What’s the Opposite of Defund?
“Defund the police” has become a divisive term hurled from right to left and left to right. As a rallying cry for partisans, it’s having its season. Its meaning, however, is often determined by the hurler, usually as an invective rather than part of a discussion. Perhaps we need to look at its opposite: Invest.
Anyone who is an investor, whether a venture capitalist, 401k holder, or member of municipal government, has the right to put their money where it will help achieve their goals. The first two of these examples are primarily looking for monetary return, while the third is looking for effective use and socially beneficial outcomes. As we look at our public funds, we need to ask some hard questions about the return on these investments.
Since the late 1970s, the US has almost tripled its aggregate funding on local police to $115 billion. While violent crimes peaked in the early 1990s, police budgets continued their climb from about $61 billion to almost double that figure. During the same period, the number of violent crimes have dropped by almost half, from almost 2 million to about 1.2 million. Yet, municipalities continue to increase police budgets.
Some might argue that such spending is working as crime rates fall. One outcome of heavy policing is mass incarceration that has been credited with taking criminals off the streets. While the logic of both aggressive policing and a take-all-prisoners approach suggests a link to reduce crime, an investigation by the Brennan Center offers countervailing evidence. These researchers found that incarceration has had a diminishing impact on crime. And while the initial increase in the number of police officers played a role, a data-driven approach to policing had more impact. Moreover, social and economic factors played a silent role with an aging population, changes in income, and decreased alcohol consumption contributing to the drop in crime.
These rather dry analyses are getting replaced by the heat of revulsion as videos of police violence make a too-regular appearance in our news media. The ubiquity of cameras in phones, stores, and streets are offering incontrovertible evidence of unnecessary and counterproductive police violence, especially aimed at minorities. Yet, if we are to correct these issues, we need better policies based on evidence — essentially investments in our social fabric.
If we approach the issue of police violence as a public health issue, then we can think through divesting the police towards investing in our towns and cities. Recently, the American Public Health Association (The Nation’s Health, August 2020 pp. 1, 14) noted several steps that could be taken to begin to end police violence. These include expanding the stakeholders involved in public safety. We ask police to do jobs they are not trained for or equipped to handle. They face issues better handled by social workers, psychologists, and employment counselors rather than armed warriors. Let’s take some of that rising investment in policing and hire those professionals who can offer better response and programatic follow up.
In dealing with mental illness in particular, calling the police to situations that do not involve a crime only enflames passions. So, let’s send counselors to accompany police to assess the circumstances and bring other public resources to the problem. These crises often arise from extreme poverty, substance abuse, or psychological problems that are not criminal in nature. We have taken these inconvenient and painful situations and redefined them as criminal, especially as the usual solution is to lock up the “offender.”
The same dynamics are in play with homeless people. Our society has criminalized those without homes because they cannot find jobs or have mental health issues. Our cities have become housing deserts to these people because even middle-class families struggle to find affordable housing. The challenges of a person bereft of steady employment, family, health, and emotional stability are usually met with an armed representative of the society who can do nothing to help them. Shifting funds towards safe housing, outreach, and mental health services seems obvious.
Schools pose a similar situation where placing police in them tends to criminalize student misconduct. This has reached the bizarre example recently of a student being jailed for truancy or another retained in jail over homework. More seriously, and more deadly, are too-numerous examples of police shooting students in school — in one Oakland school, shooting a student five times because he was carrying a screwdriver (Nation’s Health, op. cit.). The funds spent on police in schools could be better invested in school-based social work, psychologists, and restorative justice practitioners.
Shifting towards social investment and away from policing are well within our grasp, financially and socially. While there is a role for the police, it will be more productive to shrink it and replace some of it with these investments. Granted, we are in an election season now that usually enflames the spleen rather than affect the heart and mind. But the election is a place for us to call on candidates to offer their solutions and judge them accordingly.