In the wake of George Floyd's killing, a growing chorus to cut police funding
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Just a few weeks ago, calls to defund police departments circulated primarily among activists. Today, increasing numbers of cities are taking measures to do so, and experts are waiting to see if a similar movement might take hold in Europe and elsewhere.
George Floyd was far from the first black man to die in police custody in the United States, but his death on May 25 under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis was the catalyst that gave life to a movement that, until recently, had currency only among activists. “Very few people took it seriously until yesterday,” Dennis Kenney, professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said. “It was injected into the mainstream by nine city council members in Minneapolis.”
Kenny was referring to a pledge by a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis city council to dismantle the police department and build “a new model of public safety that actually keeps our community safe”, as Council President Lisa Bender said to CNN. That wouldn’t mean not having a police department, Bender said, but would rather entail increasing funding for community-based programs and devise a new approach to public safety and emergency response.
Los Angeles and New York have also said they would move funds away from police and into programs that benefit disenfranchised communities, and officials in Chicago and Durham, North Carolina have expressed support for the idea. Top Democrats, though, including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, are not supporters of the defunding movement, nor are most Republicans.
While some proponents of the defunding movement would like to see a complete abolition of police departments, many others go less far and, like Bender, advocate reducing the budgets of police departments and limiting the roles they play. There is room to cut. In some US cities police are allotted as much as 40 percent of municipal budgets. Defund proponents would like to see a portion of that money directed into programs that would help decrease structural inequities by improving things such as housing, healthcare, education and food availability.
“Let’s think about other ways that we can use that money, not only to promote safety in our black neighbourhoods, but also to deal with a whole attendant range of social problems that have ended up falling on police because there’s no one else to do it,” Ian Loader, professor of criminology at the University of Oxford, said activists are suggesting. Those areas include issues of mental health, addiction and intrusive police relationships with schools. While such problems exist in the UK and Europe, they are exacerbated in the US, where the welfare state is underdeveloped in comparison and there are fewer publicly funded services available.
Supporters of the defund movement would also like to see the role of police curbed and find ways that communities could take on certain responsibilities that police are not necessarily qualified for.
“We have basically come to see the police as one-stop shopping,” Kenny said. “People call the police because they’ll come, and they’ll do something.” But law enforcement is not always well-equipped to handle situations that require de-escalation, such as mental health and domestic violence calls. “Police have limited tools to be able to respond,” Kenny said.
Indeed, an analysis by Minneapolis city council members showed that the majority of calls that came into the 911 emergency call centre in that city were for mental health services, health, emergency medical personnel and fire services. And that’s the case in most police departments. Nationally about 10 percent of calls involve dealing with a mentally ill person and roughly 25 percent of those killed by police suffer from mental illness, Kenney said.
“The police are not trained to deal with people who have mental health problems, and therefore you get this terrible situation where the police are operating with the mindset of crime control,” said David Scott, who teaches criminology at the Open University in the UK. “If the police are not only failing to address the needs of the community but are also generating harm for members of those communities… then surely it doesn’t take a big step in the imagination to say let’s not give them the money.”
“Police end up doing what could better be done by someone else,” Loader echoed. “What makes police unique is that they have the capacity to inflict violence on people to temporarily solve problems. No one else can do that, and that’s a dangerous resource for them to have.”
Proponents of defunding the police want to put the power back into the hands of local communities. “The end goal is a much smaller, much more reactive response to community demands; a police force that is there for those moments when intervention in social life is actually required,” Loader said.
Wanting to curb police roles doesn’t mean giving up security. “Even if you take the question of safety very seriously, it doesn’t mean you need the police,” Loader said, adding that in minority and low-income communities the police aren’t seen as keeping people safe but rather regulating and controlling them. People in these communities are looking for a new paradigm. “How can you think about public safety either without the police or without resorting to police first?” Loader said activists are considering.
One of the obstacles to real change may be the very way police departments see themselves and are viewed by different sectors of the public. The idea that police exist to “serve and protect” extends only to certain communities—primarily middle class and affluent white ones, which generally embrace the police. That is not the case in disadvantaged and minority neighborhoods, where police are chiefly engaged in maintaining order and control.
“For those people who have been at the sharp end of the police, those people who have been policed, in effect, there has never been a massive amount of popularity because the police have treated them very badly,” Scott said. “There is this sense that the police perceive themselves as crime fighters… when actually what they’re doing is differentially policing marginalized and impoverished communities to keep them in check.”
“In structurally divided societies, the police do two things: they provide a general sense of order from which everyone benefits and produce a social structure that benefits some more than others,” Loader added. “They are oriented to both control and protection, and the lower down the hierarchy of race or class you get, the more the balance of protection and control starts to shift.”
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