Who's afraid of defunding the police? Here's what it would actually look like

“Defunding” police isn't as scary as Republicans make it sound — and it's not about suddenly firing all the cops

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published June 19, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Demonstrators hold placards saying 'Defund The Police' during the protest. (John Lamparski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Demonstrators hold placards saying 'Defund The Police' during the protest. (John Lamparski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Policing experts reject the fear-mongering by President Donald Trump and other lawmakers who claim that efforts to "defund" the police  would plunge cities into lawlessness and violence.

Trump and Republican lawmakers have particularly seized on the calls to defund police departments from protest groups that have marched for weeks over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, along with years of police violence in general.  

"There won't be dismantling of our police," Trump declared earlier this month. "There's not going to be any disbanding of our police."

Democrats in Congress and presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden have responded by rushing to defend their records and avowing that they don't personally support such efforts amid attacks from the GOP. But experts say the criticism of the defunding movement is completely detached from what activists are actually seeking.

"There's a lot of willful ignorance here and a lot of intentional efforts to undermine this movement because there are people who don't want any of these problems turned over to communities," Alex Vitale, the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and author of "The End of Policing," said in an interview with Salon.

There is no "magic switch where tomorrow there's no police," he said.

Conservative critics tend to think that "policing and authoritarian and punitive interventions are the only thing certain communities will understand," Vitale said. "I think that's always tinged with a certain level of racism.

"There's no city council in the United States that's going to zero out the police budget this year, right?" he continued, arguing that people who insist that might happen "are the ones who are being naive. The people in the movement understand that this is about going to budget hearings, lobbying city council members, writing letters to the newspaper and holding town hall meetings, which is exactly what they've been doing."

The argument at the heart of the "defund the police" movement is that crime and violence are the byproducts of economic conditions, and have nothing to do with the number of cops on the street.

"The safest communities in our country don't have the most police. They have the most resources," Alexis Hoag, the inaugural practitioner-in-residence at the Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights at Columbia Law School, said in an interview with Salon. "They have jobs available where people can actually make a living wage. They have housing that is safe and affordable. They have robust after-school programs and activities for children to keep them occupied. They have mental health care services.

"To provide those sorts of resources would be much better at advancing public safety than having strangers swoop in and patrol with guns," Hoag said. "And this idea that we would have a slippery slope into lawlessness isn't viable. To me, that wouldn't be the natural outcome of funneling funds into social service programs and agencies."

These arguments have drawn complaints from pro-reform lawmakers who say that activists are not being specific enough with their demands, lending ammunition to right-wing critics.

Activists "should be precise in what they're calling for," Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told Salon.

Hoag, who previously served as senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, argued that it was not the "responsibility" of protesters to "come up with those finite measures," but rather to point out that "large-scale change" was necessary. "It can't be, 'Let's institute more anti-bias training. Let's make sure there are body-worn cameras.'"

Vitale said he sees "a tremendous amount of clarity about what people mean — it's just hard to reduce it down to a cardboard protest sign or a hashtag. This is a movement that's been underway on the ground for a long time. What it concretely means is that people are demanding that local governments shift resources from policing into community-identified public safety strategies that people think will be more successful at producing public safety than relying just on armed police."

Lawmakers have sought to institute police reforms for years after controversial police shootings, but data shows that police officers across the country fatally shot as many people last year as they did five years earlier.

"It's not going to be fixed by ridiculous things like implicit bias training," Vitale said. "This idea that the problem is a few officers who have an unconscious, unintentional, sort of passive bias is just ludicrous. We have a problem of explicit racism in American policing. Whenever we look for it, we find it. We have racism in the political decision-making processes in our country in turning every social problem under the sun in poor nonwhite communities over to the police to manage."

Hoag agreed that previous piecemeal reform efforts have failed to respond to the underlying issue of systemic racism.

"The problem with these cosmetic reforms, as I call them, is that they offer solutions to a problem that has not been properly defined," she said. "It's not just the police. It's America [that] equates Black and brown skin with dangerousness and criminality. There's this presumption of danger. So this idea that a police officer encounters a Black body, there's an immediate sense of danger."

Hoag cited Stanford scholar Jennifer Eberhardt's study "Looking Deathworthy," which "found that the more phenotypically black a defendant looked, the darker the skin, the thicker the lips, the broader the nose, the more likely a jury was to sentence them to death."

"This is America," she added. "And until we have a collective reckoning, a collective reconciliation, we're not going to get past this with these narrowly-focused reform measures targeted at police departments."

New reforms proposed by House Democrats and Senate Republicans similarly fail to address those underlying issues.

"There's one or two elements that would be great. I mean, getting rid of no-knock raids, I'm all for that, but that's not going to fix the problem," Vitale said. "It's not going to do anything to address mass homelessness. It's not going to do anything to fix failing schools. It's not going to do anything to get people decent health care coverage. As long as those things remain unaddressed, then the police are going to be called in to manage them."

That's where "defunding" police departments comes in. Crime, particularly violent crime, has fallen dramatically across the United States since the 1990s, even though Americans keep telling pollsters they think it is actually rising. Despite the precipitous decline in violent crime rates, police budgets have continued to increase as a share of public spending. The average large city in America now spends nearly 8% on police compared to 5% on housing and 3% on parks. Cities like Los Angeles spend closer to 10% of their budgets on police. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, that number rises to 20%.

"Not everyone in the defund movement thinks of themselves as an abolitionist," Vitale said. "They're saying, 'We've got very specific things that we think the police are ill-suited to, where we think there are better solutions.' It's certainly true that there are a lot of people in that movement who do think of themselves as abolitionists, but they understand that as a long-term vision that involves a whole set of social changes, not just changes to policing, to create the kind of social situation where we don't need to rely on armed police to produce safety."

Defunding the police, by the way, does not mean abruptly firing police officers on a large scale. It's more a matter of "attrition, cuts to overtime, cutting back on equipment purchases and then dialing back areas of responsibility," Vitale explained. "And this is going to create just as many jobs as the police department loses. But those new jobs, we're going to be actually helping people, not criminalizing them."

In this model, communities would individually decide how to repurpose funds they currently spend on police departments.

"It depends what the specific public safety challenges are that a community faces, and not all communities are the same, Vitale said. "Some have opioid overdose problems, some have youth violence problems, some have domestic violence problems. We're demanding the implementation of evidence-based strategies to address those problems so that we can reduce our reliance on our police.

"Just keep in mind, that in a lot of communities, people refuse to call the police. Even if someone's breaking into their home or sexually assaulting them, they do not call the police. They already do not feel that the police provide safety for them. They're a source of danger for them. These communities are demanding that we actually put something in place that will actually make them safer, in a way that policing just doesn't."

The Minneapolis City Council, which has one of the largest police budgets in the nation as a share of overall spending, has already vowed to "dismantle" its police department in response to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests.

"Minneapolis has started that hard work," Hoag said. "Smaller communities are also taking a look at that. When you've got a smaller-sized city council, it's much easier to operate than it is a federal legislature. So you see these sorts of drastic reforms happening at the local level. We so need a strong voice coming out of the federal government, and I don't know that this administration is capable of providing that."

Beyond the obvious economic ramifications, activists have also raised questions about the role of police in society.

"Police culture is very much defined by police officers being at war with the communities they're charged with offering safety and protection," Hoag said. I see that instead of getting to know people and sort of being a community support, and building trust where community members would call police if they felt their safety was in jeopardy, it becomes this adversarial, confrontational, violent relationship,"

"In talking to my peers, my black peers, my friends, we don't think to call the police when we feel we might be in danger because the police are not beacons of light and safety for black people. I think about Amy Cooper's apology after having called the police on the birder, Christian Cooper. In her explanation, she said something to the effect of, 'I take for granted that I believe police are there to protect me.' White people do believe that, because largely that's what police have been doing. But Black people largely don't believe that police are there to protect them."

Vitale believes that the problem is more systemic, arguing that policing "has always existed to enforce a notion of order that is embodied in legal systems," as well as political and economic processes. The neutral professional enforcement of the drug laws automatically produces race and class inequality in the United States," he said. "Even the neutral enforcement of traffic laws reproduces class and race inequality in the United States, because these laws by their nature fall disproportionately on the already most vulnerable communities in our society. And then there's ,the decision of political leaders to turn the problems of poor nonwhite communities over to the police to manage while wealthier and whiter communities get to solve their problems through access to private health care services, access to high-quality schools. Their kids' outcomes get better precisely because the criminal justice system is not involved.

"Politically, our elected leaders have made the decision to turn certain problems over to the police to manage rather than actually addressing the underlying forces that are producing those problems in the first place," he added. "So it does not require racial animus on the part of individual officers for the outcomes to reproduce racial inequality."

But the history of policing in the United States, largely born out of efforts to capture escaped slaves, is deeply steeped in racial animus, Hoag said. "This concept of police we know it today didn't exist. … it was really private citizens that were deputized to reinforce slavery and had the power to go into people's homes who were believed to be harboring enslaved people, sort of like no-knock warrants now. Following emancipation, that didn't just dissipate. And laws were put in place, despite the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to return black people into a system of ownership and control, which became the criminal legal system."

This trend plays out similarly in the history of other institutions, contributing to the rampant racial income and wealth inequality that pervades every part of the country to this day.

"So many of our institutions in this country are direct descendants of slavery: Our banking system, the way that our cities are laid out, our public education system, so much of it still bears the stain of slavery," Hoag said. "Policing is right in there as an institution — you can draw an unbroken thread between it and slavery. This concept of policing, the verb, and controlling and monitoring the movement of Black bodies, is that direct descendant."

Vitale agreed that although society has changed, the role of police has largely stayed the same.

"Today we have this kind of neoliberal austerity politics whereall the wealth has shifted to high finance and a few corporate headquarters and high tech, and this has produced massive inequality," he said. "It's produced mass homelessness, mass untreated mental health and substance abuse problems, mass economic precarity that's driven people into black markets of drugs and sex work and stolen property. And police put a lid on all that. If you look at what police actually do all day, it's manage those problems. And because we've turned it over to them to manage, there's no political pressure to actually start housing people, providing stable employment, providing universal health care, right? So the police are being used to facilitate a certain kind of political project."

In some ways, the problems have actually gotten worse. The War on Drugs and Washington's anti-crime crusade in the 1980s and '90s has seen mass incarceration grow tenfold in the United States.

"We had the equivalent of about 200,000 people in prison in the United States until about the mid-1970s, where we went from about 250,000 to 2.2 million," Vitale said. "That's not ancient history. That's in the lives of people who are still in political office. Their decision to rapidly intensify criminalization is a recent phenomenon. So it's a current ongoing political project that is contributing to racial inequality in the United States right now.

"The drug war is the most obvious example of this. It was created by the Nixon administration to both attack the African-American community and to signal to white, historically Democratic voters in the South that the Republican party would be the new home for racism. People in the Nixon White House have come forward and said this. It had nothing to do with drugs, nothing to do with public safety, nothing to do with public health. It was a political strategy that the police were enlisted in."

Now the political strategy seems to have changed. Despite widespread pushback from lawmakers on the concept of "defunding" the police, some of the biggest cities in the country are beginning to reallocate funding from their police departments to services that benefit the community.

New York City plans to divert a portion of the police department's $6 billion budget to social services. Los Angeles has moved forward with a proposal to cut $150 million from its police budget. Cities like Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Portland appear poised to follow suit.

Cities are also planning to dispatch social workers and specialists rather than police on certain 911 calls. Lawmakers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Albuquerque, New Mexico, among others, are pushing to send social workers and specialists rather than police to handle 911 calls related to mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness.

But this is only the beginning: Protests across the country are far from over and show no signs of slowing down.

"I'm so heartened that it seems like people have really woken up to the centrality of race in the way that the police operate," Hoag said. "My work at the [NAACP] Legal Defense Fund, sometimes it felt like we were shouting into an abyss because our argument was that it's always about race, and it's not just the criminal legal system. It's health care, it's environmental law, it's housing, it's employment law. For the first time, it seems that the rest of the country has caught up and realized that yes, it's always about race."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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