What We’re Talking About When We Say ‘Defund the Police’

Much hay has been made, and much squid ink spritzed, about the overnight sensation overtaking the nation. That’s right. I’m talking about Defunding the Police!

[Cue scary music. ‘Who will protect us?’ a voice asks. ‘Who’ll keep the murderers and gang members away?’ The lights begin flickering. The music crescendoes. The killer’s right behind you! Aiiiggghhh!]

Okay, having got that out of the way… Defunding the police is not, as some mongers of fear might try and convince you, the same as disbanding the police. What it is, is a recognition that the vast majority of problems we have gotten in the habit, as a society, of  sending police to solve are actually best handled by someone other than armed agents of the government, authorized and — all too often — primed to solve problems with deadly violence.

Take a moment, if you will, and think about how rarely police need their weapons. How little of the work they do involves a firearm or even a taser. Even when a crime has been committed, most of the time the officer is just there to fill out paperwork. That doesn’t need a gun. Neither does handing out speeding tickets, or de-escalating a domestic violence complaint, or doing a wellness check on a mentally ill person, or responding to Karen, who saw a black person birding or barbecuing or having a birthday party.

In the last few decades, we’ve cut social services to the bone. Between recessions and the perennial popularity of tax cuts, we’ve let more and more people slip through the cracks. Crime doesn’t arise from some weird innate criminality — most people don’t just want to watch the world burn. But people who aren’t getting what they need from the richest society in human history are going to act out. They’re going to take drugs and fuck shit up and hurt themselves and others, because of course they are.

Meanwhile, for all the services cut, the police just get more and more and more money. Some places, the police department is half the city budget. Never mind civil asset forfeiture, where they can literally take your stuff and your money whether they charge you or not, and you have to sue them to get it back. Or the Pentagon program that funnels surplus military equipment — designed and built for urban warfare and population suppression thanks to our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq — to local police departments on the cheap. Between the equipment and the steady stream of service members joining up after their tour’s up, the culture has transformed to that of an occupying force, one made sinister by the systematic infiltration of racists and white supremacists in addition to the sort of person attracted to the kind of job where you get to kill people sometimes. And it’s safe and easy for them to do so. Thanks to a couple of Supreme Court decisions in the ’80s, all an officer must do is speak the magic words ‘I feared for my life’ and accountability more or less disappears. Add to that ‘qualified immunity’, and you can’t even sue them for killing your son or husband or father or brother or sister or mother or child.

For decades now, politicians have uttered their own magic words. Law and order. Say them enough, you can justify cutting all the social programs you want in order to funnel more money to police. Police who we then send to solve every problem those social programs could address so much better than armed intervention once things have gotten bad enough to come to a head. Even the best-intentioned cops aren’t trained for it, and don’t have the skills and tools to resolve the situation other than one of two or three ways. If the only tool you’ve got is a gun, every problem starts to look like a target. For some that’s a feature, not a bug.

So, back to those scary words. Defund the police. What do they mean? Well, the short, simple answer is they mean we take a good hard look at the problems we need armed intervention by trained agents to solve, and we only task police with solving those. Since there are so very few instances when manifesting the potential for violence is useful or wanted, the purview — and budget — of the police department shrinks. The money is then reallocated to social and community programs that help meet the needs of citizens and community members before they reach a crisis point. Things like mental health care and housing and food support. In some places, it might make sense to invent new agencies with new missions to take the place of police no longer performing them.

In the end, defunding the police makes communities safer. First by removing the violence committed by police themselves. Second by allocating those resources to helping citizens and community members who need it before they reach crisis. I know it sounds scary — change often is, especially if you’re comfortable with the status quo — but the way we’ve allowed things to evolve isn’t serving any of us well.

Think about it this way, if it helps. How much crime will there be if everyone has what they need, and we all commit to taking care of each other? How many people with security and prospects will join gangs? How many people will reach the tipping point where they can’t help but act out and fuck shit up for everyone around them?

The answer to these questions won’t be zero. Humans gonna human, after all. But the numbers will be lower than what we have now, and we’ll have the additional satisfaction of seeing to it that all of us get what we need so we can live a happy, balanced, productive, and meaningful life. What’s not to love?

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