This article was updated on November 16, 2020
Author’s Note: My intent in this article is to address one proposal for police reform – defunding the police. This idea has gained some traction among protestors and politicians. This article represents what I see as the problems and the advantages of the idea of defunding the police. Across the U.S. and in many other cities around the world, people are gathering in protest of violent interactions between police and African-Americans. I do not intend this article to defend or attack those interactions.
In the wake of the deaths at police hands of Breonna Taylor1 in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis, there have been numerous calls for ‘defunding the police’. Protests2 over the deaths continue in many cities. Perceived foot-dragging on the part of the police department to hold officers accountable have heightened calls for defunding. But what does that mean?
Defunding as an Extreme ‘Answer’
In its most raw and extreme form, some people take the idea of defunding to mean the complete elimination of police. The city of Minneapolis, in an extreme reaction to the tragic events in their city, has moved to do exactly that. (Note: A city commission blocked efforts to eliminate the police department. But the city council cut more than $1 million from the police budget. About 1/5 of the officers working in the spring have retired or otherwise left the department. Crime has risen rapidly, with 50% more homicides in the city as of mid-November than occurred in all of 2019. On November 14, the city council voted 7-6 to approve $500,000 to allow hiring officers from other jurisdictions. These officers would supplement the dwindling Minneapolis police force.)
That approach is exactly what Greek historian Thucydides wrote about nearly 2500 years ago:
‘Men too often, in their revenge, set the example of doing away with those general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity.’
Thucydides, 426 B.C.
Some people have expressed the illogical conclusion that total elimination of police would mean that crime would disappear. History has not shown that to be the case. Society unchecked is anarchy.
There will always be those who make it their business to prey on others. Society demands that government provide a barrier to such harmful activity. Yet a smaller force of ‘warriors’ might very well accomplish this, if we were to free the police from the expectation that they provide solutions for every societal problem.
Of Whom Much is Asked
This means that we need a specific direction of police reform. We can accomplish this, but it will take a heretofore unachieved level of commitment from many specialized groups.
The place to start is to address the police as a ‘catch-all’ agency for jobs no one else wants to do. Political leaders often give police responsibilities for which they are ill-trained and ill-prepared. Quite often, these tasks are completely outside the basic mission of the police – maintenance of law and order. And too often, someone else’s convenience drives the decision to assign these tasks to police.
Police officers have known this for decades. But politicians, looking for quick fixes with minimal impact on potential political supporters, look to the police as a ready dumping ground. After all, many societal problems which have nothing to do with crime or order maintenance occur at odd hours – evenings, weekends, late at night.
Let the Police Handle It
The political answer, all too often, becomes, “why ask a ‘professional’ to give up their evenings, nights, or weekends to deal with a societal problem, even if it is completely within their realm. The police are already out there. Let them handle it.”
- Someone with mental health issues is creating a minor disturbance on Sunday morning. Let the police handle it. A mental health professional will ‘get back to them’ between 9:00 and 5:00 on Monday.
- A married couple are fighting at 3:00 AM, causing a disturbance heard by neighbors. Call a marriage counselor to help them work out their problems? No, let the police handle it. Tell the couple to make an appointment with a counselor at his/her office sometime next week.
Even those providing government services default to the police when it’s not convenient for them to do their job.
- A deer has ventured into the city and has become entangled in debris in an alley. Call out animal control? No, let the police handle it. Secure the animal as best they can. Leave a message for animal control to respond after they come to work at 8:00 AM.
In addressing this issue, Christy E. Lopez, a legal scholar at Georgetown Law who investigated police misconduct as an attorney for the Obama administration’s Justice Department, said this. “The spectrum of skill sets we are currently asking police to embody is simply not realistic. It’s not realistic to ask any profession to do that much.”
Tools and Training
A significant problem with the ‘let the police handle it’ approach is that police work with only have a defined set of tools. Policing, at its core, is maintenance of order. When that order is disturbed – through the commission of a crime or other violation of societal rules – the police have specific tools to address the issue. Those tools are instruments of force – guns, mace, Tasers; and instruments of restraint – handcuffs and jail cells.
And the core of police training prepares them for ‘worst-case’ scenarios. Police can’t ignore those cases. But they comprise a small part of the demands on police in modern society.
“Cops are very equipped to be the hammer and enforce the law,” says Arthur Rizer. Rizer is a former police officer and 21-year veteran of the US Army. He heads the criminal justice program at the center-right R Street Institute. “They know how to use those tools forcefully and effectively; for everything else, they are lacking. Of course, that’s going to end badly.”
In a more rational approach, many cities are beginning to look at exactly what their police departments are asked to do. And they are coming to the very real conclusion: It makes far more sense to ‘defund’ those areas where police are being required to take on tasks which are not part of their basic mission – tasks better handled by someone else.
Eliminate those responsibilities and move funding from the police department which has supported those efforts. Instead, take the money ‘defunded’ from the police department and put it toward having those with requisite expertise actually providing service when it is needed, day or night.
But there is another side to that equation. The responsibility for handling such issues must be truly and completely removed from the police. It’s not enough to take away funding in the name of ‘police reform’ and then continue to demand that police be the de facto fall back providers for social services. Fully providing many social services is not a nine-to-five job. Those who have pledged to provide those services must step up and be full-service providers.
It’s not enough to talk about ‘defunding’ non-police tasks from the police department. We also need to look critically at how we train police officers.
A 2016 national study of the training of 135,000 recruits across 664 local police academies, was quoted by Roge Karma in his July 2020 article “We train police to be warriors — and then send them out to be social workers.” That study found that, on average, officers each received 168 hours of training in firearm skills, self-defense, and use of force out of 840 total hours.
Another 42 hours highlighted criminal investigations. 38 hours focused on operating an emergency vehicle, 86 on legal education aimed primarily at force amendment law, and hundreds more on basic operations and self-improvement. Topics like domestic violence (13 hours), mental illness (10 hours), and mediation and conflict management (9 hours) received a fraction of trainee time.
There will always be a need for police to be proficient in handling violent criminals. Police encounters with violent crime are rare in the overall demands of the job. But when it comes, it must be addressed quickly and decisively. “Let’s talk about this” rarely works when an armed robber is pointing a gun at the officer or a victim.
But the fact is that a majority of police-citizen interactions occur in traffic stops or with citizens as victims. In those instances, police need resolution management skills far more than proficiency with a firearm or physical defensive tactics.
Yet current police training does not place an emphasis on these skills. That needs to change.
There is an obvious need for police agencies to change to address the issues of the 21st century. But dissolving police departments is not the answer.
Police, politicians and citizens need to work together to bring about reform that returns the police to concentrating on their basic function. That probably means a smaller police department in most cities, with the defunding going to increased responsibility for other agencies.
But the reform must come rationally. Peaceful protests have proven to be a powerful tool in pushing political leadership to action. But violence in the name of protest only reinforces the mantra that the force component of policing is very much needed.
What do we want our future to look like?
- On September 4, 2020, the show New York Times Presents aired a 101 minute documentary of the Breonna Taylor case on the FX network. While there are a few inaccuracies in the story – based on newly released information – overall, I found it very informative. The show will likely be repeated and I would recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about this case.
- In another post, I look at how a variety of factors have impacted protests in 2020, as compared to the civil rights protests of the 1960s.