The new call to “defund the police departments” is a brilliant idea whose time has come.
As an activist eloquently put the case in a hearing before the Minneapolis City Council, “The police are a 19th-century creation that is inappropriate for a 21st-century society.”
Absolutely correct. As we have written on this site earlier, police forces in the US were actually created for chasing down, capturing and returning escaping slaves. Their role expanded over time to include pursuing criminals, but also to putting down political demonstrations, busting unions and strikes and to basically protecting the wealthy from the great unwashed — the workers, the unemployed and the hungry.
Over time, as police forces have grown in size and political power, they have taken over tasks like responding to emergencies, providing “order and discipline” in our public schools — even elementary schools! — regulating and busting up organized protests, responding to domestic dispute calls, limiting debate by removing questioners from public meetings, and serving routine warrants at homes and apartments.
Often these many “responsibilities” handled today by our police departments lead to avoidable confrontations and even to the use of brutal or deadly force by police, who are actually trained (often by instructors from Israel’s IDF, the military force used to control occupied Palestine) to actually amp up the aggressiveness to intimidate citizens — yelling, cursing and trying to disorient the subject of an investigation or interaction. They are also provided increasingly with the weapons of the military: noxious and debiliting gases, rubber bullets and bean-bag guns, sonic weapons and heavy wooden or metal clubs.
Let’s imagine how things might work if police and the work they do in our society were significantly downsized and defunded. In our modern nation, such as it is, it really is no longer necessary to have police patrolling our highways and neighborhoods looking for vehicle violations — everything from a non-working tail-light or signal light, failure to make a full stop at a stop sign, running a red light, speeding or making a lane change without signalling. Modern technology involving video cameras, including speed cams, are already being placed everywhere. In many European countries, they are ubiquitous, and police patrol cars non-existent. People just get photos and citations mailed to them with a notice of the fine due, which works great.
Police love pursuing vehicle violations because besides raising department revenue, it gives them a huge ability to harass motorists of choice — people who are Driving While Black or Driving While Brown, or in some cases, Driving While Blonde. Cops love the opportunity traffic stops them to subject cars and drivers to searches, hoping to find illicit drugs or guns, just like they do with sidewalk “stop-and-search” campaigns in minority neighborhoods. We can do away with all of that, and the police officers who perform those “duties.”
We don’t need police to handle traffic direction either. I’ve been driving in Philadelphia’s Center City district during some rush hours and have seen cops in SWAT shirts directing traffic at some intersections! Really! How absurd is that. Traffic control should be handled, as it is in most countries, by unarmed, non-police people equipped with highly visible white gloves, specifically trained in how to direct traffic.
As for domestic disputes, which in police hands often lead to unnecessary deaths, sometimes to the dispute victim, because of the way police approach the problem, and to how distraught and angry domestic partners can react to the arrival of armed police, these ought to be responded to trained non-police personnel who are social workers, not cops, and are specifically trained to handle such problems. If there is a weapon involved, they can always call for police back-up.
As for police in schools, this is a real lousy idea. Cops should not be disciplining and arresting students. If there’s a concern about guns on school grounds, make students go through metal detectors.
I remember having to report on a case in Philadelphia where police were called on a young seven year old black girl at a public school who had brought a pair of scissors from home to complete an assignment involving clipping pictures from magazines for pasting into a mosaic. When the teacher searched her book bag because some student claimed the girl had been the one to steal a sheet of stickers form the teachers desk (she hadn’t!), she found the scissors, and instead of simply taking them from the bag, sent her to the principal, and reported the scissors as a violation of school policy. The principal, a white woman heading a largely minority school, called the police, who sent out a pair of cops. They then cuffed the girl’s hands with straps and put her in the back of their van — this was done at the end of the school day as all the student in the school were lined up outside for buses and watched her being led away cuffed and in tears. She was places in a jail cell at the local station, along with two high school girls arrested for fighting, and her mother was called at her office. In a pouring rain the mother raced in her car the six miles of local roads to get her little girl out of the klink! When I interviewed the little girl at her home, she sweetly told me how she had no idea that the scissors were banned, and just wanted to finish cutting out the pictures for her project.
We don’t need cops for this kind of nonsense, which is just abusive. But police act like police. This was a matter for the teacher to handle.
We don’t need the police serving warrants. These days, this is often done not even by ordinary patrol officers, but by SWAT teams, who are known in some cases, for example for minor marijuana users or drug dealers, or for people who have missed court dates for criminal trials, to use battering rams to enter homes, in which they even fail to announce that they are police. A military veteran in Arizona was riddled with bullets when something like this happened and police crashed into his home carrying semi-automatic rifles in an early morning raid to serve a drug-related warrant, and the veteran came to the door armed (but not firing) thinking it was a house invasion. It was, as is too often the case, a wrong address but the veteran is dead.
The former police chief of my town told me, when I ask, that he didn’t like to use his police officers to serve warrants or even to make home arrests, and especially the county’s SWAT team. He said “Except for hostage cases, there is no excuse for home break-ins. They are too dangerous for the officers and for people inside, which can incude children and other innocent people.” He’s right. Scrap the SWATs, and the “no knock” house break-ins.
While we’re at it let’s defund police intelligence units, which don’t belong in a free and democratic society. I had a newspaper in Los Angeles (my TCBH! colleague Ron Ridenour was also part of that operation) and we were targeted by the LAPD’s “Red Squad,” the Public Disorder Intelligence Division, a costly unit which we later learned had assigned 20 young cops to infiltrate legitimate organizations like our paper as well as political protest groups, third parties like Peace & Freedom, NOW, and even the office of a city council member, Zev Yaroslavsky, who was a critic of the police budget and its actiities.
We should be able, by shifting responsibilities for most current police duties to other agencies with more appropriate skill sets, to reduce the size of police departments by half of more, with enormous savings to struggling municipal budgets. That money could go a long way towards meeting underfunded educational, recreational health, environmental protection and other needed activities.
Police should be limited to dealing with violent criminals. In that regard, we should take a lesson from police in enlightened places like Scotland and Norway, Finland, Germany and many other European countries, where de-escalation is taught, and police often normally work unarmed, only signing out weapons when needed. That’s as opposed to the US where police patrol cars, even in small towns with minimal or no violent crime routinely have AR-15s racked for ready access. I learned this when I called our local police and asked for a cop to come to my home and put a badly injured deer that had been hit by a car out of its misery. He arrived, started to walk towards the frightened animal removing his pistol from its holster. When I urged him not to approach it as it would only try to move, hurting itself, he said, “Oh, okay,” returning to his squad car and taking out his AR-15. Bracing himself on a nearby log pile, he aimed and shot the animal from 50 feet right between the eyes killing it instantly and humanely. When I asked about the assault weapon, he said, “Oh police cars have all had these since the early ’70s.”
That brings us to the one argument that will inevitably be used against the idea of downsizing and de-funding police departments: the 300 million guns in civilian hands in the US. Police argue with all those weapons, many of them semi-automatic, high-capacity pistols and assault rifles, they need to be heavily armed themselves. But that simply means that the US has to do what most of the rest of the world has long ago done: get rid of these weapons. People who want to use guns for target practice or hunting in these countries — even in authoritarian states like Russia, Brazil or Turkey — can have guns, but they are strictly registered and monitored.
We need to do that too, as a part of the campaign to reduce our nation’s domestic militarized police forces to make the US a freer and more just society.