In the past few weeks, America has seen some of the most widespread unrest and protests since the late 1960s following the tragic deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville at the hands of the police.
Since then, police departments up and down the country have started to look like an invading army rather than a force set out to protect their citizens. From firing rubber bullets at journalists and using tear gas to disperse peaceful protests, the police have resorted to using militia-style tactics on the very people they are supposed to protect.
All of this combined with the countless examples of police murdering unarmed Black citizens have intensified calls to defund and disband the police department in many states. But what does this mean?
Defunding the police does not necessarily mean immediately cutting their resources to zero, instead, it would see states gradually put in place budget cuts and move the money into other departments that would help to alleviate crime. It would also mean that social programs such as pension support and Medicare receive more funding. Currently, 18% of America’s output goes towards social services, and the country is quickly falling behind nations such as Germany (31%) and France (25%). More funding in this area would ultimately benefit America’s welfare system. LA mayor Eric Garcetti has already announced that he will cut up to $150 million and redirect some of the funding, which was planned to go towards increasing the police department’s budget, towards youth jobs and health initiatives instead. By decreasing youth unemployment you are decreasing the risk of them committing crimes, and therefore mitigating the need to call the police.
In Minneapolis, the police budget for 2020 stands at $163.2 million, which is around 35.8% of the city’s budget. There is a sense amongst citizens in Minneapolis that this funding has not been used in the right way and it should be pushed into other sectors where it would be more beneficial for their community, such as housing or education. As a result of this public pressure, the Minneapolis City Council has recently pledged to dismantle the local police department. As some police departments seem to be beyond reform, disbanding them and rooting out decades worth of systemic racism in the force is the only option.
That is not to say that police reform is completely impossible. In other parts of the country, there is an argument that cutting the budget in this manner will pave the way for major reforms which are aimed specifically at demilitarising the police. We have already seen senators across both parties, like Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Brian Schatz, come together to end the 1033 program which currently allows police forces to use surplus US military equipment such as armoured vehicles. This has enabled the police departments in Connecticut to receive more than $20 million worth of excess military equipment over the past three decades. If this bipartisan deal does come to fruition, then it would be a major step towards national police reform.
Shifting the focus
Systemic racism does not mean that all cops are racist, rather, it means that the system itself operates in a racist way. Therefore it is the system which needs changing and many believe that disbanding the police and shifting the focus and funding onto other sectors will alleviate some of the systemic racism which they currently face.
Defunding the police would mean a gradual process of reallocating funding, resources and responsibility away from the police department and towards community-led models of safety and support. Many proponents are not fighting to eliminate police departments and destroy their funding, rather, they want to address the institutional problems with policing in America. Doing this would enable states to place a greater emphasis on issues within their society which have been neglected, such as improving their health and education systems. In March this year, the Trump administration made changes in the Rural and Low-Income School Programme’s eligibility criteria. As a result, there have been funding cuts for some of the nation’s poorest schools. Cutting the police budget would allow more funding to be redistributed back into the poorest schools.
It is also worth noting that the police are often tasked with responding to calls where someone is having a mental health crisis or drug overdose, these are areas which they are not sufficiently trained in. Therefore, defunding the police would enable some of the funding to be diverted to other public health services such as mental health counsellors. The Calvin Clark case is an example of police overreach in a mental health crisis. Calvin was a student who suffered from severe Bipolar and anosognosia. After one psychotic episode, the police were called and locked him up in jail for six weeks without any medication or treatment. Incidents like this illustrate that more needs to be done to help America’s mental health systems. Protesters have made the case that mental illness is not an issue for the police force, and thus they should not be the ones who are tasked with dealing with these problems.
There have also been calls for state officials to develop a law enforcement system from the bottom up and to have a more community-focused approach. This can be as simple as employing officers who actually live in the city they police which would be extremely beneficial as it would encourage the cops to get to know the community which they are policing on a more personal level. The long-term benefit of this is that American communities will slowly start to regain faith in their police. There are programmes such as the Community Oriented Policing Service which are aimed at achieving, however, it is clear that this an area which the police departments need to give more focus.
Whilst public safety is an absolute necessity, many Americans feel that the current system in place is not ensuring this. Hence many communities feel that instead of relying on the police to mediate conflicts, they can do that themselves. This has provoked the citizens of certain cities to come together and form their own groups whose aim is to de-escalate any conflicts in the community.
Cure Violence Global is a community-based group of individuals in Chicago who work to reduce violence in their area by using behaviour change methods. Groups like this aim to detect and interrupt violent conflicts, as well as working with community leaders, business owners and residents to further improve the social relations in their city. Projects like this ensure that communities are policed by people who they trust and have a positive relationship with. Consequently, it is becoming more and more popular in some communities who are pushing for greater funding to be put into these initiatives rather than their own police departments.
This notion of disbanding the police is nothing new. In 2012, Camden, New Jersey, which for years was one of America’s most violent cities, made the decision to dissolve its police department in order to “root corruption”. The city completely disbanded the department and reconstituted it, placing a bigger emphasis on training and community relations. Since then, crime in the city has dropped to nearly half of what it was in 2012. Camden officers who go against the department’s use-of-force policy will face severe disciplinary action, which can include termination in some cases. This is much stricter than in the majority of other states, where police unions have made the firing of officers more difficult. There is a hope from citizens in Minneapolis that the success of disbanding the police in Camden can translate itself to their community and that more states will follow suit.
As the country continues to grapple its way through a pandemic and address the societal issues which it has exposed, these protests have illustrated that now is the time to also address the relationship between the police force and American citizens.
After the killing of George Floyd, police reform is clearly a necessity, and how this is achieved will remain a hot topic for the months to come. Whilst many expect COVID-19 to be the main topic which dominates the US election, the cases for defunding and disbanding the police could yet overtake it.