Why ‘Defunding’ Won’t Reform Police

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Photo by ken fager via Flickr

The slogan “Defund the Police” is being heard across the country as part of the massive nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd on May 25 at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

But in this new opportunity for police reform, slogans aren’t the answer.

It is vitally important that we get it right.

The massive protests in response to the latest tragedies of police use-of-force, including the Floyd killing, the deaths of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and others amounts to an unprecedented event in the history of the American police.

Never before have protests lasted so long, involved such a diverse group of people, and occurred in so many small towns across the country. A recent map published by The New York Times identified more than 2,000 cities where protests occurred.

The sheer size and durability of protests has dramatically altered the political climate in favor of meaningful police reform. Police departments, prosecutors, mayors, city councils and even the U.S. Congress have acted with unprecedented speed.

New versions of old ideas won’t address the problem and cosmetic or irrelevant reforms will simply leave us where we already are.

That is why we need to take a hard critical look at the “defund the police” idea.

There is no consensus on what it means. For many protesters, it appears to be little more than a slogan. For some others it has the air of a punitive measure, to punish the police by cutting their budgets.

This is not helpful.

The most specific idea involves taking certain police operations away from the police and giving them to different social service agencies, staffed by social workers, doctors, nurses or other trained specialists. This could include 911 calls where a person is having a mental health crisis, a domestic disturbance, or a problem with a homeless person.

In theory, this idea has a lot of appeal. Let’s have specialists handle these specialized problems. Unfortunately, the theory collapses in the face of the gritty day-to-day reality of police work, with all of its complexity, uncertainties and difficult decisions.

Take the case of domestic violence calls. One of the authors of this piece completed a career with a big city police department and spent ten years with the domestic violence unit.

Domestic violence calls are complex and potentially dangerous calls that often involve a lot of unknown circumstances. The U.S., along with most other countries, has “criminalized domestic violence,” thereby making it a criminal justice matter.

Do we now go back and decriminalize it?

Kim Retzlaff

Kim Retzlaff. Photo courtesy University of Nebraska Omaha

The great uncertainty in domestic disturbance calls is the possibility that the conflict will suddenly escalate and pose a real danger to the safety or even the life of the officer. They can never predict when the domestic “disturbance” might become a “domestic violence” call.

Has anyone asked social workers if they are willing to go out on a domestic call at 2:00 am to mediate a domestic situation? What happens when they arrive and find a husband holding a knife to the victim (which the call to the agency never mentioned), and telling the social worker to get out?

How does one safely mediate a couple who are both high on drugs and/or alcohol and having an argument? What about the husband with mental illness, off his medication, and holding a gun and threatening to shoot his wife?

The call to the agency did not mention all this, and some conflicts escalate after the call. Are social workers trained and willing to deal with these types of scenarios, 24/7, year-round?

Police departments across the country have been willing to bring other community partners to the scene of domestic violence to meet with victims once the police feel the scene is secure. Unless police officers are able to stand by or the suspect is in custody, those “other agencies” will not participate.

The safety and liability for responders is what they cite as explanations. Call demand is too high for law enforcement to provide security for a counseling session. Officers have always been willing to transport victims to a location of safety, but far too often that suggestion is declined by the victim.

With all these potential uncertainties and problems, will this alternative approach really help victims and the community as a whole?

And keep in mind: Similar problems arise if we try to transfer mental illness calls and homeless people calls to social service agencies.

Sam Walker

Samuel Walker

Minimally, transferring certain police responsibilities to social service agencies would require at least a year or more of careful planning by all of the stakeholders involved.

Defund the police? Better think twice.

It’s a lot more complicated that you think.

Samuel Walker is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Kim Retzlaff is a retired police sergeant with ten years of experience in domestic violence.They welcome comments from readers.

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