Cries for Action

Over the past weeks, the topic of police brutality, especially against the African American community, has dominated national news. In all 50 states and many countries around the world, protesters have taken to the street to call for police reform. The viral video that sparked cries of outrage showed a police officer pressing his knees to the neck of George Floyd, an African American man, for more than 8 minutes despite his continued cries of help. Although Floyd was eventually driven to the hospital after becoming unresponsive, he passed away soon after the incident. Just two months prior on March 13th, 2020, Breonna Taylor, an African American woman, was fatally shot by police who entered her apartment with a no-knock warrant. The police officers were after a drug suspect, but no drugs were found in Taylor’s apartment, and she had no criminal record. These cases are not isolated events; America’s history has been filled with the death of unarmed African Americans at the hands of the police officers, many of whom received little to no repercussions. In order to address this aspect of systemic racism, one proposal is to redirect police funding to other institutions like mental health services that would respond to tense situations without first resorting to violence. With continued cases of police brutality, cutbacks in police funding is needed in order to fund alternative approaches to law enforcement that would reduce police violence and ensure safer communities, despite opposing claims of higher crime rates.

Meaning of “Defund the Police”

The extent to which police departments should be reduced varies from specific percentages to abolishment altogether. However, the primary rationale behind the movement is the belief that addressing causes of crime such as poverty and homelessness would be more effective in keeping communities safe. Thus, funding for the police should be diverted to areas such as education and social services for mental health and domestic violence. Many of the situations that police respond to are better handled by professionals like mental health workers: A 2017 national survey revealed that law enforcement workers spent around 21% of their time and 10% of their budget “responding to and transporting people with mental illness”. Asking police officers to respond to emergencies that many of them are not trained for adds unnecessary pressure to their already stressful job. By allowing alternative organizations to handle nonviolent situations, such as a report of a homeless person, a significant burden would be taken off of officers.

Backlash Against the Measure

However, opponents to the proposed measure argue that it punishes the entire police system for the actions of a few officers. Attorney General Bill Barr, a prominent critic, stated that reducing police budgets is “dangerous” and “wrong” on a Fox News Interview. The opposers’ main argument, which has been echoed by President Donald Trump, is that crime levels would increase if police departments were defunded. Although this argument would have merit if law enforcement were actively preventing and solving crimes, police departments across the nation have had persistently low solve rates in recent years, despite large increases in funding. Though the US has tripled their spending on policing in the last 40 years, in 2019, Baltimore police only had a 32% homicide clearance rate, which is a dramatic decrease from 56% in 2015. Additionally, there is a clear racial bias in the number of cases solved: a 2014 study in New York City by Daily News revealed that homicides with white victims were solved 86% of the time while only 45% of cases with black victims were solved. The low performance of police departments compared to their cost is indicative that a new approach to policing is needed.

Effectiveness of Reduced Police Presence

Although there is no conclusive proof that reducing the role of police on a massive scale will promote peace in the long term, past cases have suggested that the proposal will make a positive impact. A 2017 report which detailed the NYPD’s pull back on “proactive policing,”, defined as the “systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations”, resulted in 2,100 fewer crime complaints during the time period. In 2018, the city of Dallas responded to the overwhelming amount of 911 calls for psychiatric-related issues by creating RIGHT Care, an initiative that paired police officers responding to mental calls with a paramedic and a social worker. As a result of the program, the number of arrests in the region dropped, which also put less burden on overcrowded jails. Furthermore, RIGHT Care addressed public criticism that Dallas officers were using excessive force on African Americans, especially those suffering mental breakdowns. Funds diverted from the police could go to starting programs like RIGHT Care in other major cities as an alternative resource for residents.

Looking Ahead

As societal values progress, so should longstanding institutions. The practice of pouring billions into police departments and expecting officers to handle a wide range of emergencies with little professional training must come to an end. In fact, decisive action to reduce police budgets have already occurred around the country. In just the past few weeks, the Minneapolis city council voted to dissolve the city’s police force, and LA mayor Garcetti agreed to cut $100 million to $150 million from the previously proposed police budget. Although these efforts are not nearly enough, they are a promising sign for future initiatives. Through working with residents, community leaders can create an approach to law enforcement that lowers crime rates without incidents of senseless violence.