In my neighborhood of D.C., there is a Whole Foods on P Street NW, between 14th and 15th. Prior to its ultragentrification, the neighborhood was home to one of the city’s most well-known homeless shelters; years on, there are still often one or two homeless Washingtonians who spend the day on this particular block. I recall one occasion, a couple of years ago, when I passed one such person in front of the grocery, wandering the sidewalk and shouting—something like “Fuck Trump,” which is certainly a pretty ubiquitous sentiment in D.C. As I left the store, 15 minutes later, he was still outside but was now arguing that Ronald Reagan might have been even worse than Trump; another man sitting on the street outside the store agreed.
I smiled to myself as I walked by, resisting the urge to whitely say something like, “Right on, sir!” But as I turned the corner, I saw a middle-aged white guy talking to a police officer in a car, gesturing at the shouting man. I don’t know if he was just complaining about the slightly elevated noise or claiming that the man was somehow dangerous. I can report that, as a youngish woman who can barely lift a bag of kitty litter, I did not feel threatened by his vigorous political speech.
Regardless of that particular man-Karen’s intentions, recent evidence has shown that this is what the police are, to well-off white people: An omnipresent, benevolent force to be called when things are going wrong in any way. There is little sense that those who employ the police in this fashion—as a referee governing the ticky-tack conflicts of ordinary urban existence—consider what might happen once the cops get involved. They are much more likely to see the police as a solution to, not a cause of, problems. And so, armed men who are trained to mete out physical punishment in the name of keeping the order are sent into situations that don’t require that level of intervention.
The George Floyd killing was the spark for the recent protests against police, but as The New York Times noted recently, another incident that happened on the same day also highlighted the “entrenched racism” black people face: The famous encounter in the Central Park Ramble, where Amy Cooper dialed 911 to sic the police on Christian Cooper, claiming that he was threatening her life, because he—a black man—had the temerity to ask her to leash her dog, as the park’s rules require. This incident highlighted not just how the police function as an enforcer of a horrible racial order, always available to threaten black people with implicit violence, but how many white people know they exist for this reason and are willing to use them as such.
It is easy to see how the Coopers’ incident, combined with Floyd’s killing, may have sparked a horrible realization among the thousands of white people who joined the protests against police racism: The police enforce white supremacy. Amy Cooper can call the cops with a false and malicious report of “an African American man” threatening her life; George Floyd dies under the knee of a police officer for passing a $20 bad check. You don’t even have to know about the modern police’s roots in slave patrols to recognize what tradition is being recalled.
There is a reason that calls to abolish or defund the police are more prevalent in this round of protests against police brutality, and it isn’t just that the left is louder than it was five years ago. In part, there is a recognition that, having watched the same violent ineptitude play on a loop for several decades running, the police force we have cannot be meaningfully “reformed.”
Nevertheless, prominent Democratic politicians, from Joe Biden to Bernie Sanders to the mayor of Minneapolis, have rejected the notion that the police should be defunded or abolished. Instead, politicians have countered that these departments actually need more funding, for things like racial bias training or the expansion of community policing. This is in direct contrast to the argument made by supporters of defunding the police, an argument articulated well by Derecka Purnell and Marbre Stahly-Butts months before Floyd’s death, in The New York Times: That the damage of mass incarceration cannot be healed “without reducing the size and scope of the police,” because “police fill prisons.” That is what the police are for, and that is what they will do.
Community policing is a popular concept among those who want to reform the police without abolishing it, the idea being that police officers who are more in touch with the communities around them will be better able to prevent crime without force. Joe Biden mentioned it in his recent op-ed on police brutality and systemic racism. But community policing has been criticized by activists such as Philip V. Harris, who in 2019 noted in The Appeal that the “strategy further floods communities with police and legitimizes an institution that is centered on punishment and control.” A recent article in The Boston Globe about the city’s use of community policing reported that different departments, even within the same cities, interpret what “community policing” means in different ways. Naturally, this has led to wide variations in the practice’s success, with many police using it as “a kind of bumper-sticker slogan while making no real effort to carry out the necessary work.” A perfect policy, then, for a Democratic politician to propose.
But here is where my memory of that day on 14th Street is instructive. One of the key propositions behind defunding the police is that the police are currently stuck performing a lot of functions to which they aren’t suited. These include dealing with homelessness, mental health crises, and a range of other social maladies that don’t fit into a mission of crime prevention.
America doesn’t have much of a health care system, and an even less functional mental health care system has been stapled on to it. There is a dire shortage of mental health care providers; those who take insurance at all, let alone Medicaid, are in even shorter supply. (One survey found that only 35 percent of psychiatrists accept Medicaid, a vital safety-net program for the poor.) Paying to see a psychiatrist out of pocket might cost hundreds of dollars, and the waiting list can be months. This functionally means that poor people often cannot get the care they need and certainly not regularly; yet at the same time, poor people are more likely to have mental health issues.
Sending in the cops to cover this shortfall comes with a high cost. People with untreated mental health issues are 16 times more likely to be killed during encounters with the police, according to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center. A co-author of the study said: “By dismantling the mental illness treatment system, we have turned our mental health crisis from a medical issue into a police matter.” Why should we expect police to be any good at dealing with such issues, even under the best of circumstances—even if our police forces weren’t seemingly overrun with trigger-happy cops who know they are unlikely to experience any negative consequences for use of excessive force; that all they have to do is claim they were afraid, surrounded by others who will protect them?
As historian Elizabeth Hinton told The New York Times recently, “the decision to manage these larger socioeconomic problems with law enforcement and with prisons” ended up “winning out” in the 1960s, and this paradigm reigns today. The police are frequently involved in incidents where not only should force never be used, but a police officer should never be involved in the first place. Reforming the standards for use of force—which, even when broken, don’t seem to result in much accountability for cops—doesn’t remove police from situations that can escalate quickly simply because they are there.
Biden nodded toward this reality in his recent op-ed, saying “we need to prevent 911 calls in scenarios where police should not be our first responders” and proposing “making serious investments in mental health services,” for example. But what investments? What services? His site’s health care plan page doesn’t offer specifics but merely boasts about the strides made by the Affordable Care Act and says he will “expand funding.” This is clearly and deeply inadequate, and betrays an inability to imagine the scale of change that is needed. Not surprising for a man whose health care policy would choose to leave 10 million people uninsured, perhaps.
In his op-ed, Biden said that every “single police department should have the money they need to institute real reforms.” Even Bernie Sanders called for paying cops more, to ensure that they are “well-educated, well-trained, well-paid professionals.” But it isn’t a question of departments needing more money—certainly, the $300 million nationwide that Biden proposes would be a drop in the bucket, anyway. The obvious problem with continuing to throw cash at the police we currently have is that they continue to demonstrate that they can’t be trusted to spend public money.
The money that’s already been staked for the purpose of implementing various reforms in cities across America has proven to be insufficient to spark real change. An NPR story from this week, for example, examined how bans on choke holds in American cities over decades have been “largely ineffective and subject to lax enforcement.” New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board concluded in 2014 that “the use of chokeholds at the time appeared to be rising despite a decades-long ban.” A choke-hold ban is one of the few reforms that appears to have momentum at the federal level, notwithstanding Trump’s weak and largely meaningless executive order.
Increasing the funds available to police without also implementing dramatic conceptual changes as to what policing is and what police officers do on the job, is a recipe for disaster. The plain fact about incidents of police violence, both against black people and recently against protesters, is that the system incentivizes such behavior by insulating cops from accountability. This is why the argument that cops actually need more money to do the things activists want them to do falls so flat: Activists don’t trust the cops to do those things at all.
Naturally, it is a complicated picture. As David Kennedy wrote for The Los Angeles Times in 2015, the problem for many black neighborhoods is that they are simultaneously underpoliced and overpoliced: Residents seeking relief from serious crime are routinely ignored but constantly harassed for minor violations, all of which drags more people into the life-ruining criminal justice system. Getting rid of the police may solve the latter problem, but not the former. Still, the question remains: Can the cops be expected to recalibrate their functions so dramatically on their own? Given the fact that the status quo grants to police an enormous amount of political power, how could the answer be anything but no?
This is what makes the movement to defund the police different: It seeks to strike at the heart of police departments’ privileged position. The vast, inflated budgets of police departments are a reflection of their vast, inflated power, which in turn demonstrates the power of police unions. Police departments command billions of dollars and a huge proportion of city budgets, while social services languish. By steering these billions away from the police and into other social services staffed by professionals who are better suited to mitigate the problems that the cops are mismanaging, you’ll have a less militarized police force intervening in fewer matters, a more balanced distribution of political power across the array of municipal service providers, and most importantly, fewer encounters between people and the agents of their government that end in violence or the violation of civil rights.
Democratic politicians, who should be spearheading these kinds of efforts, have instead exhibited a major misunderstanding of the problems that protesters have been articulating—one that borders on ignorance or contempt. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently told protesters they could “go home” because they had “won,” and “society says you’re right, the police need systemic reform,” as if everyone had reached an agreement on what that systemic reform entailed. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has styled herself as a trendy Black Lives Matter supporter, is bent on maintaining her proposal to increase funding for the police, insisting without evidence that the protesters and she, whose police department spent the past week kettling them, both “support the things that will make our community safe.” Biden, in his op-ed, presented providing more funding for police as vitally necessary to defeat systemic racism. Maybe you can’t expect Crime Bill Joe and his fellow Democrats to support something as radical as defunding the police. They shouldn’t lie about being on the same side as the people who do.