Why “Defunding Police” Makes Sense

The “defund police” demands of protesters does not mean eliminating police departments. Unfortunately, the phrase defund police is misleading Americans into thinking that the goal is to eliminate the police when it actually means restoring police to the concept of “peace officers” – a concept that relieves the burden on police and reduces the potential for police violence.

During the rightward movement of the ’80s and ’90s, conservative politicians like Michigan’s John Engler began to dismantle the social safety net. Mental institutions were closed, releasing thousands of chronically mentally into a community without adequate treatment resources. The net result was a shift of mentally ill people from health care institutions to county jails. Guess who had to arrest and transport them to jails, often times not once but regularly as they were released a few days later? As the epidemic of cocaine and other drug abuse emerged, insurance companies began to limit coverage for treatment. The result was increasing non-violent criminal activity, and guess who took up that burden? As conservatives began to redefine health issues as law enforcement issues, law enforcement budgets began to consume increasing percentages of municipal and state budgets. Police and jails became less law enforcement than social behavior enforcement with no solutions.

Coincident with this shift was the militarization of police, creating a cultural shift from ”peace officer” to one of occupation. The difference between the two is not subtle: militarization means using sudden and overwhelming force to respond to a potential threat instead of de-escalation. Policing in low income and typically minority communities has always been different than in affluent and white communities.

Sociologists argue that the police have always represented the imposition of control over minorities, reinforcing a sense of occupation and oppression. Even if this premise is arguable, the perception of occupation was only reinforced when police used tactical military equipment and vehicles in those communities. The acquisition of this equipment was usually contingent on use – “use it or lose it.” Using an armored personnel carrier or deploying officers in full combat gear is not for the affluent suburbs, and their use in impoverished areas only reinforced the perception of hostile occupation.

All of these ideologically-produced changes created a greater burden on police and a greater disconnect with the communities they “serve and protect.” Police are stressed from being assigned jobs they are ill prepared and even incapable of doing effectively. The “defund” movement is one intended to restore funding to social safety nets making the involvement of police unnecessary in many instances. This would free up the police from social policing to only the essential work of preventing or investigating violent crimes. It is a logical, rational solution to the problem of policing as occupation. The only realistic concern of the defunding movement is will it be enough to change the culture of policing from its current malignancy, or will we have to start from scratch?

Younger officers tend to be more diverse and idealistic, but reducing police forces is constrained by contracts that mean more entrenched racist and violent officers would be the last to go. That would not change the culture. Instead of using the verb “defunding” the movement might be better served with something more like “birthing” a new police.

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