The slogan to defund the police or to abolish the police in the wake of protests against police brutality sparked by the filmed murder of George Floyd has become a new movement. While it sounds like protesters want a lawless state, what it really means is that we need to completely restructure the police department function in the US and to divert the outlandish funding it currently receives into pro-social progams. In many cities, the PD makes up 10x more of the budget than the other services the local government provides (some of which have federal subsidies). It’s gotten this high in the wake of 9/11, even though places like Minneapolis don’t need to be arming themselves for a war. Even small town police departments often have military grade weapons like grenade launchers (!) which are completely unnecessary.
The protests, most of which were peaceful, were frequently attacked by police crew in riot gear, using rubber bullets, batons, and tear gas to terrorize protesters. If you wanted to show police at their worst, it seems they could not have designed it better. We have video of police using shields or their hands to knock down elderly bystanders, an officer groping a female protester, then his fellow officers assaulting a bystander for asking why they were allowing this, and police
teargassing using other chemical agents similar to teargas (smoke and pepper balls) in effect on a peaceful protest to clear a path for an ill-conceived presidential photo-op. Or try this one on for size: a protester was charged with “assault with a deadly weapon” because he (apparently) tossed back a tear gas canister that was thrown into the crowd by the police. Why are we paying the police to assault our citizens with deadly weapons that are banned for use in war by the Geneva convention? If it’s a deadly assault weapon, don’t use it on citizens! A friend of my son was arrested as a protester when the police used a “kettling” technique, corralling protesters, cutting off their exit points, and then waiting until the curfew had passed so they could arrest and cite them for breaking curfew.
If you actually look at the timeline, you’ll see something interesting. The protests became more peaceful the longer they went on, and in many places, particularly larger metropolitan areas, the police response became more violent just as the protests were more peaceful. Why did this happen? It seems to have been a response to the same thing: concerns about looting and violence, and pointed statements that the police weren’t doing enough. Citizens as a whole don’t want violence in their communities, but police don’t want to be seen as weak.
At some point in our history, the police became an unquestioned benefit, a necessity, a sacred cow, and we’ve let them define the terms of this relationship they have with the public. They tell us what they need, and they get it. Defunding the police means that we don’t leave it up to the existing system to redefine itself. We start over with a different design, different roles, and possibly different personnel. As with corporate America, if a department has deep problems, it’s common to require that everyone in that department re-apply for their positions. Several positions may be cut and/or replaced with other functions that the existing staff may not qualify to perform. Plans to defund the police usually entail this step.
Another problem with any existing organization is that the baggage of history has defined where it is now, having shaped it to some extent. There are many historical problems with the police:
- In the south, it was originally a vigilante slave patrol, eventually run by the KKK, specifically designed to target and punish black people and to protect the property and dominance of white people.
- I see the superior smirking north of the Mason-Dixon line, but guess what–it wasn’t a whole lot better up north once free blacks started migrating there! Recent immigrants were disproportionately recruited to police the only people lower than them on the social strata: black people and newer immigrants. These groups ended up aligning within the police force by ethnicity, and their status as police officers gave them more respectability and acceptance in American culture, but often at the expense of those less fortunate and poorer.
- During the prohibition, the police aligned with rule-breaking white people and took bribes to give them cover for breaking a law that literally everyone hated anyway. This type of corruption still exists.
- The police have aligned with politicians who support them through public funding in a mutual back-scratching relationship that is easily corruptible. Who’s policing that? Nobody.
- The police still disproportionately protect the white and wealthy at the expense of the poor and people of color. This is one reason the unleashed dog walker who threatened the black birdwatcher knew that she could call the police and tell them lies about this man, and that he would be the one who would suffer, not her. She used the police as what it often is, a personal security force for white people, a weapon she could use to avoid accountability.
I suggested the slogan “Police the Police” when my other son was creating his protest sign this weekend, but he still preferred “Defund the Police.” I suppose his point is that it’s not just watching them, but it’s dismantling their entire budget and way of thinking, rebuilding from scratch. There are also those recommending we abolish the police entirely, or at least drastically reduce the types of crimes it covers, and mostly these have been from people in communities that are often targeted with police violence. I watched an interview with the owners of the store whose employees called the police when George Floyd paid with a fake $20 bill. The owners said that had they been in the store, this would never have happened, because they know full well as people of color living in Minneapolis that the police are not to be trusted, and $20 is not worth a man’s life. However, their employees did not know this.
The city of Camden, NJ, had a huge problem with their police department and with crime. Their murder rate was 18 times as high as nearby cities. They defunded their police department and completely changed how policing happened, including a few great ideas to build relationships between police and the local community. They put cops on bikes rather than in cars so they were more integrated and accessible. They investigated cops who wrote too many tickets because tickets alienate the community. Once they had built trust, they found that the locals would keep them informed on who was doing what in the community, who was a threat, who committed crimes. The police didn’t go in, guns blazing, interrogating everyone as if they were a possible criminal. They already knew who was doing what because the community was involved.
As for normal training, cops are told that they should consider everyone a criminal suspect. In another podcast I listened to, a reporter said she sat in on a police training where new recruits watched a filmed altercation between police and a suspect. Initially, the recruits gasped in horror at the use of force. The trainer slowed down the video and pointed out why the officer was spooked in the moment, why his over-the-top use of force was “necessary.” The trainer (not a police officer) also explained that the standard for justification was whether the force was what any “reasonable” officer would do. But essentially, the training took normally sensitive citizens, appalled at the violence being used, and desensitized them to the notion of committing acts of violence on citizens because “anyone might be a dangerous criminal waiting to kill you.” This is how you create a trigger happy police force; tell them over and over that if they don’t suspect everyone all the time, they and their fellow officers will die.
I listened to a podcast about the Graham v. Connor case which was a horrifying but typical traffic stop gone awry. If you’ve ever been stopped by the police for speeding or your registration is due, you probably know that sinking feeling. The police are often intimidating in these routine stops because of their training. They do not attempt to de-escalate.
In the ensuing lawsuit, the defense attorney for the officer kept saying the man was being detained as a criminal suspect, but there was no crime. There never was. Idle police officers in a cruiser saw two black men leave a convenience store in a hurry, so they assumed they must have robbed it, and decided to do a “routine” traffic stop. When the passenger got out of the car because he was in diabetic shock and about to have a seizure (they left the crowded store because he couldn’t make the purchase of his much-needed orange juice quickly enough due to a long line), they considered his behavior erratic and suspicious, slammed his head into the car, broke his foot, and cuffed him. But as they said to the judge, he was not under arrest. They finally claimed he was cuffed “for his own protection.”
This is a landmark case because prior to this, police officers could only be charged with a crime if they were proven to have malicious intent, but the new standard handed down by the Supreme Court was whether their behavior was “reasonable” for most police officers. This is a fact the trainer shared in the aforementioned training. Police officers view it as their first amendment, protection from prosecution. “Reasonable” behavior essentially justifies officers’ violence on citizens for almost any reason: they were scared, the person twitched, the “suspect’s” behavior was unusual, other officers would do the same, black people are scary, this was a “bad” neighborhood, or whatever–in short, nothing and anything!
Joe Biden is saying he will not “defund” the police, probably mostly because it’s a phrase that freaks white people out. Kamala Harris schooled Megan McCain on this topic  challenging her to define what she meant by “defunding” the police when Megan asks Kamala if she believed in it. Kamala pointed out some of the problematic structure, but also the outsize budget we pour into the police while underfunding other worthy endeavors like mental health, homelessness, education and poverty. If you address some of these things, you don’t need as many police officers. By the time the police are involved, it’s too late.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Why do we pour so much money into punitive non-solutions like jails and police, and less money into things that prevent the need for jails and police? Why don’t we think more about how to improve the lives of the poor and to reduce income inequality? What about investing in those types of programs, providing shelter for the homeless or reduced income housing? There’s plenty of money to do both if we quit handing out grenade launchers to police departments.
Cops are also pretty ineffective at stopping or investigating crime. Adam Conover discusses the effectiveness of the police in one of his episodes, Adam Ruins Cops. On average, 60% of searches by SWAT teams yield nothing except a ransacked home that is damaged (with no compensation to the residents). Per officer, there is only 1 felony charge per year. He also pointed out that 10% of home raids go to the wrong address. That’s a whole lot of policing (and budget) for little result.
Here in AZ, mere miles from my tony Scottsdale neighborhood, Dion Johnson, a 28 year old black man was killed during a traffic stop, the same day George Floyd was killed. He had a criminal record , and it’s possible he had pulled off the road due to intoxication. None of these things is a capital offense, but many will point to the fact that he’s not a “perfect” victim. The officer, who didn’t have a dash cam or body cam, gave a version of events that didn’t exactly line up with what ADOT cameras showed, including the officer kicking Dion who was laying on the ground after being shot. No action has been taken, and the police department has refused to share the identity of the officer who killed Dion over two weeks ago.
Traffic stops are stressful at the best of times and mostly unnecessary. Have you ever been pulled over by a cop and thought That was a totally necessary thing. I was a danger to myself and others? Sure, drunk drivers are a concern (although most cops don’t just happen to proactively see them when they happen), but most traffic stops are not for imminent danger; they are a source of revenue to police departments. If you’re in love with traffic stops, why not just switch to photo enforcement? Problem solved. Or, hey, you don’t even need to do that. Use a scarecrow! The nearby Catholic school just parks an empty police car near the school zone which reminds people to be vigilant. That’s cheaper than putting live cops in the neighborhood. Move them around to keep people guessing. Rig some of them out with photo enforcement, so people aren’t sure if they will be caught speeding.
Police departments are BY FAR the highest funded services in our government budgets. Did you know that the NYPD has a larger budget than the entire FBI? Here’s an example of how budgets shake out in Columbus, Ohio:
The police are often incredibly unhelpful in reality. As a small business owner myself, the cops have been worthless both times we called. Insurance was the only thing that helped us out. And yet, as a taxpayer, I pay for both. Fortunately, I’ve never been the victim of a crime more serious than robbery. Author and Twitter goddess Gabrielle Blair shares some additional salient points:
The main argument I have heard against defunding the police is “Who are you going to call at 2AM when you need someone??” If you are a person of color, you don’t want the police coming to your house at 2AM. That is the point! Police departments often attract violent people and radicalize non-violent ones by amping up perceived threats and arming them for battle. Often police and prisoners are two sides of the same coin, and police fraternities instill the value of “the blue wall,” a protect-your-own mentality that results in obstruction of justice and stonewalling when a fellow officer is suspected of a misdeed. One of the most damning examples of police department misbehavior was when two officers decked out in full riot gear in Buffalo pushed down a 75 year old man who cracked his head open and was bleeding from his ear. The police rolled right past him with their supervisor barking orders to leave him. When the two cops were held accountable, 57 of their fellow officers lined up to applaud them as they left the hearing and refused to participate in the ERT (Emergency Response Team). They were still paid. There were no adverse consequences to them. They just objected to having to do their jobs (which were probably overkill anyway) without being able to assault citizens as they pleased. That’s not a story about 2 bad cops. That’s a story about 59 bad cops.
Using cops as “peacekeepers” is often ill-fated when people prone to violence self-select into these roles. That police are needlessly violent toward people protesting police brutality is not a coincidence.
Police officers’ individual identity is replaced by a uniform deliberately, in the same way a soldier’s is. We don’t dress police officers like therapists, social workers, or priests. We outfit them like warriors, regardless the task at hand, and we send them into routine tasks with the public decked out like an invasion force.
I don’t expect many Mormons to agree that we should abolish the police or do more than mere reforms, for several reasons, chiefly:
- Most American Mormons are white and middle class and don’t see the police as a threat, but rather heroes who preserve the order in communities keeping their property safe. Many are digesting an unhealthy dose of Fox News which erroneously referred to peaceful protesters as “rioters” six times more often than they used accurate terminology.
- Mormons accept a whole lot of policing and authoritarian behavior in our religion. Consider the BYU Honor Code Office or the annual worthiness interviews or the Temple Recommend interviews required to be able to hold a calling or the annual tithing settlement interview. Consider bishops who call you in without disclosing the reasons for the meeting request. Consider how welcoming so many Church leaders are toward tattling, taking people’s personal opinions as fact and acting on them without regard to common sense or realizing that every story has two sides. Consider that the Church keeps a secret file on so-called dissidents (who are often just scholars and authors).
So what can we do? Here are a few thoughts.
- Overhaul or eliminate police unions and no longer grant police officers qualified immunity.
- In cities where the police departments need the most overhaul (consider total budget vs. preventive measures), require police officers to re-apply for their jobs and reduce positions or redirect to non-policing roles.
- The police can’t oversee themselves. They are really bad at it, and the incentives aren’t pushing them toward good behaviors and judgments. We need community involvement to oversee so-called “internal affairs” investigations.
- Disarm most officers most of the time. A friend of mine who was a bobby in England used a night stick (baton) to patrol, and that was it. While we’re at it, this riot gear is nuts when we can’t even get medical personnel PPE.
- Decriminalize most drug offenses (possession and all its accompanying misdemeanors). Provide more social workers and other types of life coaches to assist those living in poverty.
- Given the inequities in incarceration, we need to remove the stigma of prior incarceration. Felons should be able to vote. Non-violent criminals should not have such a high recidivism rate. Isn’t it likely they are replacing good work experience with a network of criminal contacts? Then, we release them into a workforce that shuns them because of their criminal record!
- Train the police in de-escalation (one of the union leaders spoke out against the de-escalation training that was required under Obama stating that if police attempt to de-escalate, more of them will die. Well, sorry, but the alternative is citizens are dying–a lot!)
- Eliminate most traffic policing through use of photo cop cameras. Or just quit policing dumb stuff altogether. Let social pressures apply.
- Evaluate police killing of citizens on the totality of the case, not on a “reasonableness” standard that favors the perceptions of cops (including unfounded fears). If you are killing someone over a non-violent crime, you are in the wrong. Why are we applying deadly force for non-violent crimes? (Also, we need to quit buying these BS excuses like “he had an underlying condition.” We ALL have an underlying condition called mortality, but we don’t just spontaneously die without the violent act committed on us).
What do you think?
- What else would you suggest to reduce the problems with our current police system?
- Do you think defunding the police is warranted? Abolishing the police?
- Have you learned more about this issue as a result of protests?
 Or according to Fox News, avoiding the question. Fox News is adorable.
 As do one in three black men which should tell you why having a record is not a clear cut reason to dismiss a victim. Black men are disproportionately targeted by police.