As protests about systemic racism and police brutality continue in the United States, community leaders and politicians have proposed ideas to help end the disproportionate hardships that Black people in this country face from the police. Some have talked about police reform and even abolishing the police, but one concept that is often mentioned is defunding the police.
“Defund the police” has become a chant at protests and activists painted the words next to the Black Lives Matter mural on 16th Street. Even with the prevalence of this imagery, most people don’t know what defunding the police entails. It can sound frightening; people’s minds jump to scenarios like someone breaking into your house and the police not responding because they’re understaffed, or calling 911 with no response. This portrayal of a society in which the police have been defunded is inaccurate and invalidates the concept.
Defunding the police is not about making police officers struggle with insufficient equipment and facilities. Defunding the police is about taking a different approach to crime by reallocating funds from police departments to different government departments. This could mean creating a department that responds to mental health crises and other noncriminal calls, which is much of what the police respond to and are not properly equipped for.
Defunding the police can also mean taking some funds and allocating them to crime prevention by helping low-income communities. Defunding the police describes a somewhat wide range of reform policies and concepts, but at its core, defunding the police is about helping people and communities.
Defunding the police is necessary for the wellbeing of both police officers and members of the communities which they police. Studies show that more interactions with police officers can lead to mental health problems and increased criminality for young men in low-income communities.
Police officers are being asked to handle too many different tasks, which can be harmful to the wellbeing of police officers. Fatigue from the constantly changing environments that police are put into can impair the mental and physical ability of officers. Police officers respond to everything from active shooter situations to mental health crises to traffic stops. In 2016, the Dallas police chief said he thinks police are being asked to do too much. If we had better crime prevention methods in place in the United States, officers would be handling less crime.
The system of policing we have in place today does not prevent crime, and, often, it does not solve it either. Seventy percent of robberies and 38 percent of murders go unsolved. The system of law enforcement we have today is not working and is in dire need of reform.
The first step should be work on preventing crime. The cause of crime is a complicated topic with many factors, but some that can be addressed through systemic means include poverty, poor education and mental illness. Increasing funding to schools, raising the minimum wage to a living one, improvements to low income housing and easier access to healthcare will help prevent much of the crime we see today.
Making it easier for people who were in prison to re-enter society through better access to jobs and housing can also greatly decrease the likelihood of reoffending. When funds are reallocated from police departments to crime prevention tactics, communities won’t need as many officers. Naturally, funding that would normally go to police departments would be decreased.
San Francisco’s plan to hire unarmed professionals to respond to noncriminal calls involving homelessness, mental health, school discipline and neighbor disputes is a great example of establishing a new program as an alternative to the police. Noncriminal calls like these make up for the majority of calls that police officers respond to.
In Eugene, Oregon, a similar program established in the 1990s involves professionals specifically trained in harm reduction and de-escalation responding to situations involving homelessness, substance abuse and mental health crises. Less than one percent of encounters between citizens and this program end up requiring police assistance, and the program has managed to divert five to eight percent of calls from police to the program. This program was significant for a small city like Eugene, and could have even more impactful results in bigger cities.
The task of fixing our broken law enforcement system is not just on the police; we need to change the way we see crime and the people who commit those crimes. Instead of seeing these people as criminals and criminals only, who have no hope of rehabilitation and who deserve punishment, we need to start seeing them, first and foremost, as people.