Margaret Valenti writes on the conversation surrounding the defunding of the police and what that path may look like.
A lot of voices scream out into the world of the current Black Lives Matter protests that sparked global conversations around systemic racism and policing in relation to communities of color around the globe.
Initially, people’s reactions of disgust, shock, confusion, and anger are understandable when they hear the phrase “defund the police”; it is as if someone threatens to rip the rug out from under them, sending them down a dark hole with no end. However, the voices behind calls to defund the police do not want to take away that safety net. Instead, they want to create a new one, one that will work better than the current system in place.
No serious advocate calls for an end to a version of ‘the violent crime response team’, rather people calling for the defunding of the police (Black Lives Matter co-founders Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, Alex S. Vitale, a professor of sociology, the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, and the author of The End of Policing, Mychal Denzel Smith, Black writer, author, advocate, and Type Media Center fellow, and Josie Duffy Rice, a Black journalist, and lawyer, writing about criminal justice and prison systems, among other amazing and influential Black voices in this movement) want a reallocation of resources, a change in what responsibilities the police have within a community, and a change in certain policies and laws that overly police and criminalize impoverished people and communities of color.
Hypothetically, someone has an extraordinary mental health crisis, either causing havoc, concern, or presenting a danger to themselves and/or others. In the imaginations of those behind the calls to defund the police, a “mental health professional” with years of education and experience would respond to these situations instead of the police. Too often, when the police get involved, the person in crisis ends up arrested and imprisoned or on the receiving end of a bullet, another unnecessary death attributed to the police department.
Hypothetically, cops pick up someone who had “one too many” and is a danger to themselves and/or others. In a ‘defund the police’ world, an expert would address this person’s problem and get them the rehab they need rather than throwing that person in prison. The idea of decriminalizing addiction existed years before anyone talked about defunding the police. Some police departments already have understandings with their local Alcoholics Anonymous chapters, volunteers who are themselves recovered addicts that specialize in helping people under these circumstances.
Right now, police clear the streets of homeless people, arresting people with no roof over their heads due to the dire circumstances they find themselves in. Instead of giving money to the police, so they can throw more homeless people in jail, more resources should go to organizations that help people find a safe place to go, get the help they need, and place them on a new path. Across the country, people and organizations are already in place to assist the homeless. So, the police can stop doing that work and be “defunded” for this role, freeing up the funds to be allocated to the organizations and professionals who are better equipped to deal with the societal problem of homelessness.
Right now, there are more police in U.S. schools than there are social workers and psychologists who can better address the roots of the variety of problems many students face. These roots can generally be found in the students’ homes or communities. Pay social workers and psychologists to help mend the problems in these communities across the country, not the police. The police do not have a mandate to help these students find programs and resources to better their daily lives. With police budgets, especially in major cities, often in the hundreds of millions of dollars, no one can argue that the government could not afford such a change.
David Brown, Dallas Police Chief from 2010 until 2016, said it best; “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental-health funding, let the cops handle it. Here in Dallas, we got a loose-dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
One last hypothetical situation to consider; someone robs a store, but not simply for the satisfaction of committing a crime or other illicit activity; it is because they need food or clothes for their family that they cannot afford. These items are necessary for that family’s survival. Once the police correctly identify that individual, they only have one thing left to do, arrest that person. An arrest is the only tool police have when a crime occurs.
“The law is not fair, but it is the law”, is the justification people use in these situations. “Let one man go free, others may follow suit thinking they too can get away with a crime”, is another. A question to consider is why remove the context and criminalize someone who wanted to feed and/or clothe their family? What does anyone gain by incarcerating such a person? To ignore that initial instinct, “that feels wrong”, is to allow an act of desperation out of love to ruin the lives of too many people, a family trying to survive.
That is not to say a police-like force is not necessary for this situation, robberies can be violent. However, the only tools in a cop’s arsenal should not be guns, tasers, and handcuffs. Instead, police-like individuals assess the situation, through a thorough investigation they then determine the intent of the individual who robbed the store, and in this extraordinary circumstance hand them over to those who can provide resources to help the individual and their family get back on their feet. Does that not sound like a more just system? Perhaps not a perfect system, there are still kinks to work out, but a more helpful way of dealing with the problem at hand.
The court system needs reform as well. Too often, the courts in the U.S. fail to dole out justice equally and properly; the well-known cases of Cyntonia Brown, Kalief Browder, and the Central Park Five are just three examples, not stand-alone cases, of a criminal justice system that seems unable to provide justice in too many cases, especially to people of color.
The goal is to keep people from entering the criminal justice system unnecessarily; a system that is often expensive and too often criminalizes impoverished people and communities of color, creating a vicious cycle for many people within these areas. Give the job of handling intent to a police-like force and keep people out of the costly criminal justice system. Again, there are still kinks to work out, but ultimately this proposed solution gives that police-like force more options than simply handcuff, arrest, and imprison. That police-like force has more options, but they still only work within the limited scope of a violent crime response team, not a cure-all for society’s problems.
Those calling “defund the police” still ask for a police-like force that can make judgment calls, that receive years of training to determine when someone deserves to face prison or when any use of force is actually necessary.
A police-like force that has more in their arsenals like the ability to call in a social worker, addiction or mental health professional, or a homeless organization to not only stop the criminal behavior but to solve the systemic issues that caused the problem to begin with.
Police cannot solve every situation, and sometimes make them worse, so they should not involve themselves in every situation. There are others who can solve the situations because they have more of the skills and the experience to, who can work independently of or with a police-like force to improve the lives of those within their communities. The focus of that force should be on solving and preventing violent crimes, maintaining a safe living environment for every community regardless of socio-economic status or the color of their skin.
The police must go through a rebranding, but preventing and solving violent crimes will always be necessary; everyone, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, can agree on that. The role of the police in everyday life and the allocation of resources is where many will disagree, and a lot of that disagreement will depend on an individual’s and a community’s relationship with the police.
What these protests make abundantly clear is that there are jobs the police do not need to have, and that there are ways to reduce crime that does not involve the police. Preventing and addressing violent crimes is hard enough, let other individuals and organizations, necessarily community-based, handle the rest of the load. The outcomes of these rallying cries and protests remain uncertain, but Minneapolis, the city where Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, has nine members of its city council committed to defunding and dismantling their police force since the department “cannot be reformed and will never be held accountable for its actions.”
Police unions, which are immensely powerful, often stand in the way of holding officers accountable for gross misconduct, which is why certain reforms have thus far proven a challenge to implement.
That is why people abandon calls to reform departments and instead focus on reallocating resources away from police and towards experts and organizations that can better address these problems on a systemic level.
The world protesters imagine will be kinder and more forgiving with a violent crime response team still present when warranted. With their reduced number of responsibilities, it makes sense that some of their resources, money, go towards these alternative forms of safety, these experts and community-based organizations. The argument centers around the idea that there are certain places the police and criminal justice does not need to intervene. Instead, work that is already being done in communities around the country can simply expand their roles through more funding or expert handling of situations, rather than cops who receive only six weeks of training. It is a future geared towards community-based systems that tackle multiple systemic issues, such as racism and poverty, and reform communities instead of criminalizing them.
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