Jun 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Some call for fewer police, even as streets erupt

Illustration of a hand holding a tiny police badge.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

"Defund the police" isn't just a slogan on a protester's sign — it's a political movement to relieve cops of responsibility for managing intractable social problems and shift spending to agencies that are better equipped to handle them.

Why it matters: The aftermath of George Floyd's killing has brought a renewed focus to the two dominant trends in policing: sweeping reforms on one side, militarization on the other. Neither of these responses will make our cities safer or our justice system fairer, civil rights activists argue, because the problems are much broader and deeply entrenched in society.

Driving the news: While elected officials grapple with budget crises caused by coronavirus shutdowns, activists in some large cities say the time is right to "defund" police departments and redirect money toward schools, housing and social services.

  • In New York, more than 40 city council candidates are calling for a $1 billion cut to the NYPD's $6 billion budget over four years so money for community programs like the city's summer youth employment program can be restored.
  • "It sounds like a lot, and it is," said attorney Janos Marton, who is running for Manhattan District Attorney. "But it’s just returning the police force to the size it was at the beginning of the de Blasio administration."
  • In Nashville, activists pressed city officials on the issue during a tense, 11-hour hearing this week on a budget proposal that would raise property taxes 32% while sending more money to police.
  • In Dallas, Minneapolis and Los Angeles, similar campaigns are under way.

The big picture: Police are being asked to handle every societal failure. American cities withdrew funding for the homeless, the mentally ill, drugs and education, then left it to the police to manage the consequences of those decisions. That's how homeless veterans wind up in jail and cops maintain order in schools.

"This is a political problem, not a policing problem," says Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale, a police scholar for 20 years and author of "The End of Policing."

  • Local politicians should find non-police solutions to the problems poor people face, he wrote in The Guardian this week.
  • Instead of criminalizing homelessness, for example, they should fund supportive public housing. Instead of school police, they should fund more counselors, after-school programs, and restorative justice programs.

The problem with police reform efforts, Vitale says, is that they assume the problem lies with a few bad apples and that retraining the force will rebuild public trust.

  • "Minneapolis was really a model for this police reform movement," he said. The city's first black police chief promised changes when he took over the troubled department in 2017.
  • "They did the implicit bias training. They did the mindfulness training, the de-escalation training, the police-community encounter sessions, the body cameras, the early warning systems for problem officers. And it just hasn't made any real difference," he said as evidenced by the murder of George Floyd.

Yes, but: Other officials say the looting, vandalism and arson over the past week shows precisely why cities need a large police force.

  • “Ten thousand officers were barely able to keep the peace,” Los Angeles Councilman Paul Koretz told the L.A. Times. “Imagine if we didn’t have the response that we did.”
  • Nor is there any evidence that defunding police departments will work, because it hasn't been tried yet. "We are still in the advocacy stage," says David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College for Criminal Justice in New York.
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