Defunding the American Police
As Black Lives Matter protests across the world continue to take place, so do calls to defund the police. News editor, Emily Im, investigates how and why defunding the police would work.
Support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has grown significantly this year and so have calls to ‘Defund the Police’ in the US as thousands of protests against police brutality and systemic racism have taken place following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
Protests erupted after millions watched the horrifying video of Derek Chauvin calmly kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes until he took his last breath. While Chauvin and the other three Minneapolis police officers involved have finally been charged, it’s not enough. America has a long history of police violence that goes all the way back to the days of slavery and their officers are notorious for getting away with it; 99% of killings by police between 2013 and 2019 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime. In 2019 alone, 1098 people were reportedly killed by police and 24% of those deaths were black people, a disproportionate amount considering they only make up 13% of the population. A number of killings were not in response to violent crime and in some cases—the deadly shooting of Philando Castile and Tamir Rice comes to mind—crime isn’t committed at all. What’s devastating is knowing that the use of police force is the sixth leading cause of death for young black men in America. For comparison, in the last 10 years, 163 people have died in police custody in England and Wales.
Thus, it is impossible to deny that police brutality is a problem in America. With dozens of new videos emerging online showing police shoving, macing, pepper spraying and using tasers against BLM protesters as well as tear-gassing them unprovoked and misusing rubber bullets, the suggestion that there are only a few bad apples is hard to believe.
While it is easy to dismiss calls to ‘Defund the Police’ as radical and dangerous, it is an option worth considering once you understand what it means
While it is easy to dismiss calls to ‘Defund the Police’ as radical and dangerous, it is an option worth considering once you understand what it means and why people want defunding to happen. Advocates of defunding have said that past attempts to reform the police have been unsuccessful. Previously, police fired for serious misconduct have been rehired, the NYPD had already banned chokeholds when Eric Garner died from being held in one and according to documents looked at by TIME, several reforms aimed at reducing police violence were recommended to the Minneapolis Police Department over the last two decades but they had little impact.
This doesn’t mean that reform should no longer be pursued. While activists have criticised the #8Can’tWait initiative, their key policies for reform, which campaigners claim will reduce the use of police force by 72%, aren’t the problem—the lack of effective implementation with a positive outcome is.
Therefore, with reform seemingly a distant dream, activists have been proposing the following alternative for years: use the money that would normally go to the police (currently $115 billion) to fund community programs that directly tackle the causes of crime, as well as invest in affordable housing, education, employment and social services that are much better at dealing with individuals who have, for example, mental health or drug addiction issues. A smaller police force will still exist alongside these services but it will be restructured—imagine knocking down a block of flats and rebuilding from the ground up—limit use-of-force, know how to deescalate and be far more accountable. The police won’t necessarily be the first point of contact anymore either, depending on the problem.
After all, criminal justice experts say the police are not equipped with the skills to handle every social situation in an appropriate manner, “such as moving on homeless people, domestic verbal disputes and child disciplinary problems in schools”. In fact, none of these things truly require police involvement and too often, policing fails to target the root of these issues. Consequently, if there are people other than police who can be called for help, there may be fewer traumatic and potentially fatal confrontations. Lives could be saved.
If there are people other than police who can be called for help, there may be fewer traumatic and potentially fatal confrontations.
Some politicians have, of course, spoken out against defunding the police, including President Trump—no surprise there—and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, both of whom prefer reform on some level. Realistically, it is unlikely that the US police will be defunded on a national scale or to the point of abolition. However, a few cities are taking notice of the idea. The mayor of LA said $150 million would be cut from the police budget, New York council members have proposed a $1 billion divestment of the NYPD and the Minneapolis City Council announced on 7th June that they would be dissolving the city’s police department and creating a community-based system. Although they haven’t gone into detail about what that system would be like, council member Steve Fletcher shared a few ideas via an op-ed for TIME. Lisa Bender, Minneapolis city council president, also said, “Our commitment is to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keeps us safe.”
Defunding the police and redirecting money is one part of a long-term solution and it is not an overnight process, if the process happens at all. There will always be some form of law enforcement in the US. However, Americans are losing faith in their police and two-thirds of black Americans do not trust the police to treat them equally. If cities like Minneapolis are committed to creating a new system that is both non-violent and anti-racist, it must be genuinely different to the one that currently stands and not just give the illusion that it is better. For there to be any meaningful structural change, those in law enforcement must be willing to change. America has work to do.