Defund the Police? Why Not?

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

Joel Bleifuss

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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