Jun 11, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Where it might make sense to cut police budgets

Illustration of a police hat with coins falling into an open hand. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

While many local officials and law enforcement experts disagree with the idea of defunding and disbanding police departments, they say some of the duties police perform today might be handled better outside of law enforcement.

The big picture: The "defund the police" movement calls for city governments to reallocate police department budgets to socioeconomic programs and infrastructure such as housing, health care and education that have long been lacking in communities of color.

What they're saying: "While I don’t believe in defunding the police entirely, I do believe there are opportunities to make meaningful cuts in some places and rethink how we use an officer with a gun," Julian Castro, former San Antonio mayor, housing secretary and Democratic presidential candidate, said in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News editorial board.

Cities can spend millions of dollars arresting and jailing homeless people, for example, but redirecting those resources into supports for housing, mental health, addiction and employment could ultimately solve more underlying problems.

  • "What we were engaging as a police issue was not the best avenue to solving the underlying issues of homelessness in society,"said Chris Burbank, vice president of law enforcement strategy at the Center for Policing Equity, and former police chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department.

Mental health issues, including alcohol and drug addiction, also often result in police intervention, even though police officers may not be the best equipped to handle them.

  • Social workers trained to help individuals with addiction problems are more effective than an arrest, Burbank said. A heroin addict wandering the streets should be taken to a safe space and receive treatment, he said, rather than spending the night in jail.
  • Many EMTs are specifically trained to deal with mental health issues, and would be more appropriate first responders than police in situations like a suicide attempt, said Lorenzo Boyd, former police officer and director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven.
  • "These situations are often not about enforcement," he said. "Criminal laws aren't being broken, so we don't need the badge and gun for these issues."

Several school districts, including Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, have terminated relationships with their local police departments, a move that makes sense to Boyd.

  • "You don't need an armed officer in uniform in schools, it's counterproductive," Boyd said. Counselors and trained educators are better equipped to identify and work directly with students in need.
  • He dismissed the argument that they should be present in case of a school shooting. "There has yet to be a school shooting where a uniformed officer has stopped it."

"Police do two things really well — they use force and they detain," Boyd said. "If neither of these is the outcome you want, calling the police is not the answer."

  • Trained civilian teams could document, measure and take pictures at the scene of traffic accidents, he said, rather than using the time of uniformed cops.

Between the lines: Decriminalizing minor offenses would mean that fewer people wind up with criminal records that make it difficult to get jobs and housing, said David Thomas, a retired police officer and professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University.

  • And that would allows police officers to focus on serious crimes, such as homicides and sexual assaults.

Yes, but: The devil is in the details, such as how law enforcement and social programs interact, and whether social workers, for example, are part of law enforcement staff or operate independently.

  • "This is not a time for a knee-jerk reaction. It's a time to sit down and really fix what's wrong and be collaborative," he said. "If you are talking about dismantling, police officers need to sit in those rooms and have conversations with the people they're going to serve."

Reality check: Cities across the country are facing sizable budget deficits that will require cuts to local services across the board.

What's next: Communities thinking about reallocating money have to be willing to do the hard work to get it right, Burbank said.

  • "We have the responsibility to take the time and energy to go through a very long budget of line items and say, 'How is this used, was this effective and how can we think about this differently?'" he said.

Go deeper: Some call for fewer police, even as streets erupt

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