The end of policing?

What does “defunding” entail?
It depends who you ask. “‘Defunding the police’ is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds,” says the law professor Christy E. Lopez in The Washington Post. The basic thinking is that the US has come to “over-rely on law enforcement”, which is too blunt and often violent a tool for ensuring public safety. Police have to deal with the homeless and mentally ill, resolve family arguments and enforce discipline in schools. Instead, proponents of defunding argue, public money should be diverted away from police to social services, education, health and community groups. On the other hand, for many it means something truly radical. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is committed to defunding the police. Patrisse Cullors, one leading light, sees this as a step towards abolishing police and prisons entirely.

What’s behind the idea?
It is largely, but not exclusively, related to the way police treat African Americans. The more extreme critique holds that US policing is irredeemably racist to its historical roots. “Slave patrols in the South found and returned enslaved people who had escaped their masters,” argues Alexis Okeowo in The New Yorker. “After the Civil War, [laws known as] Black Codes controlled the movement and behaviour of formerly enslaved people; next came segregation and the growth of prisons.” Black Americans, such critics say, are patrolled for the comfort of their white neighbours; the poor, for the convenience of the wealthy. The more moderate critique is that police reform has been tried again and again, and simply has not worked. The Minneapolis police department, for instance, was often seen as an example of best practice: relatively diverse, committed to community policing. Yet it still killed George Floyd over an alleged counterfeit note. This whole model of US policing must, they say, be fundamentally reimagined.

What’s distinctive about the US policing model?
The US spends a great deal on policing: some $115bn per year. While its overall public spending is among the lowest of advanced nations – about 38% of GDP against the EU average of 46% – its spending on law and order is among the highest: around 2%. Police budgets in America’s largest cities have grown consistently since the early 1990s. New York, for example, has an annual police budget of around $6bn a year: more than it spends on health, homelessness and youth services combined. US policing is said to be “militarised”, most obviously in the use of firearms: US police shot dead 999 people last year, compared to three in England and Wales – 30.3 per ten million of population to England and Wales’s 0.5. But it extends beyond that.

How else is policing militarised?
Operating in an environment where many people are armed, US police adopt not just military equipment – machine guns, body armour, armoured vehicles – but also, critics say, military tactics and mindsets. US basic police training is done quickly, taking as little as 16 weeks (in England it’s at least 48 weeks; in Germany it’s two years). And it focuses to a great extent on weapons training. US police academies, on average, spend more than 168 hours instructing officers on how to shoot guns and self-defence, and only 40 hours on community policing, mediation and conflict management. The police officer who shot Philando Castile dead in 2016 had recently been on a course entitled “Bulletproof Warrior” – run by a self-proclaimed expert in “killology”, the psychology of taking a life.

How might defunding happen?
The more cautious version would see the police “footprint” reduced: teachers, social workers, psychologists or substance abuse counsellors would take over much of the work now performed by police officers. This is already happening in many areas. Milwaukee and Portland have defunded policing in their school systems. Los Angeles is cutting $150m from its police budget and giving it to education and health initiatives. Oklahoma is cutting police numbers and investing in outreach instead; New York in community mediators. Polls suggest a majority of Americans oppose defunding, but they are near-evenly balanced if the money is redistributed to give to other services. Some police officers are supportive, too. “Every societal failure, we put it on cops to solve,” said then-Dallas police chief David Brown in 2016.

Could this involve disbanding police forces?
In theory. Since the late 1990s, influential African-American thinkers such as Angela Davis have advocated the elimination of all policing and incarceration; some in the BLM movement advocate this. The Republican and the Democrat parties are, at a national level, opposed to defunding, let alone disbanding – but policing in the US is a local matter. In June, Minneapolis city council approved a proposal to replace the police department with “a department of community safety and violence prevention”. This proposal will be put to voters in November.

If cities defund, will crime rise?
Probably. US law enforcement, crude tool though it may be, has certainly helped to bring crime down in recent decades. “One of the most robust, most uncomfortable findings in criminology is that putting more officers on the street leads to less violent crime,” says the criminologist Patrick Sharkey in The Washington Post. Ultimately, US citizens are heavily armed, and the US has a homicide rate higher than any other developed nation; African Americans are over 30 times more likely to be killed by a criminal than by police. And the alternatives often sound worryingly vague: “Hopefully, we can build new institutions…,” mused Patrisse Cullors of BLM. The search is on for reforms that work; for alternatives to traditional policing that protect the public without causing the damage that it now inflicts (see box).