Defund the police: PRO


Jiyon Chatterjee

The role policing plays in upholding systemic racism in the United States has been under close examination following the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two unarmed Black Americans, at the hands of white police officers. Among the most prominent but controversial of the solutions raised by activists is the idea of defunding the police, a concept of divestment from police budgets that has its roots both in activism as well as academia.

A prominent proponent of the idea is Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of the 2017 book “The End of Policing,” who explains that U.S. police departments are tasked with handling a broad sweep of social concerns —from drug abuse to homelessness to mental health. The problem is that police departments themselves are unequipped to manage these issues.

By overfunding the police and neglecting social services, municipal governments shove the responsibility of societal problems onto the shoulders of the police, instead of addressing the problems at their roots. Punitive measures that place drug users behind bars and combat homelessness through legal avenues do not actually solve the problems of drug abuse and homelessness; instead, policing only punishes individuals for these afflictions. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, over 80% of police arrests in the United States were classified as “minor offenses,” dealing with issues including drug possession and public alcohol consumption. Less than 5% of all arrests, for comparison, were due to violent crime. The data demonstrates how law enforcement primarily handles social problems, instead of solely focusing on protecting communities from malevolent criminal intentions.

These arrest patterns are a result of bloated police budgets and starved social funding in cities like New York. According to Vox, the 2020 New York City budget appropriated nearly $6 billion to policing, which was about three times the funding for homeless services, three times the health budget, and about six times larger than youth development and jobs programs put together. 

To be clear, “defunding” does not necessitate the “abolition” of policing. If anything, a targeted reallocation of resources from police budgets towards social services, education, and anti-poverty programs will yield a net surplus for true crime reduction efforts. Not only is this a more comprehensive approach towards crime prevention, but shifting responsibility for societal ills away from policing and towards social services will allow police officers to focus on serious crime.

Has this divest-and-invest model been a success? Other cities and countries around the world can give us an idea. In 2015, the city of Stockholm, Sweden, narrowed the scope of their police department’s responsibilities by creating a mental health ambulance service to respond exclusively to psychological crises without police involvement. Sweden additionally has an extensive welfare state that takes a holistic approach in tackling societal problems. The crisis intervention and social investment strategy has worked. In Sweden, the 2018 data for violent crime reported about 1.06 instances of deadly violence per 100,000 inhabitants, while the U.S. had a rate of about 5.0 incidents per 100,000 people in the same year, according to The Local. 

Furthermore, the divest model can be applied to homelessness, as Finland has demonstrated with its “housing first” program. Rather than locking up homeless individuals who do not comply with mandatory shelter laws (which exist in U.S. cities like Las Vegas), the Finnish government provides the homeless with permanent homes as well as long-term support services that can assist with finding work opportunities and combating addiction. As reported in the Washington Post, homelessness in Finland has dropped by over 42% since the start of the program in 2008 — without any help from law enforcement. 

However, if the goal is to eviscerate racism in the United States, divesting from police budgets is not enough. Efforts have to reform policing practices themselves. Publicly funded municipal policing in America evolved from 18th Century slave patrols, which were designed to keep slaves subjugated and track down runaway slaves. Even now, systemic inequities such as the denial of financial services to Black families, race-based job discrimination, and underfunded public schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods have resulted in higher poverty rates among Black Americans. This means that the current policing system that deals with social issues has disproportionately more run-ins with Black citizens. Defunding the police can help to partially solve this problem by investing in social mobility and assistance.

But there are just as many examples of explicit racial bias in the law enforcement and criminal justice system. The fact that Black Americans are arrested at four times the rate of white Americans for marijuana possession laws, despite both races using the substance at roughly the same rate according to NORML, is enough evidence of race-based disparity in the methodology of police officers. Other notorious examples of biased policing include policies like stop-and-frisk, which attempts to justify racial profiling. 

 This is not to say that the concept of policing itself is racist, but that racism in American policing is a result of its specific history. The militant nature of U.S. policing has far more in common with early American slave patrols than it does with modern-day law enforcement. In countries like the U.K., responsible, nonviolent social policing is emphasized through three-year national policing colleges and standardized use-of-force guidelines, and police officers are held accountable through a National Registry of Dismissed Officers and an independent police complaints commission, as laid out in a Cambridge University report. In contrast, American officers train for as little as 10 weeks and are largely protected from legal action by doctrines like qualified immunity, which prevents victims from suing officers for brutality unless a very narrow scope of rights has been breached.

America needs an integrated approach in combating crime and reducing racism in policing. A smart crime reduction policy includes social development just as much as it includes reforming policing. Partially divesting from police budgets, along with comprehensive police reform, is a first step towards an America where police can truly protect and serve, rather than control and kill.