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In 2014 and 2015 New York officers staged a “slowdown” to protest the mayor, arguing that if they did less police work, the city would be less safe. Instead, crime dropped
On the afternoon of June 7, as protests continued across America, nine of the Minneapolis City Council’s twelve members appeared at a rally in a city park and vowed to dismantle the city’s police force.
It’s not yet clear what this proposal will amount to – currently, the council has promised to replace the police with “a community-based public safety model”. But the concept driving this change, that of defunding the police, is not a new one. Just in Minneapolis, MPD150, a local community advocacy organisation, has been pushing this proposal since 2017. Yet it is only over the past few days, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, that calls to abolish or defund the police have come to the forefront of the political debate, in the US and elsewhere.
While “defund the police” makes for a catchy slogan, the logic behind it is nuanced. It doesn’t simply amount to getting rid of the police force (though this end is certainly fundamental to the idea – MPD150 explicitly call for a “Police-Free Future.”) Rather, the goal is reallocation – resources, funding, and responsibilities taken away from the police and funnelled into other initiatives that might improve public safety.
In Los Angeles, for instance, Black Lives Matter has been pushing for a “people’s budget” that lowers the general fund to law enforcement from 51 per cent to just 5.7. “The concept of defunding and dismantling police departments is not just about getting rid of them,” says Philip McHarris, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Yale University and lead research and policy associate at the Community Resource Hub for Safety and Accountability. “It’s also about creating new things.”
Over the last 40 years, police have been leant on as a solution to social problems, writes Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology and the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing. From dysfunctional schools to inappropriate mental health interventions to the opioid epidemic, police have been asked to step in to solve social ills. This solution has proven particularly widespread in America because the country’s welfare state is so threadbare.
Over the same period of time, the cost of policing in the US has tripled, to $115 billion. In most cities, spending on police dominates city budgets, like the $1.8bn spent on police in Los Angeles, for example, which is more than half the city’s general fund, or the $165 million for the Minneapolis police department – accounting for 30 per cent of the entire city budget.
Proponents of defunding argue that we should invest in areas that support people, rather than arrest them, the contention being that it is incoherent to address a range of different social problems simply by unleashing heavily armed cops. “Not only do police and prisons not help us with the issues of public safety we are concerned with: they actually bring more violence into our communities,” says Adam Elliott-Cooper, a research associate at the University of Greenwich. “We need to think about alternative policies and practices to improve public safety.”
To help victims of domestic violence, we might invest in women’s centres; to support young people, we might open new youth centres. We might invest in better trauma services for both. We might remove the police from the process of sectioning the mentally ill. We might invest more broadly in community infrastructure, like employment, housing and education. Through this reinvestment, the police’s remits will naturally shrink. “It’s developing emergency response models and going instance by instance and imagining what it looks like to respond to a situation of mental health crisis or domestic violence or violence in the community that doesn’t involve harm,” says McHarris. “Like somebody using a counterfeit $20 bill – there’s ways of resolving that conflict that don’t rely on punishment and control.”
This pathway would not necessarily lead to the end of any form of policing as we understand it. “It doesn’t mean that there might not be a small class of public servants that might have the resources and the tools in order to respond to intense moments of violence, say if it’s an active shooter,” says McHarris.
Under this model, policing might become essentially reactive, says Ian Loader a professor of criminology and professorial fellow of All Souls College. “They could come when someone calls for assistance, and otherwise do nothing – not take it upon themselves to intervene in social life. The black experience of American policing is of police intervening in black neighbourhoods.”
Framed in this way, the proposal looks far less radical. Ask the question: should we abolish the police and most people would wonder if you were mad, argues Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, an independent criminal justice charity based in London. But rephrase the question and you’ll get a different answer. “If instead you say, ‘Should we ensure that there are good quality services in the community so that somebody in mental health crisis gets the help they need, rather than getting arrested by the police and taken to a cell?’, if you phrase it in that way people are rather more open to say you’re right,” he says.
One of the movement’s goals is to break the association between police and public safety. This is a relatively modern concept in America, explains McHarris, solidifying in the mid 1900s. In America’s southern states, law enforcement began as slave patrols: teams of vigilantes hired to recapture escaped slaves. Later on, police enforced Jim Crow (racist and segregationist) laws. “More than crime, modern police forces in the United States emerged as a response to ‘disorder’,” writes Gary Potter, a professor at the EKU School of Justice Studies. “What constitutes social and public order depends largely on who is defining those terms.”
The links between a better funded police force and a safer public are, at best, unproven. In 2014 and 2015, for instance, New York officers staged a “slowdown” to protest the mayor, arguing that if they did less police work, the city would be less safe. Instead, crime dropped. “There’s not a single study [that proves this relationship],” says Elliott-Cooper. “Think about it this way – in the industrialised world, America has by far the biggest prison population, it has by far the most heavily resourced police forces, and has by far the largest crime rates and the lowest levels of public safety.”
Reform hasn’t worked, either. In Minneapolis, for instance, millions of dollars were spent in the last five years retraining the police to target institutional racism and police brutality. This fruitless investment has a long history. “In the mid-1900s community policing emerges, and in the later-1900s there’s the emergence of all these different strategies to try to reform police,” says McHarris. “If you could reform your way out of police issues, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.”
Since British police aren’t routinely armed with deadly weapons, the rate at which people die at the hands of the police is far lower than the United States. Yet black British people face many of the same prejudices. “We know that Britain incarcerates black people at the same rate as America incarcerates African American people, per capita of the population,” says Elliott-Cooper. “So there’s certainly considerable parallels there.”
Under Tony Blair’s New Labour government – which promised to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” – the UK recruited 20,000 more police officers. From 2010 onwards, austerity cuts have brought the numbers of police back to the numbers of the early 2000s, so much so that the Labour Party ran the 2017 election campaign on a platform promising more funds to the police, and 10,000 extra officers on the streets. Still, the police take up a considerable budget. “I can’t think of another public service, which has as much political power and clout as the police,” says Garside. “They take up the lion’s share of criminal justice spending – about 50 per cent. They are a very powerful political force. And that is a structural issue.”
If Minneapolis’s experiment works, then it may well be a transformation that spreads beyond the city. “If Minneapolis council is serious about this, it’ll be interesting to watch,” says Loader. “One thing that might now happen is a whole series of local experiments in defunding, shrinking or even disbanding. We just need to watch.”