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A rallying cry has emerged from the nationwide protests in the aftermath of the in-custody death of George Floyd: Defund the police!
After the DC Mayor had “Black Lives Matter” painted on 16th Street just blocks from the White House, protesters made their own addition to the public art project by inserting “= Defund the Police”. This wasn’t the first usage of the slogan, but it was definitely one of the most publicized ones.
Taken at face value, the concept of defunding the police seems like a half-baked idea at best. The immediate response from the pro-law and order side is “who are you going to call when you get mugged?” The responses get much worse and more cynical, of course, but that is the baseline, knee-jerk answer.
The broader concept behind the slogan “defund the police” is more nuanced than it first appears, though. The argument is that there are aspects of policing that can be better handled by other people and if SOME of the money spent on policing, is diverted to other coffers it may make a more meaningful impact on our communities in general and on people of color in our communities more specifically.
The deeper argument has merit, but unfortunately it suffers from bad public relations because the headline is so jarring. I understand the tactic is meant to be jarring but I think it also polarizes the issue and keeps many from hearing the part that they may actually agree with because of their visceral reaction to the headline.
Radley Balko, the libertarian opinion journalist who often reports on policing issues, had a very good tweet thread on the defund-movement this week and I largely agree with his position on this.
Keep seeing the argument that less funding for cops means less pay, which means it will be harder to hire good cops. But the idea is to shrink the policing footprint — to think more creatively about what police are for. We could end …
— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) June 10, 2020
Full disclosure, I am a 911 operator and Police Dispatcher. So, on a lot of issues I can be found squarely in the pro-police category. However, I don’t think the system is without its faults and I have definitely become much more sympathetic to the voices of the protesters in the wake of the George Floyd murder.
So, let me give you an argument in favor this broader concept from someone working inside the system.
The defund crowd is correct when they say that some jobs the police are asked to do fall beyond their expertise. They are correct in asserting that the police are not properly trained to handle many of the non-criminal calls for service on which they are sent. Numerous times per day, even in my suburban police department, the police are relied upon to deal with mental health emergencies, elder-care issues, child-rearing issues, code enforcement complaints, etc.
The resources spent by police departments on these non-criminal calls for service would be much better spent investing in infrastructure outside the police department to build up and staff government agencies that are more adept and better trained to handle these issues. An even better, and more liberty-oriented solution would be for the government to get out of theses issues all together and let those resources go to private entities that are even better suited to handle these issues.
The problem with sending a cop to mitigate a mental health crisis or other non-criminal call for service is best explained by the old adage: if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you are trained as a law enforcement officer, and most of your training centers around criminal law and the detention and mitigation strategies for criminal defendants, that mindset sticks with you even when you are dealing with non-criminal calls for service. We have spent years training and equipping our police officers with all the tactics and gear needed to keep peace and enforce law and order. But then we send them into situations where none of their tools or training are applicable. This is a recipe for disaster.
Of course, police officers are trained to deal with the mentally ill, but they are not therapists or psychologists. They are trained to deescalate tense situations, but they are not trained dispute mediators. They often get sent to help defuse civil disputes between business owners and customers, but they are not civil law judges or even civil law clerks.
Sitting where I do, just outside of the inner circle of the law enforcement fraternity and firmly in the camp of civil libertarians, puts me in a somewhat unique position to see this issue from both sides of the argument and up-close to the actual issues at hand.
It seems to me that there is an opportunity here to reach a very broad consensus between the defund crowd and the police. Because if you had the chance to speak candidly to a police officer prior to the current tense times they would freely admit that the spend most of their time doing non-police work. That they are expected to wear many hats that they never anticipated they would be asked to wear when they decided to put on the uniform and become a police officer. Some may even admit that they feel ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle a large amount of the calls they are sent on.
That is the real opportunity here. But before we can reach that consensus we need to cool the rhetoric on both sides.
Obviously, most police officers right now are in a defensive crouch. They are trying to protect themselves because across the nation they are under attack and under appreciated. So when the protestors scream “defund the police!” All they hear is “we want your jobs eliminated!”
My advice to the people who are yelling “defund the police” the loudest is to follow their own advice. They need to empathize and listen at least as much as they lecture and admonish.
I am not here to make excuses for the police. There are deficiencies that need to be corrected and tactics that need to be forgotten or legally abolished. I’m on board with that.
I am speaking only to the aspect of the defund movement that wants to divert money to the proper areas to be better utilized and better spent on professionals who will have a more positive outcome for our communities.
In that regard, I am quite certain they can get a large number of police officers on board with their cause. I truly believe that a consensus can be reached where the people being underserved and the people we are currently asking to serve those needs are on the same page already. They just need to hear each other and realize they are arguing from the same side of the street.