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  • Justin Dynia

The Three R’s of Defunding The Police: Reallocate, Reduce, and Replace (2/2)

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

This article is part of a two-part series.

Police reform is at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd. On June 8, the New York State Assembly passed the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act that bans the use of a chokehold by a police officer statewide. The law signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo bears the name of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who suffered the same fate as George Floyd when he was arrested for a nonviolent crime in Staten Island and killed by police officers using a chokehold in 2014. The final words of both of these men, “I can’t breathe,” have become the rallying cry of the movement. A multitude of other legislation intended to hold police officers accountable for abuses of power, such as making all police records public, have also been passed across the country. However, one particular police reform proposal has taken center stage—defunding the police.

Before delving into the different meanings those three words carry, it is important to understand the financial basis of the argument. Police departments are run on a subnational level. Local municipalities, city governments, county legislatures, and state governments all claim more control over police departments than the federal government. Policing is one of the most autonomous functions that the subnational government carries out. Consequently, these levels of government have the full power to shape these departments and the responsibility to fund them. Police budgets are regularly one of the largest chunks of these budgets. For example, the total expenses of the New York Police Department, the largest police force in the country, took up $11 billion of the city’s $92 billion Executive budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. This represents 12% of the total budget. The Los Angeles Police Department, another large police force in a major city, had total expenses of $1.2 billion for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. A budget breakdown provided by the city of Los Angeles shows the city spends 26 cents on policing for every dollar it spends. Actions have already been taken to address the high spending, as both city councils have recently proposed measures aimed at cutting these budgets.

Does this represent a victory to supporters of defunding the police? Well, it depends who you ask. There are several shades to the word “defund.” Some adopt the word “reallocate” to represent their view, as supporters believe that resources from the police department should be reallocated to community health and public services like education. They argue that divesting in the police and investing in the community will lead to healthier and stronger communities with less crime. Money going to expensive pension plans and other areas of excessive police spending could be used to build community centers and ensure higher quality schooling and health care. Therefore, there is not a large reduction in overall spending, as the money is simply being invested in other parts of the budget. This side of the debate has certainly gained the most support from mainstream Democratic mayors and city councils who have already begun the process. Most Republicans and conservatives have offered mild rejection to this proposal, as they generally tend to support the funding of law enforcement rather than social services.

Another approach to “defund” focuses on the ends, instead of the means, of defunding and calls for the “reduction” of officers in police departments. Some want to dramatically reduce uniform headcount as they believe that more cops on the streets leads to more crime. Proponents of this view feel that greater police strength increases perceptions of arrest risk and even use of lethal force. Videos of police brutality in recent years have often shown officers outnumbering the victims by several to one, sometimes more. Less police officers on the street could mean less situations being escalated to the use of force against the suspect or officer. Critics of this idea insist that less police on the streets will further enable criminals rather than deter them. Less patrol cars on the street could also mean higher response time, so police may have a harder time doing their job effectively. Unfortunately, studies on the effect of increased police manpower remain inconclusive in either direction. This view has started more controversy than the reallocation camp.

One word has sparked a far more heated debate than the other two interpretations combined: “replace.” On June 12, 18 days after the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis City Council announced it would be entirely disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department and moving to a community model. The root of this argument stems from the view that the law enforcement system is unfixable in its current state. Many feel that police no longer effectively protect the people they are sworn to serve. Corruption, racism, and other issues have certainly plagued police departments nationwide for decades. Supporters feel these forces are able to proliferate due to the undue power given to police unions, one of the strongest unelected forces in the country. A common misconception of this view holds that an “abolition” of the police will leave only anarchy and lawlessness in its wake. Proponents of this view do not want to leave a total void of law enforcement, but instead want to replace existing police departments with new community-driven law enforcement. They argue that adopting a new community policing model will put power in the hands of the people and create safer and stronger neighborhoods. While proposals for this model vary greatly, they contain the same inherent traits. Community policing models ensure that the police answer to elected officials and can be held accountable for abuses of power. An emphasis is placed on increasing funding to community health and public services while maintaining a police force that commits to integrating itself into the community. The numerous critics of this plan have a litany of concerns, ranging from its feasibility on a large scale to the threat it poses to current police departments.

Although the idea is radical, it is not entirely impossible. Camden, a city in New Jersey, has found itself in the spotlight for its decision in 2013 to adopt a community policing model. In 2012, Camden had the unpleasant honor of having one of the highest crime rates in the country. That year 67 people were killed in the small city with a population of 75,000. This rate of 87 homicides per every 100,000 residents ranked fifth worst nationwide. 175 open-air drug markets operated in its ten square miles, less than half the size of Manhattan. The following year, considering the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Camden Police Department, city officials decided the department was beyond reform. It was disbanded and in its place the Camden County Police Department was created. Violent crime has dropped 44% since the change, and complaints of excessive force fell 65%. The attitude of the county-led police department itself has also done a 180. The department answers to elected public officials rather than unelected police union leaders. Officers learn problem-solving and de-escalation training and emphasize lethal force as an absolute last resort. New recruits knock on the doors of the residents they will serve to introduce themselves. Officers ride along in Mister Softee trucks and give ice cream to the children they protect. Spontaneous barbecues emerge during the warmer months as officers grill hot dogs for the community members. The takeover did incite some community backlash, however. A lawsuit was filed against the county’s takeover of the police in 2013, as some residents objected to the lack of community input in the decision. This is especially due to the seemingly contradictory fact that police presence in Camden has actually increased as a result of the takeover. The state Supreme Court sided with the concerned Camden residents, but the county police force remains in effect. Overall, this model of a community-oriented police has been a success story for the city.

The continuing narrative of defunding the police will have numerous ramifications. Socially, it may continue to drive a wedge between Americans as either “pro-cop” or “anti-cop.” Too often in public discourse an issue gets boiled down to its core and supporters are forced to take an uncompromising position on the issue. This debate has already stirred divisions in a country where slogans like “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Cops Are Bastards” are used to represent these absolute stances. Politically, mainstream Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Joe Biden could cater to moderates and most progressives by using the language of the “reallocate” camp. This in turn will likely anger the far left, a demographic Biden has struggled to appeal to, who lean towards the “reduce” or “replace” side of the argument. President Trump has already seized the opportunity to call for “law and order,” as he accused the protestors of wanting lawlessness and anarchy rather than justice and reform. Trump and the Republican Party may continue to appeal to the fears of voters who are reasonably worried by the attacks on law enforcement institutions nationwide. Economically, subnational governments have been using the “defund the police” narrative to gradually begin reducing budget expenses, possibly laying the foundation for larger reform ahead. The economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have created revenue shortages nationwide, so many governments will target law enforcement as their culprit to lower spending.

It is difficult to find a middle ground on an issue as controversial as defunding the police. Proponents on both sides have struggled to understand both their own view and the opposing view. Better understanding the main arguments being made—reallocate, reduce, or replace—allows us to foster more sensible public debate on an issue. 2020 continues to pose a threat to the soul of America. We are all hurting in some way. No one’s life has remained entirely untouched by the disruption and pain that this year has brought us. It is time to listen to one another rather than attack one another. At the end of the day, this issue comes down to what we have in common rather than what divides us. Every American wants to live the best possible life they can and safely come home to their family at the end of the night. It is easy to disagree over political semantics, but it’s harder to take a deep look at those around us and remember that we all want the same protections to our rights that allow us to live as we choose. The security of our future depends on this. Americans must turn to our brothers and sisters of all walks of life and find the common ground that we all stand on. It is this unity that will set us free, restoring the blood back into the beating heart of the nation that we all form together.

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