Defund or abolish? US debate about police reform continues
As case begins against officers involved in George Floyd’s death, activists call for police abolition and defunding.
Court proceedings are set to begin Friday for four former Minneapolis police officers charged in the death of George Floyd, which sparked a nationwide movement against police brutality and anti-Black racism.
Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody in May – and video footage of his death showed the 46-year-old saying he could not breathe before going silent as former officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s back for nearly nine minutes.
Floyd’s death also reignited a debate across the United States about the future of policing, with many community members and activists calling for cities to defund police to invest in community programmes instead – or abolish their police forces altogether.
These demands have faced a backlash from pundits, politicians and some police officers themselves, who say the police keeps the US safe and serves as a “thin blue line” that stops society from descending into chaos.
Case for abolition
But many do not feel that way, said Mekdes Sisay, a member of the DC chapter of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), a national Black youth organisation that works on social justice issues, including those involving policing.
Police “don’t keep us safe. That’s not their role … they protect property,” Sisay told Al Jazeera in an interview.
Sisay pointed to the fact that in many cases, early policing in the US was in the form of volunteer slave patrols that attempted to return escaping slaves, then viewed as property, to their “owners”, especially in Southern states.
BYP100 is an “abolitionist organisation”, Sisay said.
“So, we are fighting for a future … without police, a future without prisons, because we believe that these institutions actively work to oppress Black communities.”
Although Black people account for roughly 13 percent of the US population, they make up as much as 40 percent of people held in federal and state prisons, according to US census data. US government statistics also showed that federal and state prisons held about 475,900 Black inmates in 2017.
Practically speaking, Sisay said BYP100 is working in conjunction with other groups in Washington, DC to decriminalise sex work as part of a broader strategy to reduce the need for police in society, among other efforts.
Decriminalisation has worked in other instances, notably in Portugal, which ended drug criminalisation in 2001. The country adopted a public health approach to its drug problem and has seen an increase in people seeking treatment and plummeting overdose and HIV transmission numbers among drug users.
But abolition is not without its detractors. Right-wing pundits like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson argue that abolitionists want a “woke militia of armed social workers, psychologists, and ethnic studies majors” – and want people to be afraid to call the police.
While many people in the US may not entirely agree with Carlson’s characterisation, Sisay acknowledged that the national consensus in the US is not yet in favour of police abolition.
“I don’t think that as many people have made the jump to abolishing the police totally,” Sisay said. “There’s still some pushback against that. But I definitely think that the protests over the summer and the momentum that’s been built has pushed a lot of people towards that.”
As protests and calls for defunding or abolishing police spread this year, some observers have pointed to the city of Camden, New Jersey, as a model for how policing can be transformed – in a more moderate way.
Camden, colloquially known as the most dangerous city in the US, decided to disband its police force in 2012 amid criticism of its inability to tackle years of record-high crime rates.
A countywide police department took over the following year, which increased the number of officers on patrol for less total spending, thanks in part to lowered salaries resulting from the Camden City police union’s dissolution.
Violent crime has dropped significantly as the force instituted “community policing”, or building ties with the community, and some Camden residents support the changes.
Others, like Ayinde Merrill, still think more needs to be done.
Merrill is a lifelong resident of Camden and activist with grassroots group Camden Arts for Change, which has presented the Camden County Police Department with demands for increased accountability and for more officers from the city of Camden who “know the community” to be hired, among others.
Merrill told Al Jazeera that while he personally is in favour of police abolition, defunding the police is the quickest way to attain progress that will benefit his community.
Merrill said he would like to see the money that would have gone to police be redistributed to fund arts, job and education programmes. Progressive legislators like US Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have made similar calls.
It truly boggles my mind how anyone can see a $6 billion policing budget in ONE city alone – which is more than we spend on health, youth, housing, and homelessness services here *combined* – and say, “You know what will fix police brutality? More money” https://t.co/s0oldDJSZS
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 10, 2020
A 2017 joint report by Law for Black Lives, the Center for Popular Democracy and BYP100 examined budgets relative to policing in 12 large metropolitan areas in the US and found that money allocated for incarceration and policing comes at the expense of other programmes.
In Oakland, 41 percent of the city’s budget, or $242.5m, went to “police spending”, the report found.
Other cities, such as Detroit, Houston and Chicago, allocated similarly high figures, with between 30 and 38 percent of their budgets to police spending in 2017, the 2017 report found.
Expectations for police
Betsy Smith is a retired police sergeant with 29 years’ experience in the Naperville, Illinois, police department and a spokesperson for the National Police Association, a pro-police nonprofit that says it works to educate people who want to help police departments “achieve their goals”.
She said defunding police will not end the way activists expect; community policing programmes will be the first to be cut if budgets shrink, Smith said, as will training courses that go beyond state requirements, such as those on de-escalation.
“The bare minimum budget has to include police to answer calls … We’re going to be left with just basically trained police officers in patrol cars. I don’t think that’s what people want,” said Smith, citing unrest in Portland, Kenosha, Minneapolis and elsewhere.
However, Smith said police have been given greater societal responsibilities, including dealing with mental health and domestic disturbance calls which they do not enjoy – so discussions around the type of policing people want are necessary.
Mental health advocacy groups have also said police should not be responding to these sensitive calls because their interventions can lead to deadly results. In March, Daniel Prude, a Black man in a mental health crisis, died of suffocation after police put a hood over his head and held him down during an arrest.
Community organisers like Merrill insist that with police budgets already so inflated, it is time to reconsider how much money goes into policing and “defund to invest”.
“We truly believe that if you have access to fair housing, education and jobs”, he said, then things will “turn around” for communities.