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Making Sense of DeFunding

Terry H. Schwadron

June 9, 2020

We’re hearing “Defund the Police” a lot in the continuing street protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands — or the knee — of a police sergeant, with three other, rookie officers mostly looking on and doing next to nothing.

I’m not sure we know what to do with the banner, even if we agree with the sentiment.

As the protests continue, the calls from the street have diffused, from a focus on police brutality to a more generalized hope that this is the moment to rethink institutional racism. As we want to measure action over words, “de-funding” is a little hard to grasp.

Huge, widespread, multi-city and even international protests necessarily find it difficult to focus on a single set of achievable goals. As a result, “defunding the police” alternatively is being taken literally, a literal reassignment to make policing less militarized, for example, or as a stand-in slogan meant to promote alternative social services, from housing to education or health.

Here’s Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza saying that defunding the police means reorganizing society’s priorities. “When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is ‘invest in the resources that our communities need,’” she said. “Why can’t we start to look at how it is that we reorganize our priorities, so people don’t have to be in the streets protesting. . . in a global pandemic?”

She adds that the goal is not zero funds for police, so “de-funding” is aspirational rather than literal.

Los Angles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he was literally moving money from the police department, but then explained that what was being “de-funded” were extra monies that the city now lacks the funds to provide, and that other city agencies will face similar cuts. In Minneapolis, protesters booed the generally liberal Mayor Jacob Frey, a civil rights lawyer, because he would not commit to literal redistribution of police department money.

And Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York, flip-flopping from just a day earlier, now says he and Commissioner Dermot Shea will cut substantial money from police for youth programs — after having cancelled summer youth programs over money woes. It is an utterance that seems more political than practical implementation, but may reflect the idea of using more civilians in desk roles. The point is, you need a plan beyond the utterance.

Bumping Up Against Reality

Solution-making in the street is hard because chants don’t account well for complexities in social policy making. Complexities, of course, don’t make for good slogans.

It’s why we expect that our elected leadership can hear direction from the street, and polls, and town halls, and from the fact of rising and continuing unprosecuted violence against black Americans at the hands of police.

In another era of street protests, we demanded that money for missiles or napalm be spent on social services. It was a form of calling for de-funding the military, to make it less warrior and more open to alternative forms of international security. At the southern border, what most want is not to de-fund the policing function, but to have rules and procedures that recognize the need for asylum, that respect families, that treat immigrants as people, not automatically assuming they are drug mules and criminals, as described by Donald Trump.

I would add that my own experiences in pressing for better diversity in newsrooms always ended up requiring more money, not less. We were never successful in asking owners to “de-fund” other activities to provide funds for training and recruitment of minority journalists or other investments like sending staffers to schools.

These efforts always involved more money — and inevitably led in multiple newsrooms to cutbacks in such targeted hiring and community programs as the overall institutions suffered setbacks in the marketplace.

In the case of police services, like most government agencies, a budget goes mostly to actual police salaries — and negotiated police union contracts. In real terms, then, “de-funding” any sizeable amount of a police budget means fewer cops.

Fewer cops means cutting back on exactly the kind of community policing services that have proved most successful — adding to foot patrols, for example, to allow police officers to meet and be known to the community. De-funding almost certainly would mean cutting police training sessions, including those that proponents would see as helpful in teaching community sensitivity issues, the role of diversity, the best techniques in tamping down potentially explosive street situations. The more training a department has, the more shifts it needs to cover for the training time itself.

It is also true that policing is by and large a local matter, and “de-funding” calls will land unduly on local officials while letting our national leaders slide on such questions.

Sentiment or Substance?

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, is among those who says while he understands the “sentiment and the substance” behind the phrase, he would not use it. Basically, his argument is that cities are putting too many duties on police altogether rather than dealing with mental health issues, addiction, homelessness and a string of other ills that have become part of the duties falling to police officers.

Joe Biden pointed out that rather than defunding, he wants to spend an additional $300 million for the federal Community Oriented Policing Services program, or COPS, to go along with legislation to outlaw chokeholds by the police, stop the transfer of military weapons to police department and to create a model standard for the use of force. He also pledged to create a national police oversight commission.

Again, I see nothing in these formulas that take police off the streets. Indeed, residents of low-income neighborhoods say that they are not seeing enough policing on routine matters. In my own Harlem neighborhood, the local watch groups are begging police to look after those leaving multiple methadone clinics and then just hanging around in search of drug deals.

It is police violence that was the focus of these protests at the start, and it would be good to get a start on some practical legislation, police procedure and training changes, policing approaches, and appropriate discipline and prosecution where warranted,

Of course, we need to rid ourselves of racism, starting with owning up to the current realities. That’s the point of protest — to force recognition of the questions. And, yes, the wider and more inclusive the question, the better, so far as I can tell.

But the streets are not the best place for nuanced and achievable solution making on policing changes that require community-by-community definitions and a much, much better idea of what will happen if de-funding happens on a wide basis. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

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www.terryschwadron.wordpress.com

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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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