Words matter. They can unite or divide. “Defund the police,” has become as divisive as “Black lives matter,” but has created divisions that run deeper than the usual left/right political divide. As Republicans use the phrase to motivate their supporters, many moderates find it a step too far. Even some progressives feel compelled to apologize for the phrase and suggest it means something other than what it says. That impulse is understandable in an election year when progressives and moderates both want to defeat President Trump. However, despite the risk of alienating potential allies, progressives should stand firm.
After all, we all should be police abolitionist at heart.
Whether or not we believe it possible in our lifetimes, our goal should be a society without poverty, hunger, homelessness, and drug addiction. A society where sickness is treated, children educated, and potential nurtured. In its current form, the institution we call police would have no place in such a society. To abandon even the pursuit of that greater vision, to accept brute force and incarceration as the tonic for those ills, is nothing less than a rejection of our humanity.
Admittedly, it can be an intellectual and emotional struggle. Many can’t imagine dismantling the institution we have been told our entire lives is all that stands between civilization and chaos. While I can’t speak for every activist seeking to defund the police, let me offer a path, a thought map of sorts, to guide how we can think abolition.
Start here: Too many communities are unsafe. While crime has trended downward nationally over the last 25 years, too many Americans don’t feel safe. (Although arguably, Americans should feel safer than they do.) This is true in rural areas, cities, and everywhere in between.
STEP 1. More police doesn’t equal greater safety. Counterintuitive, but true. Detroit’s crime rate is above the national average, but it has been falling at about the same rate as the rest of the country for the last 20 years. Detroit just started higher. Here is what that drop looks like.
That 2.5% decrease, though small, was accomplished with 50% fewer police officers. Yes, even accounting for Detroit’s population loss. There are significantly fewer officers per 100,000 residents now than in 2002. This phenomenon can be seen nationwide.
That’s right, there is at best a very weak correlation, if not inverse correlation, between the number of law enforcement officers and crime rates. If you’re like me, as you read this you began mentally compiling a list of explanations and that list probably begins with economy/jobs/opportunity. Exactly.
STEP 2. Remember that Communities have finite resources. Corollary: Local governments must budget knowing money for x means less money, or no money, for y. The choices are stark at state and local levels, the sources of most police funding, because deficits aren’t an option for most state and local governments.
STEP 3. With these facts in mind, consider that the safest communities don’t spend most of their budgets on police. Close your eyes and picture a safe place. A little town or city or suburb. Picture the “American ideal.” It can be somewhere on a map or just a place in your dreams. Imagine the schools and parks and business district and neighborhoods and hospitals. Do you see police cars, officers in riot gear, army surplus equipment, or surveillance cameras? If your response is, “of course not, I pictured a safe community,” then you’ve taken the next step and realize that the police are a response to perceived danger, not the source of safety.
STEP 4. If we accept that that police aren’t the sole factor, perhaps not even the primary factor, in public safety, then you can see that police departments consume a disproportionate share of public resources. Stay in your safe place a moment longer. Keep looking around. Those schools, parks, the business districts and neighborhoods have one thing in common – investment. Maybe public, maybe private, maybe both. But somebody somewhere made the decision to spend money on those schools, parks, businesses, and neighborhoods. Now open your eyes and look at the budget of any large city in the U.S. Here in Detroit, 25% or more of the annual general budget has gone to the police department every year since 2002 except 2015.
In 2019, Detroit spent $294 million on police and $9 million on health. You can see the same priorities reflected in the budgets of virtually every major city in America. Money for policing means less money for education, mental health, affordable housing, and drug treatment. Funding these services should be a moral imperative. If that doesn’t move you, consider that good governance means funding institutions that have the greatest impact on public safety and wellness. Law enforcement isn’t an end unto itself. It is simply one part of society’s efforts to improve the well-being of individuals and society as a whole. It shouldn’t dominate our budgets.
STEP 5. Viewing the police as part of a greater societal mission leads to the observation that police departments do too much, often by default. Consider that in most cities, the single largest mental health facility is a jail. How do you think the patients got there? Substance abuse treatment and homeless shelters? Ditto. When did we adopt the policy that an armed person without any training in mental health or substance abuse should be the first responder to incidents rooted in mental health crises and substance abuse? These kinds of police activities are not only a drain on law enforcement resources, they are the among the activities most likely to result in bad outcomes for everyone involved.
Individuals with untreated mental health issues are 16 times more likely to be killed by the police during an encounter.
STEP 6. Of course, the issues with contemporary policing also extend to its core mission. Specifically, the system, regardless of individual officer intent, treats Black and brown bodies badly. George Floyd. Philando Castile. Amadou Diallo. Breonna Taylor. These are some of the names you know. But for every high profile incident there are thousands of violent or simply dehumanizing interactions between police and minorities. Every. Single. Day.
This isn’t just individual officer bias. It is the result of an institutional mindset that sees police as a warrior class apart. A mindset that has made police perjury commonplace. Police culture is also a legacy racism. The police have long been the enforcement arm of a system designed to keep Black people in their place. From emancipation through Jim Crow to the present day, law enforcement has focused on controlling Black bodies in white spaces. Black people, whether children or adults, are seen by police and society as inherently criminal. Dangerous. Even jay walking and homelessness can justify the use of deadly force. Further, modern policing feeds off and reinforces the biases of our judicial system when it comes to stops, searches, arrests, charging, convictions, and sentencing. Even if there were no bad apples, the culture and system impede equitable policing.
STEP 7. Unfortunately, there are bad apples and the system rewards bad behavior and discourages better angels. Derek Chauvin was a bad apple even before he placed his weight on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. What about the officers who stood by for 8 minutes and 46 seconds? We don’t know what they would have done had Chauvin not been on the scene, but we know what they actually did do – nothing. For too long, both active abuse and passive tolerance of that abuse have been accepted by too many. The obstacles to police accountability are well known by now: police unions, qualified immunity, prosecutorial cowardice, police culture. These problems are persistent. Cameras and training haven’t solved them. These aren’t bugs in the system, they are features of the system.
AND HERE WE ARE. Contemporary policing is an expensive, over-used tool that diverts funds from needed social service programs while dehumanizing Black people and reinforcing society’s existing racial biases. All while leaving unaddressed the factors that have the greatest impact on community safety. This is where we are, but we don’t have to stay here.
Modern policing should be nothing more than a holding action until other institutions and solutions can be brought online to address the root causes of the ills that impair public safety. Some of them are familiar, such as mental health and drug abuse treatment, education, and job training. Others, like community based conflict resolution and neighborhood policing, less so. But somewhere along the line, we stopped caring about alternative solutions and stopped funding familiar institutions. We stopped trying to address the root causes of crime and lost track of what provides measurable improvement to public safety.
Regardless of your political posture, I ask that you don’t reject this journey out of hand. Educate yourself about your community’s budget. Take a look at your local police department’s responsibilities. Examine the rules on police transparency and accountability. Police departments have to be part of this discussion, but they shouldn’t lead it. The police can only exercise the power we’ve given them. And right now, we’ve given them too much. Just think back to your safe place. Whether we get there in your lifetime or not, you don’t need to believe in police abolition to want to move towards a society where police aren’t necessary.
Want more info? Abolition Journal has created an accessible study guide on abolition.