Saturday, June 06, 2020

Is "defunding the police" an idea whose time has come?

An idea that is being bandied around in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd is that of "defunding the police". Described by The Guardian as "the rallying cry sweeping the US", which smacks a little of hyperbole, this is not a new idea, but perhaps one whose time has come.
What defunding means is taking government and municipal money away from police and prisons, and investing it in housing, employment, community health, education, etc. Some see it as a mere tweak to the current system, while some see it as a step towards the complete abolition of police forces as we know them.
So, the way this is envisaged is, for example, if a homeless person is found drunk and sleeping on a park bench, instead of a policemen moving them on, a city employee would drop by and offer accommodation in a shelter; if someone is caught doing drugs in public, a substance abuse professional would intervene and assess whether they need help; if someone is shouting and behaving erratically, a social worker trained in dealing with mental illness talks them down and guides them home or to a place of assistance.
It all sounds very positive and appealing in the abstract, a much kinder and gentler system than we have at present. But what happens when the homeless person refuses to move, when the drug user suddenly draws a knife, when the erratic person grabs a passer-by as hostage or threatens the social.worker with violence, as happens all the time in the circumstances? And who is out on the streets to find these instances in the first place? And who is tracking the pick-pockets, the cat-burglers, the gun-runners, the online pedophiles?
It just sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky to me. I'm not sure that the average Joe has a good handle on just how violent and scary some of our citizens really are. And where would all these Good Samaritan street social workers come from when most social workers are already over-extended? Retrained unemployed police officers perhaps? So why not just retrain the current police force (which I believe is already happening to come extent)?
Proponents argue that aggressive policing of city streets for petty matters actually causes increased social disruption and ultimately leads to more crime, which maybe seems logical in the abstract, but I have a suspicion that without a police presence, those "petty matters" would snowball and develop into graver matters, resulting in even more social disruption than the alternative. They also argue that the vast majority of police work has nothing to do with responding to and preventing violence, which may be true, but does not mean that their other work is valueless. Proponents also take solace in an analysis that showed that a 2014/2015 "slow-down" in New York's policing was actually accompanied by a reduction in crime, not an increase, although the cynic in me suggests that this was just because the police were catching and reporting fewer criminals!
Don't get me wrong, I am not a huge proponent of the current over-militarized police system. There is a lot that needs changing, not least in training in how to deal with mental illness and racial minorities, and how to de-escalate situations. I think there is pretty much unanimous agreement on that, and many police forces are already implementing changes as we speak/read.
Personally, I just can't see that getting rid of the police force is a very practical option, not least because of legal issues like municipal charters that explicitly stipulate a police force, and the existence of strong police unions which are unlikely to just lie down and roll over. A council motion saying that "we are dismantling our police force", like Minneapolis has recently done, is just not enough, and really only amounts to political posturing and optics. Even black activists are not convinced that this is the solution. Sure, put money into education, healthcare, housing, invest in inner city renewal - this is all stuff that needs doing - but that is generational change we are talking about, and until we achieve that utopia, we're gonna need a police force.
There again, attempts to reform the current police system in recent years - and there have been some - have obviously not had very positive results, especially in the USA. So, what to do, what to do?

The most sensible plan I have heard to date is for each police cruiser to contain one police officer and one social worker, so that the appropriate person can be called upon to deal with the situation, with back-up available as needed. That could work.

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