Summer Thunder Part 2: Defund the Police

Despite America’s reliance on law enforcement as the end-all, be-all to society’s problems, their presence may only make the situation worse.

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Stylized image of police watching over people minding their own business.

lllustration by Egan Jimenez, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

Communities across America routinely turn to law enforcement for help in resolving just about every problem we encounter. We expect them to rescue Fluffy from the neighbor's tree; break up a drunken brawl at the local watering hole; intervene in a domestic violence situation; respond to a call about a person struggling with mental health challenges; round up the neighbor's dog; relocate homeless people; deal with an addict; investigate a suspicious person in the neighborhood; and, tell the party down the street to turn their music down.

As a country, we have turned away from community-based resources as an answer to many of our dilemmas, pivoting instead to the increasingly militarized police departments to resolve problems that are often not crimes at all. It is not a crime to be an addict. It is not a crime to be homeless. It is not a crime to be mentally ill. When we really think about it, how often is it that the right answer to a problem should come complete with sirens blaring and guns blazing? If we are honest, not very often at all.

Over the last several years, there has been an increasing cry for the defunding of law enforcement. But, what does that mean exactly? And, what is the impact on our communities when we have less enforcement on the streets? Does crime go up? There is an awful lot of research on the topic of whether or not a greater number of officers reduces crime. Unfortunately, despite numerous studies and articles on this topic, there is no clear-cut answer as law enforcement officers have varying degrees of impact in different situations.

Critics would have us believe that the call for defunding is a call to abolish law enforcement departments altogether. These same individuals argue that without law enforcement—in perhaps even greater numbers than we have currently—our streets and communities will be overrun with crime. The fact remains, however, that sending militarized police officers into the fray is not the answer.

And, our police officers have, in fact, become more and more militarized over the last few decades with the influx of federal money and weapons previously used by the military. The idea of a standing militia in America has never been more true than it is now. Especially, when they are armed to the teeth with assault weapons, tanks, and other military-style weapons.

“[P]olicing has become more intensive, more invasive, more aggressive...we are using police to manage the problems that our very unequal system has produced.”
Alex Vitale

Proponents argue for reallocating funding back into community resources and agencies that are better equipped to address many of the problems law enforcement officers have been called upon to handle. Instead of calling the police when our mentally ill loved one has a breakdown, we should be looking to the professionals and agencies trained to help with this situation. Calling upon a police officer, whose approximate 6 months of training at the police academy likely did not include mental health awareness, much less mental-health problem-solving skills, is not the answer. Likewise, a person suffering from addiction or homelessness is not helped by being arrested and criminalized. They are helped by addressing their addiction and underlying struggles head-on. If we take care of the underlying problems, such as poverty, drug addiction, and mental illness, the crimes committed resulting from an individual’s struggle with these challenges will be reduced.

“We need to change our stinkin’ thinkin’. If we took care of the needs of the people, if we got to the root cause, the crime would take care of itself.”
Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell

Instead, what we are faced with is an ever-increasing belief by many Americans that the only answer is force—often excessive force—when encountering the problems faced by Americans on a day-to-day basis.

A study in 1997 addressed why there appears to be more violent crime in America than in other rich countries. And, the answer, they say, lies with the fact that there are more guns in the hands of private Americans than in any other comparable country. According to the Pew Research Center, there are anywhere from 270,000,000 – 310,000,000 privately owned guns in the United States. That is almost one gun for every person who lives in this country. America has a fascination with firearms and a government that feels the same way. This is evidenced by the lobbying power of the NRA, which entered into the political fray in 1934. With an annual budget of more than $250,000,000, the NRA’s political power has grown significantly since its birth in 1871, with many of its members being single-issue voters who place the “right to bear arms” as the top priority.

“America doesn't really have a significantly higher rate of crime compared to similar countries. But that crime is much likelier to be lethal: American criminals just kill more people than do their counterparts in other developed countries. And guns appear to be a big part of what makes this difference.”
–Zach Beauchamp, Vox

There is also the problem of believing that law enforcement officers are neutral parties acting outside of politics. As with almost every institution in America, however, policing finds some of its roots in slave patrols and in the idea of keeping emancipated slaves from active participation in the channels of power in America. This was accomplished by creating an organization meant to hunt down Black and Brown people and prosecute them based upon criminal codes written with the express purpose of incarcerating as many people of color as is possible. Thus, law enforcement agencies and our criminal justice system are American institutions that have reified the belief of inherent criminality in people of color, and they have acted accordingly.

“[O]ne of the myths we have about policing is that it is politically neutral, and that it is always here to sort of create order in a way that benefits everyone. But the reality is that America's social order has never been entirely equitable. We have a long history of exploitation of the Indigenous population, of African Americans through slavery, Jim Crow and today.”
–Alex Vitale

Despite America’s reliance on law enforcement as the end-all, be-all, to society’s problem, the fact remains that their presence is so often unnecessary and overkill for the situation at hand, which may only make the situation worse. Most calls into law enforcement request a response that is not even remotely related to actual law enforcement’s role in our lives. Instead, we ask them to solve problems that they do not have training for, and where a gun-toting responder is not only unnecessary but has the potential to result in a violent end.

We need to look at alternative solutions for our everyday struggles. A militarized response to many of our troubles is not now, nor should it have ever been the answer.

Thank you to Chris E. and Tyler B.

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