Among the many good ideas for changing the tendency of U.S. police to brutalize people and ruin lives, one stands out as the most direct: Having fewer police. We’ve heard much about how politically difficult it can be for elected officials to cut police department budgets. Well, guess what: it just so happens that every city in America is now in the midst of a historic budget crisis. There’s never been an easier time to defund the cops!
There are a host of policy changes that can help make it less likely that citizens will be the subject of abuse from the police. You can impose stricter rules about use of force; you can establish stronger civilian review boards to hold police accountable; you can change provisions in police union contracts that protect bad officers from oversight. All of these things are fine objectives. But nothing will do more to stop police violence than simply giving police departments less money so that there will be fewer police on the streets.
When we have things, they will be used. This is the basic argument against having a gun in your home — statistics show you are more likely to be shot if you have one. If you do not have a gun, you will not shoot yourself with that gun, and nobody else will shoot you with it. Likewise with police. Just as Americans are over-incarcerated, so too are they over-policed. The entire idea that more police equals more public safety has always been a myth, and the protests in the streets of America today are proof of how deadly that myth has been. In fact, there is evidence that less aggressive policing leads to less major crime.
The fact that cutting police department budgets can be a strong net good for social justice is not a new insight. Activists across the country have long recognized this, and many of them are organizing to rein in police budgets right this moment. They are calling to cut police budgets in Philadelphia. They are calling to cut police budgets in Los Angeles. They are calling to cut police budgets in New York City. They are calling to cut police budgets in Chicago. Although there is more serious political momentum now than ever before to reduce police funding — in L.A., it is actually going to happen—it must also be noted that even after many decades of prominent police killings and protests, state and local spending on police has tripled over the past 40 years.
Even in Democratic-controlled cities, modern history has been one of police departments accumulating more funding and power, rather than the opposite. Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran as a police reformer, has found himself transformed into a groveling police apologist six years into the job. The most practical question at hand today is: How do we give these cowed state and local politicians the will to cut police budgets, when they all seem terrified the Big Bad Police Men will be angry with them?
It is important that the most spineless and craven Democratic city leaders in America understand that right now, at this very moment, is, without exaggeration, the easiest time in history for them to cut police budgets. That is true not only because of the thousands of people in the streets of their cities crying out for fundamental change, but also for a much simpler reason: The coronavirus shutdowns, the subsequent freeze of economic activity, and the utter failure of Congress to pass an adequate economic rescue package means that virtually every city and state government in the country is now in the midst of a sudden, unprecedented budget crisis.
An unpredictable national catastrophe and our broken federal government response are forcing cities to cut billions of dollars from their budgets at the very same time that gargantuan citizen protests are demanding the defunding of police. The entire thing is really being set up on a tee here. A child could figure this one out. Even Bill de Blasio could, on a good day.
Cut the police budget to solve the budget crisis. If a mayor is too scared to admit that they are doing it because cops are bad, they can just blame the coronavirus. Problem solved. Everyone wins! City budgets can be balanced, citizens will be at lower risk of having their lives upended by racist policing, and politicians will be able to momentarily wriggle out of a tough spot without having to slash other, legitimately more important city services as deeply as they would have otherwise.
There is something quite satisfying in the idea of jiu-jitsuing Mitch McConnell’s stubborn unwillingness to save state and local governments into a mass defunding of police departments. This is how you use Republican hatred of all public services in service of the public.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.