During the protests that ensued after George Floyd’s death, a radical notion surfaced with a vengeance: to defund the US police force.
Defunding means to prevent the provision of funds. Advocates of this initiative — taking money from the police force, prisons and judicial system — call for reinvestment of those funds into social programmes. The calls range from reductions to budgets to scrapping the police force altogether.
Some may consider defunding a transformative resolution; others may see it as left-field notion hardly applicable in this day and age. Though still baffled by the concept, I have come to realise that defunding the police force has some merit to it, even if implementing it, understandably, is very challenging. If nothing else, it requires rethinking basic fundamentals that go back centuries. After all, policing has existed around the world, in some form or another, from times immemorial.
The goal of defunding is to direct funds appropriated to the police force towards programmes that stop crimes from happening in the first place: education, health, housing, addiction counselling and violence prevention programmes. In a proactive fashion, the cause is being treated, rather than the symptoms. By housing the homeless, making counsellors available to assist addicts and those with mental health issues, assisting in the assimilation of ethnic minorities, and resolving the issues that make some commit crimes, violence would subside.
Calum Marsh describes this innovative choice in the National Post: “The alternative proposed is simple. Someone is sleeping on a park bench: instead of a cop, a city employee comes by and offers shelter. Someone is doing drugs in public: instead of a cop, a substance use professional intervenes and determines if they need help. Someone is shouting and behaving erratically in the street: instead of a cop, a social worker trained in dealing with people with mental illness approaches and calms them down, guiding them home, or bringing them somewhere for assistance.”
Interestingly enough, as demonstrators call for better policing, mayors, councillors and officials at large, in US cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, San Francisco, New York and Minneapolis, expressed support for some form of defunding in their jurisdictions.
A New York councillor called for a $1 billion cut from the New York Police Department (NYPD), and directing those funds, “towards vulnerable communities most impacted by police violence”. The mayor of Los Angeles wants to cut as much as $150 million from the police, just two days after he put forward a city budget that was increasing police funding by seven per cent. In Minneapolis, where the protests began, the city council committed to dismantling the police department altogether and replacing it with a new model of public safety. Even in Toronto, Canada, councillors put forward a motion to defund the police budget by 10 per cent.
We cannot tell if these initiatives are meant to diffuse the anger over Floyd’s death or if they are serious efforts on the part of lawmakers. Still, are such changes plausible? Ramifications may leave ordinary citizens in jeopardy and, in certain societies, pave the way for violent aggressors to commit more violent crimes.
However, as far as an increase in violence is concerned, according to a study conducted at Louisiana State University, less policing may bring about fewer crimes. The study examined a slowdown staged by the NYPD after an anti-police extremist shot two officers in 2014. The research proved that the absence of police activity itself led to “a drop in crime”; “that aggressive and systematic policing of low-level violations incites more severe criminal acts”.
We may agree that reform in policing is paramount, but at what level and what expense? One change that may improve the system without throwing the baby out with the bath water would be to involve citizens of each jurisdiction in the budgeting process. This participatory budget, dubbed the “people’s budget”, has ordinary citizens involved in the allocation of the budget and prioritising the spending process.
Participatory budgeting already exists in many cities around the world; it gives the marginalised and those who want to have a say a possible route into the process. The percentage allocated to participatory budgeting may start small and become larger by time, once proven successful.
One other problem is that, until now, most reforms to any police force expanded the reach of the police rather than limited it. If nothing else, police reform should include training to reduce brutality and implement real change in the fashion by which the police curtails citizens. Amnesty International asks: “With whom are many US police departments training?” The response sheds light on much of the violence and aggression utilised by police forces across the US: “With a chronic human rights violator — Israel.”
According to Amnesty International, hundreds of law enforcement officials from across the US travel to Israel for training; thousands of others receive training from Israeli officials in the US. This while Israel continues to carry out “extrajudicial executions… and excessive use of force against protesters”. If police forces are prohibited from participating in militarised exchange trainings with Israel, as the council of the Durham, North Carolina, did in 2018, the tendency to use excessive force may be alleviated.
Defunding a police force cannot be taken lightly or applied without careful study. Some societies would even consider it a bizarre concept. In any case, bringing this discussion to the forefront warrants a serious review of how police forces conduct their business, but more importantly it sheds light on how serious the need for reform is, in the US in particular.
The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly