Although more than two years have passed since nation-wide protests broke out in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, little has been done in realizing the popular Black Lives Matter movement’s call to “defund the police” that took root in national political discourse during those months. Since then, 26 of the 50 largest cities in the US have actually increased their police spending in 2021. Federally, policing continues to receive $115 billion dollars of investment annually and law enforcement budgets have recently reached as high as 58% of total municipal expenses in Milwaukee and 43% in Long Beach, California.
While calls to defund the police have been advocated for since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, its current popular relevancy has grown out of increased civil discontent with continued police brutality across the United States, particularly against ethnic minorities. This decades-long discontent boiled over after Chauvin’s extrajudicial murder of George Floyd, who was pulled over after being falsely accused by a storeclerk for paying with a counterfeit bill. The ensuing public outcry to defund the police would then be spearheaded by the decentralized Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement formed in the 2010s, who would go on to re-popularize the “defund the police” slogan during the protests.
Activist Alicia Garza, credited as one of the co-founders of BLM, has explained that the call to defund the police is “not about eliminating police departments, but about reinvesting funds toward ‘the resources that our communities need.’” Despite this, the slogan’s seemingly radical demand, carrying with it a specific association with lawlessness, has been easily exploited by Republican policy makers and analysts critical of the movement. These reactions have twisted popular understandings of the ‘defund the police’ from an anti-violence, civil rights-oriented police reform movement into something of a pro-crime, anti-policing stance. Understanding why these conversations about the role of policing in the modern era are increasingly being had, as well as how a world with less policing would work, is key to chipping away at these negative associations and misinformation that American political discourse takes for granted.
Reactions to “Defund the Police”
The bad-faith association of the slogan ‘defund the police’ with radical measures as opposed to its advocates’ calls for tangible, reasonable reforms, coupled with the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the political and economic momentum behind reallocating police resources more or less fizzle out. Little to no legislative action has been taken on diverting police funding, while public polls over the past two years have largely shown a drop in public support for the slogan.
Democrats, in response to the ‘defund the police’ movement, have been put on the defensive, becoming concerned over the public perception of “electability” given recent unfounded slandering of the party from the (far-)right as being “communist” when advocating for any progressive reform. President Joe Biden has distanced himself from the slogan multiple times, stating that, “The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.” While still seemingly recognizing an issue with policing, Biden and the majority of the Democratic party refuse to contend with BLM’s criticisms of the simultaneous police overfunding and public services underfunding, especially when compared to other developed democratic countries.
While the 2020 protest’s impact on policing and policy has been relatively negligible or slow at best, the impact the slogan has had on American political discourse continues to be felt in new, unexpected ways. Right-wing backlash to the recent FBI raid of Donald Trump’s Florida resort home Mar-a-Lago, which sought to return sensitive, classified documents to the White House that were illegally taken by the former president, has ironically seen calls by Republican lawmakers and voters alike to ‘defund the FBI’ for supposedly abusing its authority in raiding the Trump’s home.
This absurd reversal, while amusing given the Republican party’s hypocritical track record on the issue of security and overreach and the kernel of truth these conservative criticisms (unintentionally) bring to national discourse regarding the FBI’s problematic overreach in other areas, highlights the key issue with how misinformation and media narratives shapes and stagnates American political discourse from progressing by polarizing and defining it along party lines. Rather than evaluating the criticisms, reforms and legislation advocated for by civil society and progressive politicians based on their validity, effectiveness and feasibility, they are instead immediately associated with the opposite end of the political aisle and are therefore deemed negative at best or as part of a conspiratorial seizure of power or method of control. The effects of this kind of intentional misrepresentation is evidenced by the fundamental contradiction of American support for police reform. As of May 2022, 50% of Americans are in favour of major police reforms and 39% of Americans support minor reforms, while only 34% are in favour of the ‘defund the police’ movement – how can this be the case if police reform is the stated objective of ‘defund the police’? The only fundamental difference between the two is that one policy has been politicized and demonized while the other has not.
With the Republican reaction to the FBI’s raid on Trump’s home, it appears that the discontentment with policing has also been absorbed by this familiar back and forth political discourse. The popular grievances that saw the civil articulation of the demand to “defund the police”, explicitly seeking to fund more public services, has instead been abstractly politicized in this back and forth discourse by politicians and media alike, using emotional sway to continue to perpetuate a curated two-party conflict that is growing dangerously polarized rather than push for policy that both parties refuse to adopt. Looking to other countries’ non-violent solutions to crime allows us to move away from this frustrating binary.
Policing Around the World
Under the auspices of protecting people, police unions and politicians have been fighting largely uncontested for not just increased funding, but more importantly, for a simultaneously larger scope of responsibilities coupled with less accountability for law enforcement. This second element is particularly important, especially considering that most statistics directly correlating police budgets to lower crime rates are conflicted, indicating that crime rates are influenced by other factors such as economic disadvantage or social connection. When police are expected to perform services as diverse as regulating traffic, enforcing by-laws, responding to domestic emergency calls, patrolling neighbourhoods, investigating theft and more, it comes as no surprise that it is difficult to perform any of these duties particularly effectively. For example, in Canada and the United States, outcomes from mental health-related emergencies by police have sometimes ended in death. The cases of D’Andre Campbell, Howard Hyde, and Isaiah Lewis all demonstrate that armed police officers often aggravate mental health situations rather than de-escalate. This lack of specialization is only further compounded when North American police are trained in a fraction of the time that many other countries’ officers are, making the one-size-fits-all approach currently pursued by law enforcement even more difficult to defend.
Relocating resources and responsibilities from police to social workers and other more holistic public servants has opened up avenues for less violent and more socially and medically informed approaches to crime. In 2005, several cities in Scotland established Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) programs, which are aimed at mitigating the country’s high murder rates through a public health and community engagement-led approach. As opposed to traditional tactics of crime and punishment, this public health-based approach addressses “violence like a disease that can be treated”, working to find underlying causes in the immediate local context. In contrast to viewing violence as deviant behaviour, the VRU has had very positive impacts on the country’s crime rates – since the implementation of VRU programs in 2005, the homicide rate in Scotland fell by almost 60%. With significant drops in homicide rates of almost 60% in Scotland since 2005, the VRU is increasingly being seen as more impactful than police at a local level, with other countries like the UK and Canada looking to implement similar strategies.
Issues aside from violence have been effectively addressed by alternatives to police as well. Vancouver’s strategy of providing supervised injection clinics for drug addicts has noted a decrease in overdoses and increase in rehab admission, which exists in stark contrast to punitive approaches to drug addiction like those preferred by the United States, which often sends addicts spiraling even further into addiction.
Sweden serves as another success story of armed first responders being replaced by social workers or other experts. Recently, domestic mental health crises have begun being responded to by a Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PAM), a dispatch that specializes solely in mental health services. “It used to be the police who handled these kinds of calls,” stated PAM nurse Anki Björnsdotter. “But just the presence of the police can easily cause a patient to feel like they’ve done something wrong. Mental illness is nothing criminal so it doesn’t make sense to be picked up by the police.” The pilot program has seen much success, overseeing more than 1500 interventions in its first year and inspiring interest to expand the program in other cities like Gothenburg.
In Finland, homelessness has been slashed from 20,000 people in the 1980s to just 4,000 as of 2021 thanks to numerous NGOs like the Y-Foundation that prioritize housing as opposed to the criminalization of houseless people. Using its ‘Housing First’ approach, “housing one long term homeless person saves about 15,000 euros of society’s funds per year,” further emphasizing that non-punitive and ultimately humanizing strategies are proven to work in a variety of areas that policing alone has traditionally been left to solve.
The American Obsession with Punitive Punishment
As the richest country in the world, the level of police violence in the US is an anomaly among other developed countries. The deaths of civilians by police officers in the US was around 1,000 in both 2019 and 2020 which, when adjusted for relative population, is still over three times the rate of deaths seen in Canada, the second-highest ranking Western country. Despite these statistics and the success of other countries’ alternative models, the US federal government’s continued investment into its domestic police forces nationwide outranks virtually every other countries’ military spending. This is precisely why many believe that this funding that goes towards the expansive militarization of American police officers could, at the very least, reasonably be put towards less antagonistic solutions to violence. There is an objective issue with the overfunding of police departments in the United States that continues to be abnormally more violent and expensive than police forces in other developed countries.
But how did it even get this way in the first place? While it’s difficult to pinpoint a definitive starting point, Richard Nixon’s declaration of a ‘war on drugs’ in 1971, followed by Ronald Reagan’s further expansion of federal police subsidization ten years later, saw wider support for increasingly punitive measures against small misdemeanor crimes. The 1994 Crime Bill – which, coincidentally, Joe Biden was a key supporter and architect of – further expanded police powers, while George Bush’s infamous Patriot Act, enacted after the September 11th terrorist attacks, expanded state and policing surveillance capacities and powers, further emboldening the country’s ‘preventive’ policing culture and enhancing its extrajudicial abilities.
This lineage between the ‘war on drugs’, a ‘war on crime’, and the ‘war on terror’ clearly demonstrates American policymakers priorities, doubling down on ‘us versus them’ rhetoric. It’s clear that this dual-force of cultural framing of a ‘war’ against lawbreakers of all kinds in conjunction with record expenditure on police departments across the United States – most often aimed at more advanced weaponry and technology rather than on de-escalation training and community engagement – has fostered a deeply problematic “warrior culture” of police officers, according to author Seth Stoughton. The US federal government’s historical insistence on a punitive approach to criminal justice and policing has fed into the dismissal of “defund the police” and the observed, successful examples of increased public funding and social safety nets ability to reduce crime and violence.
Furthermore, the conflation of systemic racism with authoritarianism through the adoption of ‘defunding’ discourse in far-right circles points to the necessity of re-examining the ‘defund the police’ movement in a broader context. For American politicians, playing up the familiar talking point of ‘maintaining law and order’ with voters has often deterred any serious efforts at reducing police responsibility for fear of being voted out of office. Evoking so-called ‘law and order’, however, has historically been a dog whistle for white supremacists, making conversations about police something of a zero-sum game. The cultural embeddedness of police institutions in the United States certainly makes treating the growing problems associated with them difficult, but taking an international approach allows us to zoom out from partisan discourse to see that there are in-fact remedies to these issues that don’t require violence.
Edited by Majeed Malhas