Defund the Police? Why Not?

We should not confuse public safety with investments in systems of punishment.

Joel Bleifuss July 21, 2020

Protesters clash with police in Chicago on May 30, during a protest against the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by Minneapolis police officers. (Photo by Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Defund the police.” The demand has gained life in wake of the death of George Floyd, who was mur­dered on Memo­r­i­al Day by Derek Chau­vin, a Min­neapo­lis cop with a record of 18 cit­i­zen com­plaints. As pro­test­ers flood­ed city streets to demand jus­tice for Floyd, they added the names of vic­tims of their own local police depart­ments: Bre­on­na Tay­lor in Louisville, Ken­tucky, Eli­jah McClain in Auro­ra, Col­orado, Andres Guarda­do in Gar­de­na, California.

As Chicago has shuttered schools, closed mental health clinics and cut public transportation in poor neighborhoods, the police budget has only grown, surviving as the last vestige of a well-funded government.

Accord­ing to recent polling, 55% of Democ­rats now sup­port defund­ing the police. After years of police reforms and bias-train­ing and body cam­eras — which always seem to be turned off at the key moment — activists’ calls for rad­i­cal change are gain­ing support. 

The reac­tion from some, includ­ing pre­sump­tive Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Joe Biden and run­ner-up Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), has been to cau­tion that defund­ing the police is a step too far. And accord­ing to polls, 64% of all Amer­i­cans agree with them. Matthew Ygle­sias, a founder of Vox, writes that cut­ting police bud­gets makes no sense as evi­dence indi­cates that more police on patrol means few­er vio­lent crimes. Chica­go May­or Lori Light­foot also oppos­es defund­ing the police: What I’ve heard from the peo­ple in neigh­bor­hoods is that they want more police pro­tec­tion, not less.”

Take Chica­go. Dur­ing the large­ly peace­ful protests that fol­lowed George Floyd’s mur­der, there was oppor­tunis­tic loot­ing. Along with the big box stores, Black-owned busi­ness­es in the large­ly Black South and West Sides of Chica­go were hit hard. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, Chica­go expe­ri­enced a spike in homi­cides. Over this past Father’s Day week­end 104 Chicagoans, most­ly in Black or Lati­no neigh­bor­hoods, were shot, 15 of them (includ­ing five chil­dren) fatal­ly. Against that back­drop, it’s under­stand­able that peo­ple in afflict­ed com­mu­ni­ties say they want more police on the beat, though they may not like them.

Accord­ing to a May 2019 poll by Gallup and the Cen­ter for Advanc­ing Oppor­tu­ni­ty, 68% of res­i­dents in Chicago’s low-income com­mu­ni­ties want­ed the police to spend more time in their neigh­bor­hood. At the same time, 59% say they know some” or a lot” of peo­ple treat­ed unfair­ly by police, and 60% said that most peo­ple in their neigh­bor­hood had a neg­a­tive view of police. But maybe the inter­est in more police reflects a desire for any type of city invest­ment and atten­tion after decades of neglect. As Chica­go has shut­tered schools, closed men­tal health clin­ics and cut pub­lic trans­porta­tion in poor neigh­bor­hoods, the police bud­get has only grown, sur­viv­ing as the last ves­tige of a well-fund­ed government.

This year Chica­go has bud­get­ed $1.8 bil­lion (about 40% of the city’s total oper­a­tions bud­get) for its 13,000-member police force, the sec­ond largest in the nation. That works out to about $5 mil­lion per day. What do the police in Chica­go accom­plish with $5 mil­lion a day? They don’t help con­vict many peo­ple of mur­der, espe­cial­ly if the vic­tim is Black. Accord­ing to WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affil­i­ate, police solved 47% of the cas­es if the vic­tim in white and 22% if Black. Police rarely inter­rupt and pre­vent crimes, and less than 25% of report­ed crimes result in an arrest. The Wash­ing­ton Post reports that, over the past 60 years, there is no cor­re­la­tion nation­al­ly between police depart­ment spend­ing and crime rates.

Chicago’s finest, how­ev­er, do a fine job of arrest­ing the men­tal­ly ill. In 2019, an esti­mat­ed one-third of the 6,000 peo­ple impris­oned in Cook Coun­ty Jail had a diag­nosed men­tal ill­ness. This year Chica­go has bud­get­ed $10.5 mil­lion for com­mu­ni­ty men­tal health ser­vices — about what the city spends in two days on its police. Imag­ine a city where the response to men­tal health crises is treat­ment, rather than incarceration.

Defund­ing the police is about real­lo­cat­ing resources from puni­tive and carcer­al meth­ods and toward the pub­licly fund­ed social sup­ports and ser­vices that guar­an­tee the well-being of all res­i­dents. It’s about undo­ing the neolib­er­al poli­cies that have imposed aus­ter­i­ty upon pub­lic goods and ser­vices, while leav­ing police depart­ments fat and militarized.

In a Chica­go Sun-Times op-ed, Chicago’s six demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist city coun­cil mem­bers wrote:

We can’t keep giv­ing 40% of [city resources] to a sys­tem of pun­ish­ment that does noth­ing to address root prob­lems. … Sub­stance-abuse treat­ment, men­tal health­care and after-school pro­grams all have a clear and sus­tain­able impact on reduc­ing crime. We need to ful­ly fund pub­lic pro­grams that are proven to reduce inequal­i­ty and improve pub­lic safe­ty in ways that polic­ing fun­da­men­tal­ly does not.

An abso­lutist demand to abol­ish the police” may seem cocka­mamie. It did to me for the longest time. But when that rad­i­cal idea aligns with a his­toric moment and is clev­er­ly rebrand­ed as defund the police,” it chal­lenges us to con­front the choic­es we make as a soci­ety about what we’re supporting.

The func­tion of the state is not to mis­ap­pro­pri­ate resources and there­by entrench his­toric dis­par­i­ties and vio­la­tions of human dig­ni­ty. It is to ensure the health and well-being of its citizens.

We should not con­fuse pub­lic safe­ty with invest­ment in police and penal sys­tems, two insti­tu­tions that con­flate the rul­ing class’s self-inter­est­ed preser­va­tion of pow­er with the notion of justice.

We should like­wise acknowl­edge that defund­ing the police, is not the com­plete solu­tion to our deeply entrenched prob­lems. Jus­tice for the rav­ages of racial and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty demand not only hold­ing those in pow­er to account, but that we also cre­ate a struc­ture for eco­nom­ic redress.

The beau­ty of the protests is that they chal­lenge the core val­ues of the sta­tus quo. Defund the police” demands that we choose between a soci­ety that invests in the root caus­es” and one that mobi­lizes para­mil­i­tary and sur­veil­lance forces.

It is not a new idea. Prison abo­li­tion­ists and crim­i­nal jus­tice reform activists like Angela Davis and Mari­ame Kaba have long envi­sioned and advo­cat­ed for a world with­out police, bas­ing their argu­ments in moral and prac­ti­cal rea­son­ing. Their research, writ­ing and argu­ments are now a gift and a guide to the mil­lions of Amer­i­cans who like me are catch­ing on, and up, to them.

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

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