Defund the Police: The problem with platitudes

The righteous reaction to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has unquestionably aroused the ire of Americans and unleashed the argument for a reckoning based on the inexcusable events where racial inequities have been documented.  It is clear that a wave of change has come to the attention of most Americans who are now more than ever committed to irrevocably eliminating systemic racism.  A byproduct of the protests that have fostered this change in attitude has emerged in a widely proposed call to “Defund the Police” as the key necessary action. Signs carried at protests and activists in interviews cite this action as a response to racism in policing.  This call to action is a misnomer, creating a distraction that may undermine an exceptional opportunity to make significant change in the way police serve and protect our communities and, at the same time,, come to grips with the demonstrable record of racial bias.  This self-inflicted wound starkly reveals the problem with platitudes.

When a complicated and difficult response to a social problem becomes a simplistic platitude, it can create a diversion from the issue at hand, confuse the debate and leave the real prospect for reform at the starting gate.  A catchphrase like “Defund the Police” seems so simple and direct that it must be the right thing to do and by doing so the assumption that is implied is that for some reason defunding the police will reduce systemic racism.  On its surface, this kind of seemingly obvious but oversimplified solution can turn out to worsen this problem, and jeopardize the righteous intentions of officers, rather than solving it. It is just too easy to jump to this conclusion and argue for such an action without contemplating further the severity of this decision. 

There are important reasons for us to reject placing our belief in this particular battle cry.  First and foremost is the fact that systemic racism is not something that is unique to policing. As a nation, we are coming to a widespread appreciation of the reality that racism is pervasive in all elements of our society, from housing to jobs to education to all other aspects of our daily lives.  Like the rest of society, there are people in policing who have racist attitudes. This is understandable, since police are naturally reflective of these types of social ideologies.  Racism is not only ingrained in our social behaviors; it is at the basis of many of our policies that have become law as well.  Police are then called upon to enforce such laws regardless of the inherent marks of inequity embodied in many laws.  Under these circumstances, indiscriminate funding reductions for police agencies will not necesssarily stifle the systemic racism that exists throughout our society.  

Another reason that the logic behind defunding the police fails to hold up is that the call for defunding seems to be somehow related to the inability of the police to deal with social responsibilities, like those involving the mentally ill, addicted persons, domestic disputes and other situations where a trained social worker, working with the police, might bring about a better outcome.  The argument often made is that police are not trained to deliver social services so we should cut their budget and spend the money on social services instead. The flaw in this logic is that police were never funded in the first place to deal with many social issues; nor are social services professionals trained or empowered to work in the potentially dangerous “on scene” situations where incidents of racial violence occur.  

There are many examples of the shift in burdens to policing. As a society, we defunded mental health services years ago, resulting in police having to deal with people who are mentally ill, while never funding the police to take on these new responsibilities.  As a result, the police have now become the arbiter of drug addiction incidents because they are required to enforce laws and policies that maximize the arrest and incarceration of drug users instead of treatment. This obligation comes without funding for police to do any of the social work required to deal with addiction.  Additionally, police are increasingly called upon to deal with other social issues like homelessness without funding for public housing programs.

In short, police have been subject to continuing expansions of their mission, where the job must be done without the necessary financial resources to handle all of the demands.  Despite the lack of funding, many police agencies have recognized that professional social workers can help to de-escalate events, and that they can more effectively identify and substitute treatment options and other resolutions instead of arrest.  In fact, some police agencies have successfully begun to bridge the divide by either training police officers in social skills, and/or have actually hired social workers to help with the reduction of policing incidents resulting in tragic outcomes.  

The inescapable conclusion is that the police have become the last resort for dealing with a plethora of social issues that are not being adequately addressed in other parts of government. For instance, where are the around the clock social service agencies that might be better equipped and more capable of dealing with these issues? Why are our jails filled primarily with people who have mental health problems or drug addiction problems? Without funding for social services integration and support that are needed to help people thrive, the police are left to respond without the resources to assure their ability to respond effectively.

Rather than espousing the defunding of police, this is an opportune time to re-purpose the police, while at the same time investing in the kinds of community-based programs that will remove the remnants of racism in public policy and public service.  Thoughtful police leaders, academics and lawmakers have for decades suggested rethinking what police should be doing.   Modern models of community-based policing, the innovations of place-based policing and the reconsideration of how police are directed and organized are all aimed at making substantive changes in policing.  Why must we continue to insist that a highly trained police officer be dispatched to take a burglary report just so an insurance claim can be filed? Why should highly trained police officers have to fill out lengthy accident reports again mostly to satisfy insurance claim requirements?   Why do we insist on having police officers do random patrol when we know from much research that the likelihood of happening upon a crime is so miniscule? 

This is a great time to eradicate some of the old objections to changing the nature of policing and take advantage of the mood of the country to support change.  There is no doubt that the majority of the 900,000 police officers in the country want the trust of their communities and know that issues of racial injustice stand in the way of earning that trust.  A much better approach would be to create an integrated structure of social services and policing that can coordinate a response to the needs of the public that would provide a shared public safety environment that is funded accordingly. Thinking through a new purpose and set of objectives as well as seriously rejecting any form of racism in policing could revitalize the entire field of policing and bring us to a new and powerful environment of public safety for all.  If at the same time we deal with the needs to increase community-based services dealing with housing, transportation, jobs, mental health, drug addiction, etc., we can also address many societal inequities.  By redistributing the assignment of responsibilities for dealing with the important issues facing society, we should also reexamine the allocation of resources.  The outcome of revisiting resource allocation might result in a different budget for police, but such changes must only be based on a thoughtful design of the roles and responsibilities of all public services. 

The most dangerous consequence of the platitude “defunding the police” is that it obscures the more thoughtful and successful policy development that would deal with the problem.  There is no doubt in the minds of thoughtful practitioners from law enforcement and other public service fields that it is time for a repurposing of the joint mission they all serve. This might begin with purposeful re-engineering of local programs to help the public, as well as police, cope with the variety of criminal and social problems that occur every day on our streets. While it cannot happen overnight, we must move to a new answer to the problems of policing in the underserved communities of our country.

A better call to action, instead of defunding the police, might be: Re-Purpose Policing [An enhanced multidisciplinary serve and protect model]

Paul Wormeli – Consultant, former executive director of the IJIS Institute
Steve Ambrosini – Consultant. former executive director of the IJIS Institute
Lauren Wilson – technical editor
July, 2020

4 thoughts on “Defund the Police: The problem with platitudes”

  1. I have a very positive reaction to this piece and find it persuasive (although me being persuaded is of little value). I offer the following thoughts in support of your case.

    * Although the problem of systemic racism is not a creation of policing nor unique to the police, it comes into much sharper focus in the context of an institution with the clear authority to exercise coercive force. This should be acknowledged. (¶ 3)
    * The expansion of the scope of police functions was more often than not assumed by default often because of the failure of other public institutions to provide those services and as you note, without any allocation of additional funding. You cite great examples. There may also be merit is discussing the impact of 9-11 on both the scope of police duties and the mindset of police officers to say nothing of the addition of military equipment. (¶ 5)
    * You may want to fold in a discussion about the internal reward systems in police organizations as part of re-purposing. In most police organizations there is little incentive or reward for solving problems using other than traditional law enforcement methods. (¶ 8)
    * I firmly believe that separating all aspects the traffic functions from traditional police organizations would be a good thing. I have mixed feeling about the routine report taking function as victims of property crime already feel abandoned by the police, especially in urban areas. (¶9)

    Thanks for the opportunity to review this post.

  2. Hi Paul, This is excellent and much needed. Assume you saw the NYT article: I’m a Black police officer. Here’s how to change the system.
    Yes, defund the police. But then re-fund them, better. 7/16

    Many thanks.

  3. This narrative is an excellent start in defining the structure and goals to begin resolving this systemic problem. The next step will be to fund efforts to provide successful examples that can be leveraged to make this come to fruition. This will take an experienced team that understands the core issues and also has professional associations to engage other experts across multiple disciplines. Lastly, the team will need a proven methodology that is streamlined to address policy, near real-time information exchange, technology and change integration to deliver early wins and build momentum.

    1. I agree, Ted. It will be particularly important to build a multidisciplinary response to this issue.

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