Policing Experts Say Reform Possible Without ‘Defunding’

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Texas police officers. Photo by Elvert Barnes

Amid a national discussion of whether to “defund the police,” a group of law enforcement experts gave at least partial support for overhauling how public safety resources are used.

The occasion was an online panel to discuss “reimagining public safety” sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University.

Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) set the tone in opening remarks by declaring that while she opposed defunding (“someone must catch the real bad guys”), it is a “disservice” to ask police officers to act as experts in mental health, drug treatment and trauma.

The overly broad demands on police officers, combined with the failure to hold them accountable for misdeeds, amounts to a “glaring deficiency in the public safety system,” Lee declared.

Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, said it is time for a “redistribution of resources” devoted to criminal justice agencies.

Many cities spend upwards of 40 percent of their discretionary budgets on law enforcement, while only about five percent of the more than 10 million arrests officers make each year involve violent crimes, Turner said.

Most of the offenses they deal with are related to issues that include poverty, homelessness and mental disorders, not what they are primarily trained to handle.

Phillip Atiba Goff, a psychologist who heads the Center for Policing Equity, which focuses on issues of race and law enforcement, said it may be time for a “dramatically smaller footprint for law enforcement.”

As it is, he said, callers to 911 typically are offered choices only of a response by a police car, an ambulance, or a fire truck, none of which may be the appropriate remedy for the underlying problem.

Although the panelists generally rejected “defunding,” they did call, as Turner put it, for reducing the “crisis management” role that often is thrust on police.

Some criminal justice budget changes are being made indirectly. Turner cited a vote in Los Angeles County on Nov. 3 for Proposition J, which requires that at least 10 percent of the county’s general fund be spent on “community programs and alternatives to incarceration, such as health services and pre-trial non-custody services.”

Several other jurisdictions are moving toward removing police officers from schools and from traffic enforcement, he said.

Two other panelists, former Assistant U.S. Attorney General Laurie Robinson, now on the faculty at George Mason University, and Carnegie Mellon criminologist Daniel Nagin, pointed out that the uneven distribution of resources in a nation with 18,000 different local police agencies–about half of them with fewer than 10 officers–means that many do not have access to sufficient training for the widely varied problems that officers must confront.

Nagin suggested that many smaller departments could be consolidated so that they could offer their employees more services.

An often-cited failure of police officers to “secure community trust and confidence” is at least partly due to the fact that there are no widely accepted ways to reward the police who do the best jobs at responding to community problems, Nagin said.

“You can’t reward what you can’t measure,” he said, urging federal agencies to fund research that would develop ways to “reward officers who advance community trust.”

Robinson, who co-chaired President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, called for stronger federal leadership in a “broad public safety discussion” that has intensified this year after the deaths of George Floyd and many other minorities in police custody.

A key challenge, which panelists agreed will not be easy to solve, is how to focus more on what police can do to prevent crime rather than spending most of their efforts responding to it after the fact.

Measures that are likely to be taken in the incoming Biden administration, Turner said, include reducing the volume of surplus federal military equipment given to local police and re-establishment of broad reviews of city police agencies by the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

A more difficult proposition is devising incentives for improving local police practices by offering federal funding. (The Trump administration has concentrated on threatening to withdraw U.S. aid from police agencies that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities.)

Robinson noted that a primary recommendation of the Obama task force was that police agencies adopt a “guardian” mindset rather than the longstanding “warrior” mindset.

Still, “too many police academies” remain operating as military-style boot camps, she said.

The panel was the second in a series sponsored by Carnegie Mellon. The first, on “The Police and Community Perspectives,” may be seen on YouTube. The ‘”defunding” panel is due to be posted on YouTube by Wednesday.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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