What Does Defunding the Police Really Mean?

My name is Ian Cook, writing for the Reynolds Sandbox. Today, I want to talk about defunding the police and what it really means for our community.

Reynolds Sandbox file photo from a recent protest in Reno.

Should We Talk about Divesting and Reallocating?

I’ll be honest: the phrase “Defund the police” is a little misleading. When I think of “defunding” anything, it sounds like pulling all money from it. To the untrained ear, defunding seems like the death of whatever we’re talking about. Of course, it’s never that black and white.

Here’s the cut and dry of it, from Wikipedia: Defund the police’ is a slogan that supports divesting funds — — hold up. “Divesting.” Now that’s a good word.

So we’re divesting funds from police departments and reallocating them — ooh, reallocating. That’s not so bad either. But where are they going?

Well, we’re reallocating them to non-policing forms of public safety and community support, such as social services, youth services, housing, education, healthcare and other community resources.

There it is. Some progressives are calling for the abolition of police altogether, but that’s not the bulk of the conversation. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. As I see it, defunding the police on the whole is a call to reinvest in our communities so we can reduce the need for police presence in the first place.

Listen to audio version of this story above.

Police Don’t Have to Do Everything

In reality, police aren’t qualified to do all the jobs they’re tasked with doing. It’s unfair to them and to society to believe they are. People with mental disorders, for example, are a particularly difficult group for the police to handle. Police don’t have years of education and training like mental health professionals to handle these cases effectively. It’s absurd to believe they are the best for the job in instances like this. Police don’t have to be the first responders to every instance of disorder. Often, police exacerbate issues and escalate encounters with otherwise docile people.

When we talk candidly about the role of police in our communities, we’re obligated to focus on some key problems with the system in its current form. The first, and perhaps most relevant point in 2020, is that police disproportionately target African American communities. According to 2015 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, police are twice as likely to use force against people of color — that is, African Americans, the Latinx population, or other non-white groups in America — than white people.

Another study of almost 100 million traffic stop records revealed that black drivers, who are more frequently pulled over during the day despite driving less overall, were stopped less after sunset. The key difference, after accounting for several potential confounding factors, was a “veil of darkness” that obscured their race. The disproportionate targeting of African Americans is not just anecdotal — it is supported by mountains of evidence I could spend hours going over.

Police killings of people of color have brought new attention to police actions. Reynolds Sandbox file photo of a recent Reno protest.

What is Policing About?

In his book, The End of Policing, Alex Vitale argues that policing was about race and control from the very beginning. In short, police forces were established across the United States as methods of perpetuating systems of enslavement and suppressing protest of those facing oppression.

They were successful in large part, and they spread across the country. Today, police systems are more refined, but writers like Vitale would argue little has changed. Indeed, police systems are designed to reinforce the status quo and suppress questioning otherwise. For the United States, a country with 400 years of racist history under its belt, it’s difficult to imagine that we’ve actually rid ourselves of systemic racism.

There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that police presence reduces violent crime, but violent crime only makes up about 5% of all arrests, according to FBI data from 2018.

Reno police in front of murals for Black Lives Matter earlier this year in Reno. Reynolds Sandbox file photo.

Reinforcing the Status Quo?

To better understand how this reinforcement of the status quo plays out in the 21st century, we have to talk about redlining. The term redlining refers to, as Color of Law author Richard Rothstein describes it, a “state-sponsored system of segregation” in which African Americans were denied the benefits of subsidized housing programs under the New Deal in the 1930s. The government created suburban communities designed for white people, refusing people of color and pushing them into urban housing projects. The effects were profound, and poor communities of color are still struggling for opportunities to rise out of urban housing to this day. “Well, what does this have to do with policing?”, you may ask.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2017, 49% of people arrested more than once in the previous 12 months had an individual income under $10,000 per year. Historically in the United States, it has been politically easy and often financially incentivized for police to disproportionately target poor communities of color.

Take Ferguson, where the Justice Department investigated the police department after police killed 18 year-old Michael Brown in 2014. According to Vox, they found that police were “encouraged to ticket as many people as possible with the explicit goal of raising as much revenue as possible from fines and fees.” The path of least resistance, then, was to target vulnerable black residents. And they did. A similar pattern emerged years prior in New York City, where CompStat, a problematic police management tool, first took hold and issued a quota system for police officers. Today, CompStat is still used across the United States and abroad.

In response to all of this mess I just described, people see defunding the police as a means to easing the pains of targeted policing and brutality. Cities can reform police departments, enact common sense legislation, and ramp up de-escalation training, sure, but these have only produced modest results where they’ve been attempted. What people calling for defunding the police really want is a reinvestment into their communities. By expanding access to quality education, social services, housing, and other community resources, disenfranchised communities can finally have the opportunity to thrive. When people of color are targeted in their communities, the community’s growth is stunted. When communities are allowed to thrive, crime is less desirable. In effect, police are perpetuating their own problem.

Of course, people of color are not the only groups targeted by the police.

In Season 2 of USA Today’s The City podcast, host Robin Amer sets the scene of a downtown strip club in Reno and an exchange between an elusive sex worker and a man desperate for sex.

Only, the man isn’t really desperate for sex. He’s an undercover cop, and he’s deliberately pressing her repeatedly to break the law so he and his team can arrest them. The podcast centers around the city of Reno’s desire to shed its ugly history running an economy of vice and dawn a sleek, modern look modeled after neighboring Silicon Valley. Here, police are a tool of the city to push strip clubs out of downtown. They’re a remnant of the Reno depicted on shows like Reno 911 that city officials would rather forget about. Sex workers’ livelihoods be damned, it’s a story of gentrification that hits close to home.

The Price of Gentrification

Reno’s homeless population can attest to the price of gentrification. To make room for the beautiful new Reno some city officials envision, affordable housing for low-income families has to go, too. Sure, there are more homes for a white, college-educated workforce following their tech startups as cheap rent entices them out of the Bay Area. But at what cost? And who’s paying the price? The low-income families are.

As of January 2020, 973 people are in Reno’s emergency shelters or on the streets. As the coronavirus pandemic has wiped out low-paying jobs, the class divide has grown worse. With more people on the streets, the city tasks police with displacing the homeless population from inconvenient areas. Individuals experiencing homelessness know the police well, and as police displace, arrest, and drop them back on the streets, the revolving door keeps on spinning.

Expanding affordable housing would be far cheaper and more sustainable, according to Alex Vitale. Yet, officers are tasked with maintaining the status quo, no matter how ugly. Until we reinvest elsewhere, we can’t expect them to behave any differently. They might just tell you they’re doing their jobs.

Explainer Journalism by Ian Cook shared with the Reynolds Sandbox

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Reynolds Sandbox

Reynolds Sandbox

Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.