How do we solve a problem like the police?
Since the killing by four Minneapolis police officers of George Floyd, a former work colleague of one of them, there have been worldwide street protests and a revival of the Black Lives Matter movement that grew up after the murder by a Neighbourhood Watch vigilante of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy. This has led to a revived interest in the ideas of abolishing or defunding the police, which seems to mean different things depending on who is advocating it; to some it simply means abolishing it altogether, while to others it means drastically reducing the departments’ funding and using the balance to improve funding for other public services which might help to reduce crime, especially crime that stems from poverty. Others regard the idea as dangerous naivety, much as with the idea of prison abolition (often in favour of restorative justice, even for serious crimes such as rape); a major objection is that abolishing police departments in favour of “community solutions” would result in a proliferation of vigilantes a lot like George Zimmerman.
Some white Americans seem to have reacted with fury to any suggestion that the police or policing in general are to blame for the widespread harassment and violence against minorities and African-Americans in particular. A while ago I followed a lady in South Carolina for updates on the progress of her disabled (as of 2018) daughter; in recent weeks, the feed has changed to constant cop-worship and demands that anyone who disagrees should just unfollow or unfriend her, which I did. More generally I have seen a sneering response that characterises the supporters of defunding as white college-educated extremists such as anarchists with their heads in the clouds, and ignores that much of the pressure comes from the minorities who endure the persistent harassment and who learn to fear the police from a very young age because, especially in the United States, a simple interaction can lead to summary death.
Most of the debate has been around the issue of ‘defunding’ and what it means than about abolishing it. In the UK, the police (as well as the fire service and other public services) have had substantial funding cuts over the years, especially since the Tories came back into power in 2010, and have had to sell police stations; in many places, the only physical police presence is a small office for the community policing team which cannot be used to report a crime (or seek refuge). In the USA, in many localities (since police departments are specific to the city or county) police funding has increased astronomically and in some places gets more funding than a whole host of other public services combined. Police have acquired military hardware such as armoured vehicles which really have no place in any civilian situation. They escort mental health patients to hospital and between hospitals, often handcuffing and shackling them like felons (though this has been reduced as a result of public campaigning). They go armed to wellness checks for people suffering mental health crisis, in some cases leading to the unwell person being shot dead. They are present in schools, as a result of which children have been arrested, handcuffed, and received criminal records for mere classroom disruption.
The contemptuous responses include this:
There is another thread about the ‘defund’ slogan being misleading and alienating here. Yet I cannot think of a snappier slogan. It doesn’t mean cut their funding altogether; it means only funding them up to what is necessary rather than so as to acquire unnecessarily grandiose hardware and to stick their fingers into every pie, and reallocate funding to other services, some of which can respond to things like mental health crises appropriately and some of which may help alleviate poverty and other causes of crime. The meme on the left misses the point; it’s not violent criminals that need therapy or a hug, but people in crisis who may currently be sent a cop with a gun rather than a mental health professional who knows how to calm them down. I suspect that the quibbles about the phrase are sometimes being made in bad faith by people who know exactly what it means.
I do agree that not only defunding is required but stiff new laws to make sure that police behave professionally, are trained to de-escalate situations and not to escalate them (especially trivial ones such as routine traffic stops), do not use undue force, do not racially discriminate (and are trained not to make assumptions) and that police officers who use excessive force, who terrorise innocent members of the public let alone kill them, are dismissed rather than protected. Another important step to eliminating harassment is to abolish the laws which provide pretexts for it, such as anti-jaywalking laws (we do not have these here) and licence plate renewal (again, we do without them here; police can check from a database if a number plate does not match the vehicle it’s on and if duty has been paid to keep it on the road). Yet I am sure many people will think I am hopelessly naive for even imagining that the police will actually implement any of these things, or that legislatures will force them to in most jurisdictions.
The people laughing at the suggestion seem to be White or at least not Black. The police, while some complain that they are ineffective or aggressive, are not a serious menace to them. They are not the ones who have had to sit their sons down for a talk about what to do when confronted by police who will be armed and probably aggressive and prejudiced. They are not the ones who fear calling the emergency services in the event of a crisis in case the person having the crisis is shot dead, possibly because the officer in attendance decides he “doesn’t have time for this” (the officer responsible in this case was acquitted in a judge-only trial). They don’t put forward any ideas for how to change these situations, and police themselves have the support of the white majority, of the legal system, and of each other and their unions. They are notorious for lying in court to support each other or refusing to testify against each other, even when a civilian has been killed in their custody. They resist reform and demonstrate contempt on the occasions when elected politicians propose reform (such as in France recently, where the use of choke-holds was recently banned and then allowed again after police protests). Someone had better think up some solutions pretty soon as we cannot expect people to tolerate this situation of lawless, violent, racist police terrorising them with total impunity forever.
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- On obscene generalisations