Recently, protests in the United States broke out in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The Black Lives Matter movement, driven to immediate action by this tragedy, continues its long fight against the systemic mistreatment of African Americans. In it’s wake the idea of defunding the police has gained momentum across the nation. This does not mean completely dismantling police departments but rather diverting money to more effective areas while reducing the scope of matters that are covered by the police.
Police departments in the United States have been driven towards militarisation for decades due to the 1033 Program which allows the US military to send used combat equipment to local law enforcement agencies. The last thirty years has seen an increase in police wearing helmets and masks, carrying assault rifles and riding in armoured vehicles. Additionally, three US cities have police budgets exceeding $1 billion with New York City nearing $6 billion.
Earlier this month, the NYC Comptroller requested a $1.1 billion reduction in NYPD spending over the next four years. In the same week, Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti, announced he will make cuts to the LAPD. On top of this direct action, politicians and law makers in over a dozen other US cities have proposed or suggested reductions to police departments. This is positive progress but if the departments are defunded, communities will still need to create effective alternatives.
Fortunately, there are successful programs already in place to inspire change. More than three decades ago, in Eugene, Oregon, the White Bird Clinic started a mobile, community-based crisis program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets). It employs non-police first responders to address disturbances where crimes are not being committed. The program fielded over 24,000 calls last year with less than 1 percent of them needing police assistance.
Such a program proves that many nonviolent interactions do not require armed police and can be assigned to others. For example; city workers can flag down motorists who have a taillight out, and volunteers can direct traffic or lead a parade. Cities have already started removing police from schools, evidenced by the school board in Minneapolis deciding to terminate its contract with police.
If other school districts do the same, then the United States could see a reduction of police presence in schools with an increase in counsellors trained to interact with students. Other nonviolent interactions may include 911 calls for which trained professionals – not armed police – show up to help.
Even violent offences such as sexual assault may see a reduction in police interventions. Instead of police with limited trauma training answering the call, a community-based response team called SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) may handle the case. This possible change should have priority given that in 35 states no laws expressly define sex between police officers and detainees as non-consensual.
A reduction in police interventions would also alleviate the congestion in the courts. Instead of leading prisoners through the criminal justice system, communities could start implementing restorative justice programs. It would be a holistic approach concentrating on the harm done to the individuals and community rather than imprisonment.
However, even if police departments are defunded and community-based programs are implemented, law enforcement officers still have legal protection when using excessive force. Qualified immunity makes it difficult to hold police officers accountable whilst Supreme Court decisions such as Graham v. Connor (1989) and Tennessee v. Garner (1985) perpetuate a culture of police brutality.
Until there are legal reforms, the communities must limit the brutality through limited contact with police. More social services, public housing, mental health response programs and drug rehabilitation programs would lead communities towards compassion rather than incarceration. It would put the power back into the hands of the citizens, breaking the toxic dependency upon broken systems.
Words by Jeff Ehren