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“Breaking Badly: The Defunding of Police”

October 16, 2020

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In the recent Trump-Biden debate, Trump paints himself as the “law and order President” and his opponent, along with Kamala Harris, as “defunders of the police.” The reality is the President tragically ignores the need for legitimate reform and Biden/Harris recognize that reforms are urgently needed. To Joe Biden’s credit he was even able to comment above the Trump din, emphatically stating “I am not for defunding the police” and “they need even more assistance.”


Since the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police officers, Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris have heard loud and clear the righteous, rising tide of demands for police reforms that swept through every corner of our country. They recognize these types of homicides and the cycle of protests have played out before and too often. How the cycle's end sits squarely with leaders like them, the myriad of state and local elected officials, as well as the law enforcement organizations they oversee. The community’s wants and needs from their police must be heard, defined, accepted, and implemented in a timely, transparent manner. In order to do so, police organizations must do more than just accept that racial and institutional bias exists; they must accept that the history of policing weaponized that bias and purposefully applied it to communities of color. Worse yet, they must accept that history is still a present-day reality for some living in communities policed by departments with poor oversight and accountability.


It is equally important for communities to understand that all police organizations cannot be painted with the same brush and that the majority of police organizations have come a long way from their oppressive origins and continue to do so. They must be supported so they can continue to lead bias reforms, achieve full transparency, and ultimately better serve the communities they police. Communities must actively partner with those organizations, define their needs in policing, hold elected officials accountable for delivering it through funding and oversight, and community stakeholders must hold their own community accountable in doing so. Only then can the true public trust in “equal justice for all” be affirmed.


The good news is portions of communities are clearly holding up their end of the bargain, speaking out, and defining their needs. A variety of reform movements have emerged with a series of demands ranging from “Abolishing the Police” to “Defunding the Police” to “Community Policing-Reimagined.” While they differ widely, the better news is they share a common narrative that consensus could be built upon. All reform movements want to remove police from doing non-police functions. Surprising to some, many police organizations agree.


Police are responsible for maintaining public safety, enforcing laws, and investigating criminal activities. They are not and nor do they want to be medical first responders, social workers, child welfare specialists, substance abuse counselors, mental health psychotherapists, marriage counselors, civil case arbitrators, or housing rights advocates. Although, we as a community require them to do all of these things, over and above their public safety mission because of decades-long, systemic defunding of social service systems. With the lack of institutional care and services, which disproportionally affect impoverished communities, we have asked those living there to endure deeply rooted disenfranchisement and high crime rates where the causal effect is more policing thus a higher proportionate of police encounters with the citizenry.


Whether as haters of the police, blindly supportive of the police, or anywhere in between, the harsh reality is we as the community have asked police to be the first-line responders to the myriad of social ills and human suffering that the lack of social investment has caused. Police organizations were the first to raise the alarm that they do not have the resources and training to properly do so. And, by having to still do so, it has greatly diminished the police’s ability to deliver on its primary mission of ensuring Public Safety and criminal investigation.


Defunding those organizations to pay for neglected, social service systems in hopes the police will somehow have less to do and thus need fewer resources to do it is a hazardous path to real reform.


The complexity of policing is obvious, yet remember it is ultimately binary. If you properly invest in public safety and conclusive criminal investigations, crime rates go way down. If you invest in proper training and transparency mechanisms, community satisfaction goes up. If you take away those funds and place them into social service programs, then it better have an immediate, binary result. Meaning the daily interactions that citizens REQUIRE from their police; the criminalized encounters with homelessness, drug addiction, child welfare cases, and civil dispute calls, to name a few, would have to evaporate from the police blotter and be readily handled by the social services personnel. If that could be achieved it would be welcomed by police organizations and by reformists because it reduces encounters where armed police should not be.


However, even if you could get this immediate result, funding social services at the expense of the police budget does not add up. Remember, police had to shift money away from their core mission to try to deal with the social service mission. Response times, timely and conclusive investigations, as well as community outreach, have greatly suffered. Today, as a community, we are at the very same time demanding they invest more into much-needed transparency and oversight, racial bias training, multi-cultural recruitment, crisis intervention and de-escalation training, non-lethal weapon alternatives, and body cameras to name a few. Are we not then making the same mistake we made when we defunded institutions of care? Find the money elsewhere. Yet, the police need those monies to reform.


Communities can make police and the elected officials overseeing them accountable for reallocating funds not away from police organizations but towards them to accelerate reformation of policing and improving their core public safety functions. Use those funds to support the implementation of the recommendations that already have a consensus as outlined in the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015).


Collectively we can ensure those funds serve the communities that need it the most. The communities that have suffered a lack of institutional and business investment and have little affluence and political clout. These communities are policed differently; police are disproportionately deployed to reduce crime rates and are viewed as an occupying force vs a public safety team on beck and call to that community to serve them the way they need. Just as police departments don’t want to be painted with the same brush, nor do the communities who have different perspectives on policing.  


In partnership, reformers and police organizations share the common goal to get police out of non-policing activity. They share the common goal to rebuild institutions of care. Right now, the police have been set up for failure. Good police departments are struggling to satisfy their community needs and bad ones are using the lack of funding as cover to not even try, or worse yet, prey upon those who dare to speak up. 


Let us push forward police reform demands, building on our common goals. The recent defunding for a “quick fix” or “political cover” does nothing but risk the lasting, needed police reforms our communities deserve. Just ask the recently resigned Seattle Police Chief, Carmen Best, who was a true, proven reformer. If not her, who will be left to actually re-imagine community policing the way we demand.


Charles Segars is a national security and government policy advisor for public and private partnerships looking to effectively invest in the betterment of communities. Segars is also a  twenty-year, law enforcement reserve in Los Angeles.

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