Can ‘Defunding’ Solve the U.S. Police Crisis?

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Police at a NYC protest on June 1. Photo by Andrea Cipriano/TCR.

After calls by some reformers to “defund the police” following police killings of civilians became a hot-button issue for conservatives during the election campaign, many mainstream politicians, including President-elect Joe Biden, disavowed the concept.

But a forthcoming paper in the Columbia Law Review argues that the notion should not be rejected out of hand by policymakers.

Whether “defunding police” is interpreted as a way of reallocating public safety funds to other areas of social service or as disbanding police forces as they currently exist today, the movement represents a long-overdue strategy for rethinking the nature of policing, law professors Anthony O’Rourke, Rick Su, and Guyora Binder write in a draft study prepared as a University of North Carolina Legal Studies research paper.

The authors, arguing that “institutional experimentation that should be routine in a properly functioning democracy,” say there is nothing “utopian” or “anarchic” in addressing which police functions services could be safely handed off to others—especially since police themselves are often called upon to do far more than merely uphold law and order.

“Police serve as agents of both judicial and executive branches of government and intervene in disputes and mental health crises,” they write. “Should all of these functions be performed and prioritized by the same agency?

“Consider second, the enormous multiplicity and overlap of our 18,000 police jurisdictions, employing almost 900,000 armed officers and 400,000 civilians. Is this arrangement of jurisdictional authority optimal? Is this enormous capacity for coercive force necessary?”

The problem, they contend, is that U.S. policing has become “too insulated from democratic oversight to be reformed.”

So, they continue, “we should ask not only whether [existing law enforcement agencies’ work] can be done better, but whether it should be done at all, and by whom.”

The authors acknowledge that some attempts at policing reform have managed to overcome formidable “structural obstacles” such as lack of political will, police union resistance and a conservative police culture.

But they are skeptical that this will achieve more than token reforms in a culture that is saddled with the burden of both systemic racism and entrenched bureaucracies.

The authors noted that some cities have already come to the conclusion that the only way policing can be reformed in their jurisdictions is to disband the existing police force and replace it with a different agency.

The city of Belfield, N.D. is discussing plans to replace its municipal police department with a county-wide sheriff’s office. There doesn’t seem to be much fuss or argument over the matter however, considering Belfield has a population of almost 1,000 and a police department of a single officer, the Grand Forks Herald reports. 

Police Chief Steve Byrne of Belfield works 40 hours a week alongside his K-9 Thor, and if this new plan goes through, Byrne’s employment would be absorbed into Stark County Sheriff’s Office — which already responds to 911 calls in Belfield when Byrne is off-duty.

For a small town, this response seems fitting; but bigger cities will have to navigate different challenges — like debates between political sides and even total restructuring of sheriff’s offices, the authors note.

Over the summer, Minneapolis city council members declared their intent to “abolish” the police department and replace some current policing functions with health care workers and social workers, following the George Floyd protests, according to the Guardian. 

The city council members said the motion had a “veto-proof majority” and that dismantling the department and replacing it with a “community-led” model was already underway — but these vows were cut short.

Just two weeks ago, an update from Rolling Stone concluded that little has changed in Minneapolis, and instead of disbanding the law enforcement agency, it was simply trimmed with a 4.5 percent budget cut — “a move that will not change the number of cops on the street.”

In Brooklyn, N.Y., a community is dealing with a longstanding hot spot in Brownsville by pulling back on policing, as violence interrupter and crisis management groups were welcomed into the area to watch over a two-block zone, The City NYC reports. 

The concept comes from the idea that community members, some of whom have had their own prior experiences with the criminal justice system, will help prevent minor incidents from escalating into violence.

Meanwhile, city agencies and non-profits surrounded the two-block zone with information tents to talk to residents about education, job, and housing opportunities.

Even though the Brooklyn pilot program only lasted 50 daytime hours, elected officials and community leaders said it marked a significant step toward reimagining public safety, according to The City NYC. 

One resident even went as far as to say, “For the first time in a long time, the block felt safe.”

As noted in the forthcoming paper, cities like Compton in California and Camden in New Jersey sought to fix their police budget shortfalls by contracting with local county sheriffs for law enforcement services.

Other nations have gone further.

For example, in Sweden, crisis distress calls that used to be handled by police officers are now responded to by a mental health ambulance, staffed with two specialized psychiatric nurses and a mental paramedic. In the United Kingdom, a program of neighborhood “citizen police” works with homeless individuals, and has brought down rates of long-term homelessness.

The authors argue that a more robust reassessment of police functions is similarly needed in the United States―even though many police departments are now adopting new strategies, ranging from improved training to embedding the concepts of “procedural justice” in rank-and-file policing.

“All things considered, a police department that embraces procedural justice may be preferable to one that does not; perhaps federal grants to achieve it are worth the consequences of increasing those departments’ budgets,” the paper declares.

“However, even when the costs are acceptable, the obstacles to reform ensure they will be difficult to mitigate.

“Such marginal improvements are unequal to the crisis in American policing.”

But the authors caution that any serious effort to disband law enforcement agencies as we know them today will also have to address their “structural entrenchment” in local and county governments.

“Contemporary efforts to reimagine policing  should also seek to reimagine the legal structure of local law enforcement agencies,” the paper said.

Anthony O’Rourke is the Joseph W. Belluck and Laura L. Aswad Professor of Civil Justice at the University at Buffalo Law School, where he teaches about criminal law procedure and inequality in the justice system.

Rick Su is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law where he teaches and writes in the areas of local government law, immigration, and federalism.

Guyora Binder is a SUNY Distinguished professor at the University at Buffalo Law School, as well as a former law clerk to a federal judge. He is also the Vice Dean for Research and Faculty Development.

The full paper can be accessed here. 

Additional Reading: What Does ‘Defund the Police’ Really Mean?

TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano contributed to this summary.

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