Defunding the police: Is it enough?

After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, protesters across the U.S. have pushed for cities to de-fund their police departments, if not disband them entirely. Already this week, the Minneapolis city council has pledged to dismantle its police department. While many grapple with what it would mean to abolish the police entirely (in addition to mainstream news sources, the Marshall Project explains police abolition); many cities are embracing a more conservative approach to reduce police funding.

As a baseline, everyone should be aware that while many U.S. cities have been cutting funding for public services, especially after the economic slowdown following the coronavirus outbreak, they’ve increased funding for police departments, even though city spending on police far surpasses spending on other public services.

Portland OR 2018-19 Budget, including $362 million for Public “Safety”

These ever-increasing police budgets have enabled the militarization of U.S. police, creating a unique tension between civilians and law enforcement, not found in other countries. Police officers in many countries—including Britain, New Zealand, Iceland, and Norway—don’t even carry firearms, let alone have access to tear gas and flash grenades.

The question is, will reducing a $5 billion police budget by $23.8 million (a paltry 0.4% decrease) do anything to address the NYPD’s ugly history of racial profiling (just as one example), let alone stop racist police officers from targeting and killing Blacks and other people of color? For decades, U.S. cities have spent millions of dollars on “implicit bias” training, but especially in light of recent events, there’s little evidence that this training has been effective. Several groups also argue that police reforms don’t work.

While some politicians are discussing ways to hold police accountable, the police abolition movement aims to rethink the entire way we address criminality in our communities. Groups such as MPD150 argue that if the majority of crimes in the U.S. result from a lack of food, well-paying jobs, affordable housing, education, accessible healthcare, and addiction treatment—then why not provide public assistance services, rather than spend billions of dollars to criminalize and punish those most in need? Not only does heavy policing and incarceration not address core issues that lead to criminal behavior (or in some cases, such as marijuana possession, unnecessarily define a recreational activity as criminal behavior); we’ve created a legal system that isolates and punishes offenders, making it more difficult for them to reintegrate into society and succeed.

More to the point, when law enforcement targets poor and vulnerable communities—especially Black communities who have suffered from centuries of systemic racism and who face growing wealth and income disparity—our police (and prison system) not only perpetuate criminal behavior, they become oppressors. (Although we’re currently focused on the police, it’s also worth nothing the U.S. prison system serves as a modern form of slavery.)

As Trump and his administration of wealthy elites foster racism in the U.S., as unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to increase homelessness, and as police attack protesters (for protesting police violence); it’s clear we need to do more than shave less than 1% off police budgets. We need to rethink the role that police play in our communities—and consider other roles and services to better support our communities, to provide all people an opportunity to enjoy healthy, fulfilling lives.

Our cities—our communities—must invest in nurturing lives, not taking lives. How we invest in our communities, whether in health, in education, or in military weapons and training, will determine the future course of the United States.

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