The first time I heard this phrase was in downtown San Diego while covering an Occupy San Diego march. Some of the protesters started this chant, “defund the police,” which was jarring for this reporter. There were others, such as “whose streets, our streets” and “no KKK, no fascist USA.” But this one was especially poignant both for its rarity, and ability to shock. bear in mind, those marches had motor officers opening the way for the protesters, and there was some coordination with officers as to the chosen route.
This was bizarre, for a green reporter. Motorcycle officers kept traffic away from them. They closed the streets and maintained a professional attitude. It’s always been interesting to me. People are protesting police brutality, while officers protect the marches. Individual officers may not be happy, but the duty is clear. And they do it, most of the time.
The reality is that these marches can turn on a dime. Officers can go from a guardian stance to that of riot officers in an instant. We have seen it happen more than once. This speaks to both the tensions and the role of policing in American society. But back then the chants were surprising. I worked in EMS in another country, where police are not trusted, and until those marches, I had not been exposed to this in the United States. While I am an immigrant, I am not in danger of getting stopped for driving while minority. So passing helped to shield me.
So after doing much listening, reading, and thinking, I fully understand why people of color fear the police. It is not different than back home. You would never call the cops because you don’t trust them. This is why black and brown parents have the talk with their children, some as young as eight. So this is why we need to have these difficult conversations.
After the death of George Floyd when people took to the streets, it was not shocking to see these calls to defund the police once again. This time it seems to have shifted from the streets and onto politics.
I will be clear. To some activists defunding the police does indeed mean a complete dissolution of the force, any force. This is the most radical of views, and it is hardly mainstream. They believe that the only policing needed is self-policing. And they see police forces as occupation armies, suppressing people and building a carceral state meant for control of black and brown bodies. They are not alone in this. But they tend to take this to the conclusion that the problems stem from police control. In their minds, the issues start with School Resource Officers and end in patrols and over-policing in communities of color.
They do have a very valid point, even if their goal is not practical or possible. They are correct when they say that one function of police in the United States is social control, especially in a society still living by the structures of white supremacy. As Stuart Shrader writes in Badges Without Borders: “Race management entailed preserving racial hierarchy, preventing outright rebellion against it.” We could say that both the race riots of the 1960s and the recent police riots against peaceful protesters are a failure of this since what we are seeing is a very loud call to end white supremacy.
This specific role for police starts with slave patrols in the Deep South, something that some activists are well aware of. Ironically not every white police officer is. It’s not something taught most recruits. This should be taught to recruits early in the academy. Because many of the people the police will come in contact with are aware of this. Officers are part of the systems that maintain order, and a caste society. However, dissolving departments will not end these structures of white supremacy. Though some very specific departments may have to see dissolution. See the case of Camden, New Jersey. They ended up dissolving the department because it was too corrupt. Their current model is one of a deep commitment to community policing and crisis resolution.
It starts from an officer’s first day: When a new recruit joins the force, they’re required to knock on the doors of homes in the neighborhood they’re assigned to patrol, he said. They introduce themselves and ask neighbors what needs improving.
Training emphasizes de-escalation, he said, and the department’s use of force policy makes clear that deadly force is the last option.
Now, police host pop-up barbecues and pull up in Mister Softee trucks to get to know residents, Cappelli said. They host drive-in movie nights — recently, the movie of choice was “The Lion King” — along what used to be known as the city’s “Heroin Highway.”
The community-first initiative has made improving diversity within the force a priority, too. Whites are the minority in Camden, so Cappelli said the new department has hired more black and brown officers to serve black and brown residents. (Cappelli didn’t have exact numbers for the increase, but said it’s improved.)
This emphasis on community policing also came with something else. Firing every officer from the old department allowed the new department to weed out bad officers. And those bad officers included those who planted evidence and made up stories. Remember, officers can legally lie, and planting evidence does happen. The thin blue wall relies on officers not ratting on each other.
Will some departments face what Camden faced? It’s possible. But police as an institution did not go away. It was replaced by many new officers, a new ethos and an old model of policing that has been mostly abandoned, even if in theory it still exists. This is community policing.
So what does this term defund the police mean? Because for many who have never heard this before, it’s jarring.
It means reform for starters and an admission that we have a problem. With few exceptions, and those activists are out of the mainstream, and in some cases don’t believe in voting, it does not mean getting rid of the police. Most activists realize that there is a role for the police, even if they envision another world. The role of the police is not as expansive as today. Nor is there a place in this future world for warrior cops who do not practice constitutional policing. Or for that matter for white supremacists who join the force to live up a fantasy. Nor is there a place for bullies.
The term was not poll-tested and is easy to weaponize against the reformers, it emerged organically from the streets.
When you hear defund the police these are some of the things activists want you to think about. I am just raising the questions because the conversation needs to start beyond the streets and activist circles:
- What is the proper role of the police? This question is very loaded. Do we need officers responding to the homeless crisis? Or should we have social workers do this? Do we need police responding to drug overdoses? What about officers in schools, instead of social workers, school nurses, and school psychologists?
- Do we need officers to respond to mental health emergencies? Even when they are teamed up with a mental health professional, do we really need officers to be there? Do they help? Do they make the situation worse?
- Do we need officers to maintain an adversarial view of the population they police? This us versus them means officers see all of us as the enemy.
- Why are officers over-policing communities of color? How do we reduce or eliminate this?
- Police are still over-represented by white officers, even when they patrol communities of color, How do we bring diversity? Overpolicing means people have records, even petty things that prevent them from joining a department. How do we keep white supremacists out?
- How are police perceived by communities of color? How do you change that? Can you change this?
- How do you stop the school to prison pipeline?
- What is the role of the carceral state? How did we end up with such a large number of inmates? Does it serve a good role in society or are we wasting money?
- What is the role of the war on terror and war on crime language in policing?
- Do we need guardians, instead of warriors? How do we emphasize constitutional policing?
- How deep is implicit bias in police forces? How structural is this in society, not just police?
- How do you change the training of officers? Should we stop paramilitary training of officers?
- Why are academies on average 900 hours? Will just expanding training solve the problems we have? Do we need more time spent in academics? Do we need a different type of training?
- How do you do your in-service training? How do you deal with old officers who are “set in their ways?”
- How do you do civilian oversight of police?
- Are dashcams and Body cams all we need? Do we need more?
- What is the role of police unions in both policing and city politics?
- Where do we move funds we remove from police budgets? (This is where defunding comes, reprioritizing funds in city budgets, and as we have seen LAPD is not getting what LAPD wants. This will expand.)
- We need to remove qualified immunity. This makes suing officers civilly almost impossible.
- Force every officer to carry malpractice insurance.
- Make lying by officers a felony and a fireable offense.
Defund the police is perhaps a bad term, from a marketing perspective. But the list above is the series of questions asked. Specific demands are coming from these discussions. I am just scratching the surface. There is a lot more to this story. It includes how we used police as if they were counter-insurgency forces or later anti-terror front line troops. The logical end to that are the fusion centers across the country. These are local, state, and federal officers doing intelligence work, in theory, to root out terrorism. They are doing far more than just that. They are looking for trouble makers at the local level. At one-time police were trying to root out communists, this thinking has not ended. Anything that challenges the state is a threat to the state.
We are at the beginning of a new story. But this is a moment that does feel different. Rank and file officers are defensive, as we saw with Mike O’Meara, the head of the Benevolent Order of Police in New York City. He demanded that people treat them with respect. But command staff nationwide realizes we need to do far more than talking. People are done with that and want real substantive change. What is at stake is nothing short than the future of American policing.