Trying to Understand Defund the Police

It appears that my tv viewing is impacting my thinking more than I would anticipate. Possibly because I’m watching more tv than I’ve ever done in my life…

Anyway, at this moment I’m thinking about Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, which my 16 year old and I have (very) slowly been watching. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a miniseries on Netflix about the five young teenage boys who were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989 and spent years in jail before being exonerated. As I am about the same age as these men, I remember this story. But I certainly didn’t know it well. DuVernay’s series has been eye-opening for me and has really made me think about policing and our justice system.

So when a tweet like this one pops up on my timeline:

I’m primed to consider it. I’ll admit that when I first started seeing calls to defund the police I was hesitant and skeptical. I couldn’t immediately wrap my head around what that might look like. I could understand the desire but it just didn’t seem feasible to me, it just didn’t make sense. The status quo, one that isn’t harming me, still seemed better than such a significant change.

Then I kept seeing such calls. More and more frequently. Finally I realized I needed to learn more to be able to better understand this issue. Fortunately, plenty of people either felt the same or realized how many of us would need some help, and the links were being shared readily.

How Much Do We Need the Police? from NPR’s Code Switch was one of the first things I read. It’s a short interview with Alex S. Vitale, the author of The End of Policing. One of the arguments he makes, and that I’ve seen again and again as I’ve continued reading, is that we’re asking police forces to do too much and to do things that should never have been a part of their job. One example he gives is the issue of homelessness. Rather than address the issue at its core, we, as a society, have decided the people who are homeless are the issue and the police should fix it.

Part of our misunderstanding about the nature of policing is we keep imagining that we can turn police into social workers. That we can make them nice, friendly community outreach workers. But police are violence workers. That’s what distinguishes them from all other government functions. … They have the legal capacity to use violence in situations where the average citizen would be arrested.

So when we turn a problem over to the police to manage, there will be violence, because those are ultimately the tools that they are most equipped to utilize: handcuffs, threats, guns, arrests. That’s what really is at the root of policing. So if we don’t want violence, we should try to figure out how to not get the police involved.

This was super helpful for me to read. Police have been trained to deal with threats and violence. Not surprisingly, when they have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Why are we asking police to solve our social problems? (I could make similar arguments about what we ask of schools and teachers…)

Another piece I found helpful is by Christy E. Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law School and the director of their Innovative Policing Program. She wrote Defund the police? Here’s what that really means. Many of the points are similar to those in the Code Switch piece (but it’s definitely good for me to hear/see things more than once).

Defunding and abolition probably mean something different from what you are thinking. For most proponents, “defunding the police” does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety, and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight — or perhaps ever. Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.

That was helpful to me, too. To get a better idea of the actual how of this process.

One final piece is the FAQ from MPD150. As Minneapolis is the first city (to the best of my knowledge) to take concrete actions towards defunding their police, this site was one I was glad to find. Again, it’s a pretty quick read that got at my questions and confusions. The few questions in their FAQ begin with similar points as the pieces above, getting at the how of this process.

The questions in the middle really get at the why.

But why not fund the police and fund all these alternatives too? Why is it an either/or?

It’s not just that police are ineffective: in many communities, they’re actively harmful. The history of policing is a history of violence against the marginalized– American police departments were originally created to dominate and criminalize communities of color and poor white workers, a job they continue doing to this day. The list has grown even longer: LGBTQ folks, disabled people, activists– so many of us are attacked by cops on a daily basis.

And it’s bigger than just police brutality; it’s about how the prison industrial complex, the drug war, immigration law, and the web of policy, law, and culture that forms our criminal justice system has destroyed millions of lives, and torn apart families. Cops don’t prevent crime; they cause it, through the ongoing, violent disruption of our communities.

This is still an issue I don’t understand as well as I’d like to and I’ll keep reading and listening. But these pieces did a lot to help me grasp why this is such a crucial issue for so many people and how it could (and will) be done.

2 replies on “Trying to Understand Defund the Police”

  1. Gary Stager says:

    The term, “defund,” is in-artful and therefore problematic, even though I personally support massive structural overhauls, including police and prison abolition.

    This moment presents a great exercise for people unaccustomed to imagining a world other than it appears. A colleague mentioned that the police used to help get his wife’s wheelchair unstuck from their yard and therefore we must “support the police.” I asked if he could imagine an alternative system of community helpers.

    This exercise is also useful for educators who need to find the courage to end practices bad for kids or too expensive or too inefficient or too inequitable. What if we abolished grades? Homework? Tests? Football? 12th grade?

    My work inside a juvenile prison made me comfortable with prison abolition, but this podcast really blew my mind about a year ago.

  2. Phyllis Papkin says:

    I agree that the problem begins with the term “defund”. Perhaps a term like “re-purpose” to explain the roles that will be taken over by others.

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