To De(fund) or Not to De(fund)

It is a nice idea, but it is not a consistently achievable goal. First, let’s remember that according to the Brookings Institute, one of the academic think tanks that dwells on these topics, “‘Defund the police’ means reallocating or redirecting funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by the local municipality.” The goal is that those programs can be more effective and reduce the need for law enforcement further down the road, thus reducing crime and improving the community’s quality of life. It does not mean “eliminate the police” or “abolish law enforcement” or “punish the police by taking their budget.” People who espouse “Defund the Police” in order to accomplish any of these alternative definitions are, well, I’ll use the term “uninformed.”

Second, you have to look at the reasons the theory began. Primarily, police are trained to investigate crime and apprehend criminals; most of their training is focused on this task. Police are generally the only public employees in a jurisdiction who are on duty and able to respond to all the miscellaneous calls for service, so our elected officials, to save money, have delegated all those calls for service to the police. As a police officer, I responded to a whole slew of non-law enforcement responsibilities, not the least of which was mental health crises, homelessness, civil disputes, and even university policy violations. These were all things that the powers to be decided must be handled by a law enforcement agency, for no other reason than there was no one else to take care of these issues. I have heard the phrase “is this really something that the police should respond to?” uttered by every officer I worked with at one time or another.

How expensive would it be to create whole new agencies whose responsibility is to respond to all these non-law enforcement calls for service  24/7? Very. We’ll have the police do it. They are already on patrol and they know how to take criminals into custody, how different is it for them to take mentally ill persons into custody, or arrest the homeless, or interpret civil law and policy?

This is the same decision-making process that goes into many of our quality of life issues that we ask police to handle: Drug/Alcohol addiction, Landlord/Tenant disputes, and many other non-criminal problems that we send police on. Elected officials look at the issue and think, well, it’s too expensive to add a whole new 24/7 agency and staff, so we will just have the police do it. And when it is something that the elected officials decide police must respond to, they add a training component, which can be anywhere from two hours of initial training to eight hours of bi-annual training (four hours of training a year-is there anything that you train four hours for and still remember how to do?).

So the idea that other agencies could be funded to handle these other, non-criminal duties, is optimistic and, in my opinion, forward thinking; their head is in the right place.

Third, we have to realize that defunding is more expensive than we are told. The theory says that we can just use the money taken from the law enforcement agency to spend on social services, but that won’t cut it. Most police agencies in the United States are small, under 25 sworn officers or deputies. These agencies are already underfunded and while they would love to have their workloads reduced from responding to non-law enforcement related calls, their local jurisdictions could not afford to cut three or four positions to fund no more than two or three social workers to handle all those other calls for service. Defunding might work in some of the largest jurisdictions, New York City, Los Angeles, San Diego (and especially San Francisco where the police don’t seem to respond to these issues already), but even moderately sized agencies can only cut so much and will have no real impact on the local social services agencies which are generally county run.

Fourth, cities and counties have to really commit to these new or augmented social services agencies up front. Having worked in government for 30 years and having seen that if an organization says, we will start this agency to respond to mental health incidents with two people and we will gradually increase it as we cut the police department budget, they are lying. They may not know they are lying, but they are. If you want to augment your social services agency to respond to mental health crises, 24/7, you have to pick a date and say, “It will hit the ground running on this date, fully staffed and fully equipped to meet its mission.” And then you can cut the police budget, but not before. If they don’t, you won’t ever have your social service agency. And how expensive would it be to implement properly? VERY. Elected officials and bureaucrats will get lax and it will fall back into the laps of the police when the social workers don’t have the staff or equipment to do their jobs. And we will be back at square one.

Finally, one of the most exciting things about living in a country with localized law enforcement is being able to watch other communities experiment without any risk to yourself (my apologies to the residents of Minneapolis and Berkeley). I was very interested in watching how Minneapolis would abolish their police department and replace it with something “different.” Unfortunately (for us), we have all seen the city council back off their pledge to abolish the police and say that they were simply making a symbolic gesture, and since Berkeley’s big announcement that they were going to create a Department of Transportation to enforce traffic laws, I haven’t heard a thing.

While I support the theory of defunding the police, it is my sincerest belief that elected officials will never have the backbone to implement it properly and that communities will never fund it voluntarily. But police departments should support their communities’ efforts to find new ways to perform policing and experimental methods of handling the traditional law enforcement role, including simply not responding to certain kinds of calls because there is no effective way for law enforcement to respond it is the only way that we will find effective and useful alternatives.

Sorry, though, police departments that are not in my community should do that first. We will be happy to act on what works in your neighborhood after you show us its effectiveness.

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