don’t think there is a police department in the country that wouldn’t give up a portion of their budget to the mental health workers if they would handle those calls.”
Having trained mental health counselors interacting with citizens instead of untrained police is a first step. Another step would be tackling homelessness. Ordinances that criminalize sleeping outside, panhandling, and urinating outside effectively make homelessness itself a crime, a fast-growing trend across the nation at a time when many cities face a severe affordable housing shortage. Research shows that it costs approximately $60,000 to arrest and jail the homeless- it’s far cheaper to simply house them. Indeed, a number of European nations, and some cities here in the U.S., have seen a radical reduction in the amount of long-term homeless folks by setting them up in safe, comfortable, low-income housing. It’s much easier to get a job, and therefore contribute back to society, when you have an address and a shower before the interview…. Additionally, formerly incarcerated people are ten times more likely to end up homeless than the general population, so arresting them for being homeless, and eventually releasing them, just creates a rotating door paid for financially by city budgets, and morally by society as a whole.
In essence, we have increasingly criminalized activities over the years which has led to a bloated police budget. When more things are “crimes”, we end up with more criminals, and more money being spent on enforcement instead of prevention. We now need a concomitant decriminalization of certain activities. Mental illness used to be seen as a condition to be treated, but as the mentally ill increasingly encounter (often untrained) police officers, their prospects for treatment are overwhelmed by the likelihood of arrest. Similarly, the homeless have been viewed at times as people down on their luck and deserving of assistance, but this has changed as their numbers have grown and budgets to assist have shrunk. And drug addiction, largely seen as a health issue, not a criminal issue, until the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act, has resulted in police encounters that often end in violence.
So, this is what “defund the police” means to me. Hiring and training people to handle scenarios that are outside the expertise of the police, in the long run making the job of the police less stressful and less fraught with violent confrontations. And at the same time, channeling citizens into support systems that benefit them individually (less private troubles), while simultaneously altering social structures (impacting public issues).
Where would the money come from? Well, in most cities, like here in Jacksonville, the police are the largest city expense, so much of it would come from reallocation. According to former United States Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, last year Americans spent $107 billion more on police than on public housing. And America is now spending more money on prisons than on public schools. Fifteen states now spend $27,000 more per prisoner than they do per student.
Millions of dollars have also been spent on the militarization of police- tanks, drones, etc. While possibly counterintuitive to some, extant data actually show militarized police forces fail to protect the police or reduce crime and are more likely to be employed in predominately African American communities (https://www.pnas.org/content/115/37/9181). Funds associated with the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which supplies local municipalities with military grade weapons, should be used to help fund these other social programs.
I think it is important to note that “defunding the police” ultimately just means reallocating monies from the police budget to social services, not completely erasing police forces across the country. (Although there might be some police departments that DO need to be disassembled and reassembled in a more humane, less vicious form.) The title, “police” can remain, but there needs to be a radical transformation of their duties and responsibilities. Some current officers would be retained, many could be re-trained, and still others would be dismissed. This would entail a shifting of jobs, not an overall reduction of jobs.
A potential hurdle will be convincing mayors and governors, who often compete against their election challengers to see who can be the toughest on crime, that this defunding of the police will actually make their constituency safer. It will be a hard sell for some, and we live in a political climate where candidates are vilified if they seem “soft” (the term “pantywaist liberal” comes to mind here), but hopefully reason will win out. Talking about rational actors in the political sphere these days does seem sadly idealistic, but hopefully citizens can push for change from current policy makers and elect change if and when that fails.
The call to “defund the police” has moved a once unthinkable possibility into mainstream discourse in the U.S. Whether this leads to substantial structural change remains to be seen, but if nothing else, it signifies that the days of rallying around tepid platitudes such as “unity” and “respect” may be nearing their end.