Let the Experts Be Experts:
Why We Must Defund the Police
By Shereá Denise
“Money for schools! Not police!
Money for housing! Not police!”
This is my personal call to defund the police. In my opinion defunding the police is necessary because law enforcement throughout this nation continues to get large sums of money for things like weapons, patrol cars, and more officers in response to issues that will not be solved by any of those things. The funding received by law enforcement could be reallocated to allow experts to work with our community to address issues like mental health, trauma, and substance abuse. By reallocating this money, we are making it possible for experts to do the work that they are trained in rather than asking or expecting law enforcement to serve as gun-toting experts in fields that they have little-to-no interest in.
Others who have written about this topic have said that ““defunding the police" simply means reducing police department budgets and redistributing those funds towards essential social services that are often underfunded, such as housing, education, employment, mental health care, and youth services.”
After hearing so many protest cries to defund the police, I decided to take a look at the Fiscal Year 2020 - 2021 Budget Ordinances for my city and county to determine just how much money law enforcement was receiving in the name of protecting and serving my community. In reviewing the amounts granted to various departments, I found that the Sheriff’s Department received the third highest amount of money designated by our County Commissioners, falling behind the local school system and the Department of Social Services. I was honestly shocked by this. I fully expected our Sheriff’s Department to receive the most money because of the high regard that so many non-minority residents and our County Commissioners hold the Sheriff in. This is where I note that this “high regard” exists despite ongoing concerns that our Sheriff’s Department continues to implement racist and anti-immigrant practices.
Conversely, the city police department has the highest amount allotted in the local budget. This is in line with what I expected to see. This is disheartening because - in 2020 - this same city police department received criticisms regarding an officer-involved shooting of an unarmed Black man and for inappropriate race-based social media posts that were mistakenly shared on the police department’s social media page by a law enforcement official.
At this point it seems like we are rewarding bad behavior. I cannot bring myself to believe that any of the funding received by the Sheriff’s Department and city police will be put towards diversity and implicit bias trainings because I know better. I cannot even hope that our local city and county leaders instituted some type of stipulation that the funding be granted only if such trainings are implemented because - in order to require a solution - you must first acknowledge that there is a problem.
Going back to the budget...
I was semi-surprised by the fact that there was no general fund - specifically for mental health services - in either budget. There have been discussions about opening a facility for those having mental health episodes so that they can be detained locally without going to jail, but there have been very few updates about the construction of said facility over the last two years. Without this facility, people will continue to call law enforcement in response to people being in crisis and the presence of law enforcement in such situations can be both disastrous and fatal. At best, law enforcement can assist in forcibly committing someone. At worst, someone could lose their life.
This is the reason that people are demanding that we defund the police. Because, at some point, we decided that they are The Ghostbusters who can handle any problem when - in fact - they are not qualified to address many problems and they are not interested in handling them either.
Professor Christy E. Lopez explores this point in an article written for the Washington Post where she states that we must “recognize how much we have come to over-rely on law enforcement. We turn to the police in situations where years of experience and common sense tell us that their involvement is unnecessary, and can make things worse.”
We should have options other than law enforcement when someone is having a mental health crisis. Though there is one local police department here that works with mental health liaisons, that police department is limited to assisting those in its jurisdiction.
We should also have options other than law enforcement when someone is trying to overcome homelessness or when people are struggling with food insecurity. A few years ago, our local homeless shelter (that also provides meals to those in need) was at risk of being closed due to a lack of funding. You know who always has funding? Law enforcement.
We should have options other than law enforcement when someone’s sole crime is drug addiction or prior trauma. How is someone pointing a gun at someone who is high or who is experiencing a trauma-induced episode helpful? How does that make anything better?
Show me how a person spends their money and I will show you their priorities.
I could support the notion of giving law enforcement so much money if that meant that the officers were going to be trained in areas such as mental health, implicit bias, and trauma. Instead we are continuing to give more money to police officers who are intimidating those in need and brutalizing those who upset them. By continuing to provide money to law enforcement with no regard for the many issues that are actually facing society that the police cannot resolve, we are sending a very clear message: We care about arrests more than your distress. We care about “law and order” more than support and service. We care more about sending you to jail than getting you help.
Professor Lopez references an interview between GQ’s Alex Shultz and Activist DeRay Mckesson when she states: “Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.”
Weapons and fatigues do not promote community mediation and violence interruption. They promote fear.
This also brings up another point...
It is my belief that, in addition to defunding the police, we must also take action to demilitarize the police. So often we see people become officers who find themselves in difficult situations and default to weapons and murder rather than protecting and serving. Too many times law enforcement relies on their weapons instead of using de-escalation tactics. As law enforcement currently exists, the mere presence of an officer can immediately escalate a situation.
In a June 2020 article for Washington Monthly, Anne Kim takes on the1033 Program that is part of the National Defense Authorization Act, calling it “a deadly pipeline that is turning American cities into battlefields.” She also discusses how this program went from being one intended to provide resources to combat the war on terror and the war on drugs to becoming a “war that’s being waged… against communities of color, especially when they dare to protest yet another killing of an unarmed [B]lack man by a white officer.”
One day we will discuss the discriminatory undertones that justified the creation of this program, but - today - let's stick to what this program looks like in our cities here in America. You need only to glance at the videos of how peaceful protesters are treated by law enforcement in most American cities to understand that the 1033 Program has emboldened law enforcement and removed the idea that there is such a thing as de-escalation, negotiation, or mediation.
The most concerning part of the 1033 Program to me is that we are giving military-style resources to people who are so easily put in fear for their lives that they shoot and kill unarmed Black men and women, then kill and/or injure those who dare to call for justice for the lives that have been taken.
In addition to the arguments that we should defund and demilitarize police, there are those who argue that we should abolish the police altogether. While I understand many of the arguments in favor of this approach, it is not one that I can endorse just yet. I believe that law enforcement serves a purpose, but the current way in which law enforcement exists does not truly serve all parts or members of our society. I believe that demilitarizing and defunding the police are steps in the right direction, steps that get us to a different baseline and that allow the experts to have the space to be experts without guns or shields being required. Abolishing the police without a plan for what society’s structure looks like without them seems premature to me. I am not saying that law enforcement will always be necessary, but I am saying that they are not completely unnecessary right now.
“...the call to defund the police is, I think, an abolitionist demand, but it reflects only one aspect of the process represented by the demand. Defunding the police is not simply about withdrawing funding for law enforcement and doing nothing else… It’s about shifting public funds to new services and new institutions — mental health counselors, who can respond to people who are in crisis without arms. It’s about shifting funding to education, to housing, to recreation. All of these things help to create security and safety. It’s about learning that safety, safeguarded by violence, is not really safety. And I would say that abolition is not primarily a negative strategy. It’s not primarily about dismantling, getting rid of, but it’s about reenvisioning. It’s about building anew. And I would argue that abolition is a feminist strategy. And one sees in these abolitionist demands that are emerging the pivotal influence of feminist theories and practices.” -Angela Davis