Try Looking at Defund Alternatives

Terry H. Schwadron

June 17, 2020

What we know about somewhat amorphous calls to “defund the police” — a populist movement seemingly gaining ground without help from government officials, even sympathetic ones — is that it is an emotional call for racial justice more than a specific plan for change.

Clearly, coming up with real, practical answers is even more important than ever. Donald Trump’s announced executive order on policing yesterday shows that relatively small but necessary steps like a national database if police brutality incidents are politically possible, he does not see systemic problems in race, policing or conflict resolution. As general guidelines, “Trump’s order is expected to have no immediate practical impact,” The New York Times summarized.

At its heart, “defund” is translating into calls to reduce communities’ reliance on police in a number of a situations that suggest effort to de-escalate tensions rather than to apply force, and to invest the money now going to beef up “militarized” police forces designed to quell incidents of unrest into social programs that decrease crime.

Too many of the police brutalities recorded against black citizens start with routine stops, goes the argument. Defund aims to reduce police confrontation.

Think of it as we should be thinking of health: Do we let disease spiral to the point of overwhelming hospitals and needing more hospital space, medical staff and the rest or should we look at more programs aimed at preventing the problems in the first place? Which is the better investment, particularly in minority communities where low incomes make health care much more difficult and environmental factors make communicable disease much more likely.

Of course, seeing people now scurrying around without masks, assembling in large numbers or protests or Donald Trump reelection rallies or at the beach does make one wonder at the role of logic in these questions.

Keep two points as primary: First, this is a movement being born by people, not politicians, with a heavy lean on racial justice and inclusion. And second, little effective is going to happen top down. Rather it will be a slog, community by community.

Making it Real

There is a lot of work under way to define defund in practical terms, and there have been several experiments that are nicely curated by The Marshall Project.

“It wasn’t just enough to say ‘defund,’” said New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. “The real question was ‘How? And by how much’?”

So, what do we know about efforts seen as successful by communities and police alike, that have reduced crime and need for force? Sure, we can legislate to outlaw chokeholds, but that doesn’t get at more fundamental issues.

As it turns out, there are some common clues: Contact with the mentally ill, homeless, domestic disputes, and minor routine problems like passing a bad $20 bill, the issue that ended in the George Floyd killing, may be better handled by social workers or other community civilians than police officers, who receive little training in dealing with such incidents. Police had to be specially trained, for example, to handle administering Naloxone to opioid overdoses.

If these situations have nothing to do with crime, why have they become the responsibility of police? Why not de-criminalize more activities and move monitoring to those trained in conflict resolution, adding the benefit of creating jobs in minority communities to do what we think of neighborhood watch on a bigger scale. That could be paid for by diverting money from police budgets to programs dealing with underlying causes of crime, including poverty, inadequate housing and poor education.

James McCabe, a former NYPD commander and consultant for scores of departments, says changing the culture of a police force takes time. Training in many departments has only just begun, and cautions against defunding police in response to the Floyd killing. “The more pressure put on police from without,” he said, “the more they will resist that change from within,” he has argued.

The Examples

In Baltimore, Leana S. Wen, former Baltimore public health doctor, started Safe Streets that hired individuals from the communities they serve to work as conflict mediators. Many were ex-offenders. In 2017, these outreach workers stopped more than 1,000 conflicts, many of which were deemed likely or very likely to result in gun violence. There is a similar national effort called Cure Violence. Still, occasionally mental health counselors or animal control officers went to help community members in psychiatric crisis, they often called the police for backup in case the person they sought to help had a gun.

In Seattle, the idea is to provide treatment instead of incarceration for those caught with small amounts of drugs. Denver and Dalla send trained civilians with police officers to assist homeless individuals and those with mental illness.

In Camden, N.J., the police department was defunded and started anew, with lower salaries and actually more new police officers who were told to forget about minor crimes. They were told to act as “a facilitator and a convener.” The formula was old-fashioned community policing, walking beats rather than driving by.

A mental health doctor offered, “Imagine what it might be like to have a psychotic episode and be met with guns, to be handcuffed, treated inhumanely, put in the back of a police car, and then dumped at the hospital,” one mental health doctor said. “Everything about that process is inhumane and because there’s so much discrimination against people struggling with mental health, that is seen by a lot of people as acceptable.”

Concentrating on root causes, preventive medicine rather than disease is a key to many social programs. Why not policing?




Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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