With recent protests surrounding the death of George Floyd and calls to defund the police, I have been carefully collecting my thoughts on how to contribute to the conversation.
As a course instructor in Sociology at Eastern Michigan University, I covered race relations several times in my courses on conflict and violence in society.
The discussions we had about race were always productive and in-depth, given the diversity of students in these classes, spanning the political spectrum. There were a significant number of students of color, and many students were also preparing for a career in the military or law enforcement.
Over the last few weeks, I didn’t quite have the right words for an article on the recent events. I wanted to avoid writing an article as an obligatory political-style gesture for the purpose of virtue-signaling.
I’ve been listening, following recent developments, and finally came to a point where I’m inspired to meaningfully contribute to the discussion.
Given my background instructing criminology courses on violence and conflict and my current focus on mental health, I’ve been inspired by recent calls for police reform. These calls for reform go by the popular slogan, “defund the police.”
What does it mean to defund the police?
When I first heard the slogan, I was skeptical. I initially thought they were calling for the government to stop funding the police, effectively abolishing the public policing system, turning it into a privately run service.
This sounded like a pretty outlandish idea since such a radical move would result in a significant risk to public safety and far worse social inequality.
Without a public policing system, the wealthy would buy private security, and those without means would need to turn to gangs and vigilante justice. Private prisons in the US are a prime example of how privatizing criminal matters is a bad idea. See more on that issue here.
Although the word “defund” typically means “to prevent from continuing to receive funds,” the current slogan does not generally refer to this definition. So, what does “defund the police” mean in the current context?
Defunding the police means cutting government funding to policing and reallocating these funds to preventative measures in addition to funding social workers, crisis intervention staff, and addiction counselors, to take over mental health responsibilities.
Defunding the police does not mean simply making cuts. It means reinvesting in mental health and other programs to address poverty and reduce social inequality.
The goal is to remove aspects of policing that are ineffective and reallocate the funding where it can better serve the health and safety of the community.
How defunding the police addresses systemic racism
There are many layers involved in this discussion: race relations, class relations, policing practices, and mental health. Since they are intertwined, the call to “defund the police” must be viewed from a holistic perspective.
Put simply, the history of race relations in America resulted in disproportionate poverty among People of Color. Along with this came biased policing practices and deviant subcultures within these communities to cope with poverty and distrust of authorities. These biased policing practices perpetuate generational and racialized trauma, negatively affecting mental health.
It is important to note that systemic racism does not necessarily mean any particular individual is overtly prejudice. It means the system as a whole unconsciously produces unfair outcomes for specific groups.
Throughout America’s history, police departments have generally neglected poor black communities when it comes to homicides and have taken a heavy-handed approach when it comes to petty crimes. This resulted in unnecessary violence and disproportionate wrongful police killings in these communities.
In a 2016 study on Deaths Due to Use of Lethal Force by Law Enforcement, the researchers found the victims were:
“…disproportionately Black (32%) with a fatality rate 2.8 times higher among Blacks than Whites. Most victims were reported to be armed (83%); however, Black victims were more likely to be unarmed (14.8%) than White (9.4%) or Hispanic (5.8%) victims.”
Another 2016 study titled An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force, analyzed data from the Houston Police Department, controlling for aggravating and mitigating circumstances that might affect police interactions. The study found:
“On non-lethal uses of force, there are racial differences – sometimes quite large… even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made, Blacks are 21.2% more likely to endure some form of force in an interaction.”
Although this particular study was unable to find a difference in rates of police-involved shootings, the disproportionate non-lethal uses of force are concerning.
It is important to remember that officer-involved shootings are not the only lethal form of force. In the case of George Floyd, no weapons were required for a fatal interaction.
This is not only an American issue. In Toronto, the data shows that in more than a third of deadly police encounters, the victims are Black (36.5%). This is particularly disproportionate since Black people only composed 8.3% of the population in Toronto between 2000 and 2017.
Also, data shows 70.3% of all victims of deadly police encounters suffered from a mental health or substance abuse problem.
The recent death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black Toronto woman, following a mental health call to police, highlights the need for police reform. The circumstances are currently under investigation, and even if racial factors are not involved in this particular case, having specially trained mental health personnel would be a more effective use of resources.
Police are the designated first-responders to mental health crises, being called to enact skills that go beyond the bulk of their training. Although training does exist, and many officers are skillful at de-escalation, the social service sector is better suited to the task thanks to their extensive education and training in this specific area.
Consider this data on police training from a report by the Police Executive Research Forum:
This data shows how in the US, recruits receive as much training on de-escalation as they do on how to use a baton, which is very little in comparison to other areas.
There has been recently growing interest in police Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs) for mental health calls. Since there is some optimistic preliminary research on CITs, perhaps integrating the roles of police, social workers, crisis intervention staff, and addiction counselors on these specialized teams may be another way to reinvest funds going forward.
How does defunding the police address systemic racism?
Defunding the police addresses systemic racism by reallocating resources to social workers, crisis intervention staff, and addiction counselors to fill the role of mental health first-responders. This would, in turn, reduce the impact of deadly police encounters that disproportionately affect Black individuals and individuals experiencing mental health crises.
Also, with fewer police-involved killings, mental health in Black communities is improved. A 2018 study in The Lancet analyzed the impact of police killings on the mental health of Black Americans, finding:
“Each additional police killing of an unarmed Black American was associated with 0-14 additional poor mental health days (95% CI 0·07-0·22; p=0·00047) among Black American respondents. The largest effects on mental health occurred in the 1-2 months after exposure…. Mental health impacts were not observed among White respondents and resulted only from police killings of unarmed Black Americans (not unarmed White Americans or armed Black Americans).”
The study concludes programs should be implemented to reduce these kinds of killings to mitigate adverse mental health in these vulnerable communities.
Beyond police killings, perceived racism is comparable to other forms of trauma. A report published by the American Psychological Association summarizes the results of a 2012 study on Perceived Racism and Mental Health Among Black American Adults, stating:
“Black Americans’ psychological responses to racism are very similar to common responses to trauma, such as somatization, which is psychological distress expressed as physical pain; interpersonal sensitivity; and anxiety, according to the study. Individuals who said they experienced more and very stressful racism were more likely to report mental distress…”
These findings are especially relevant, given recent events, in addition to the escalating racial tensions in America since the study was published.
Calls for police reform are not new, but the most recent call to defund the police goes beyond simple band-aid solutions. These more radical reforms are reimagining the role of police by addressing root causes. It may not address all of the issues, and racially biased individuals will still exist, but it is a strong start.
To use a metaphor, if your sink keeps overflowing, are you going to mop up the floor indefinitely? Or are you going to try turning off the tap?
Police are like the mops of society, cleaning up the water overflowing from the sink. Instead of putting most of our resources toward cleaning up the mess, we should start to consider better ways to turn off the tap.
When it comes to defunding the police, the purpose is not to simply use fewer mops; the goal is to use the mops more efficiently, in addition to addressing root causes. This is where education and social programs come in.
Toronto Police Chief, Mark Saunders, affirms this perspective after his recent announcement that he will be stepping down on July 31st. He states:
“I see a lot of young Black boys getting killed by young Black boys. Law enforcement deals with those symptoms and I want to help with the cure for the disease…”
We may never be able to solve every social issue, but chipping away at these root causes can result in long-term social and economic stability, reducing crime and creating safer, happier communities.
Since the shift away from community policing toward a more militarized approach, police reform has been much needed, as the consequences are becoming hard to ignore. A popular comment by Calabash4 under this YouTube video demonstrates how even police in the US Marines are not as militarized as the civilian police:
“I was an MP in the Marines and it shocks me how policing in the civilian sector, is more militaristic than it was for me as an actual military policeman. We were taught that we were protecting our brother and sister Marines and their families. We had a “police your neighbor” approach whereas civilian police are trained with an “us against them” mentality, and have been give ordinance and taught tactics used by actual occupying forces.”
This “us against them” mentality is most robust in the most impoverished areas where the criminological Broken Window Theory has been misapplied under zero-tolerance policing and stop-and-frisk policies.
Broken Window Theory suggests creating a sense of order through frequently policing minor offenses changes the culture of an area, preventing more serious crimes. The evidence suggests that this theory did not translate into effective practice. Research on this form of policing in New York City found:
“…NYPD’s aggressive law enforcement since the 1980s has added to race/ethnicity and class tensions in NYC.”
Simply defunding the police might sound like an easy fix to decades of much-needed police reform, but there are also risks.
How many resources should be reallocated? Which areas should be cut? Will public safety be affected during the transition?
The risks of defunding the police
There are significant risks involved in defunding the police. The most immediate and apparent concerns are job loss and stretching existing officers too thin, resulting in burnout.
Transitioning to a new model of policing needs careful consideration, since an abrupt shift in funding without a plan could result in risks to public safety, especially for the most vulnerable communities.
In the book, Ghettocide, Jill Leovy tells a compelling story of how the LAPD neglected murder investigations in poor, Black areas, resulting in significant risks to these communities where violent crime ran rampant. She writes:
“This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”
This book demonstrates how “…gangs are a consequence of lawlessness, not a cause.” In neglected poor Black areas around LA throughout the ’80s and ’90s, gangs developed as an alternative form of security and commerce. She offers the following thought experiment to illustrate this situation:
“Take a bunch of teenage boys from the whitest, safest suburb in America and plunk them down in a place where their friends are murdered and they are constantly attacked and threatened. Signal that no one cares, and fail to solve murders. Limit their options for escape. Then see what happens.”
Leovy likens the criminal justice system to a “schoolyard bully”:
“It harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of Black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”
This nuanced view suggests structural racism is the result of over-policing minor infractions and under-policing homicide in these poor Black areas.
A recent popular tweet illustrates this tendency toward racialized over-policing:
“George Floyd died accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill. Remember when Brock Turner ACTUALLY raped an unconscious girl behind a dumpster, got 6 months of jail but only served 3 months bc of his “good behavior”? Yeah. White privilege is real.”
When considering defunding the police, it is essential to make sure resources are not taken away from homicide investigation in communities that are the most vulnerable.
A report by Harvard Economist Roland Fryer argues Good Policing Saves Black Lives. The key is to allocate resources to forms of policing that are the most effective while defunding areas that are the least effective.
A 2017 study on policing in New York in 2014 and 2015 analyzed the NYPD’s step back from proactive policing. Instead of going out to look for crime and stopping individuals for minor offenses, the department primarily waited for calls before responding.
Interestingly, this step back did not lead to increased crime rates, as one might expect. Instead, the 2017 study found:
“…civilian complaints of major crimes (such as burglary, felony assault and grand larceny) decreased during and shortly after sharp reductions in proactive policing.”
Although correlation does not equal causation, and this is only focused on one department over a brief period, the results are worth considering.
This move by the NYPD is the exact opposite of the case previously described in Ghettocide. In those poor Black areas plagued by gang violence, the police were harsh on petty crimes but unresponsive to major ones. The step back from proactive policing in New York stopped actively seeking out petty crimes and instead responded more readily to major ones.
Simply reducing police capacity altogether could result in increased gang activity in the most vulnerable areas to fill the void in social regulation. To reduce the risk of constraining police capacity to respond to violent crimes, it is crucial to consider only cutting specific forms of policing.
Since most crime is concentrated in a small number of hotspots, resources could be allocated in a targeted way, taking direction from the “law of crime concentration.”
Criminologist, David Weisburd, suggests “hot spots policing” is the most effective use of resources since 50% of crime occurs in 4% of street segments, with 25% of crime occurring in less than 1.5% of street segments. Reallocating resources accordingly could reduce the risks involved in defunding.
Is defunding the police a good idea?
Defunding the police may be a good idea if resources are effectively reallocated to preventative measures and mental health first-responders. Defunding the police may also come with risks to public safety if funds are not sufficiently reallocated.
We are in the midst of a unique moment where long-needed police reforms are actively being considered. With Minneapolis council members vowing to disband its police, the political motivation to go beyond band-aid solutions finally exists.
Although the words “defund” and “disband” are powerful, they can also be misleading. The general call for defunding refers to budget cuts for police departments and reinvestment in communities, not blanket abolition of all forms of policing activity.
Disbanding a police department is nothing new. In Camden, New Jersey, in 2012, the entire police force was laid off and reformed with a new mission toward community policing. The culture of that department was radically transformed. Since then, there has been a steady drop in crime and increased public trust in the police.
Here is a powerful short documentary on the story of Camden, New Jersey: Camden’s Turn: a story of police reform in progress.
I am optimistic that the recent protests have sparked real change, many of which are already being deliberated by city councils. Although these are challenging times, there is hope. The “defund the police” movement gives policymakers a specific, actionable goal: more effectively allocating policing budgets.
We must then carefully consider how to reinvest the funds to build healthier communities, increasing mental health first-responder capabilities, and supporting community policing initiatives to rebuild public trust.
Adjusting budgets will not solve everything, but it is a start. It forces departments to take a look at the research on what works, evaluate what is not working, and reallocate resources to best serve the goal of public safety.