Defunding the police means giving roles like mental health response and traffic management to other professions so that the social relations behind policing can be held accountable.
Following the tragic murder of George Floyd, socialists the world over have rallied around the cause of defunding the police — and with great success. Under pressure from their more progressive residents, big cities from San Francisco to Baltimore raced to approve substantial cuts to their bloated police budgets. These wins ought to be celebrated. Activists, protesters, and left-wing politicians alike should take a moment to pat themselves on the back.
But spending cuts alone only go so far. The ultimate goal of the movement to defund police should be to reimagine public safety altogether. And the question socialists in particular must reckon with is: What would sharply diminishing the role of police in society look like?
At present, cops are called upon to deal with a staggeringly wide variety of tasks. Barry Friedman, faculty director of The Policing Project at NYU, breaks these down into five categories. One of which is the self-explanatory “traffic cop.”
But there is no reason why police must be the ones to handle traffic-related incidents. In England, traffic functions have been assigned to unarmed civil servants employed by a state-owned company. By all accounts, these workers do a successful job of tending to everything from road debris to major collisions. If this model were replicated here in the United States, that alone would eliminate nearly two-thirds of all police contact with civilians.
Another role Friedman identifies is the “mediator cop,” wherein officers try to resolve more mundane conflicts like neighbors complaining about a loud party down the street. The “first responder cop” and “social worker cop” cover similar terrain. These two roles see officers handling everything from public intoxication to lost items.
Police are unnecessary in those areas too. Just look at Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program. CAHOOTS responds to noncriminal 911 calls by sending an unarmed, two-person dispatch of a medic and crisis worker trained in mental health response (which is critical since potentially more than half of all those killed by law enforcement have some form of mental illness). This approach has proven to be more cost-effective and compassionate than the traditional approach of sending armed police officers. It is therefore no surprise that CAHOOTS has begun expanding to a number of major cities including Indianapolis, Denver, and even New York.
At this point, only one role remains: “the law enforcement, crime-fighting cop.” There is a legitimate case to be made for trained individuals intervening to stop serious criminality. But keep in mind that this makes up quite a small portion of what police do. Indeed, only 1% of police service calls are for violent crimes. And even then, cops typically show up after the crime is over, and not while it is being committed. So, in that sense, defunding to this extent stops just short of outright abolition.
Reasonable people can disagree over whether the police should hold on to this crime-fighting role. For the sake of argument, let us just assume that they should. That would still save a ton of money which could then be invested in alternative institutions that actually address the criminogenic features of society.
In December, The Activist published an interview with Kwynn Riley of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100). While discussing BYP100’s involvement in the Movement For Black Lives, Riley indicated her support for the BREATHE Act (championed by DSA member and endorsee U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan), which calls for federal divestment from policing. And she further explained that these funds should be reallocated toward public services like education, counseling, and mental healthcare.
Miss Riley has exactly the right idea. These are the sorts of investments that, time and time again, have been proven to reduce crime. Later in the interview, Riley proposed using the money saved by cutting police budgets to subsidize housing. Again, she hits the nail on the head. There is plenty of evidence that sheltering the homeless reduces crime substantially.
Now that we know what will exist in their place, why exactly do we demand that the police be defunded?
A problem of hierarchy
Politics on a macro level describes how governments function, make decisions, and delegate power. But this conception of politics is born out of the republican nation-state and thus only apples to high-level decisions. In reality, as individuals, we exist in political situations and make political decisions every minute. Our daily social reality and interactions decide how our institutions function, who makes decisions on our behalf, and how power is shared.
From the beginning, socialists have hailed democracy as a guiding macro principle. Put simply, democracy means people with a stake in any consequential decision should be involved in making it. CEOs and profit-motivated financiers cut jobs, wages, breaks, and generally make decisions opposed to the interests of the working class. This is why socialists believe that workers, rather than an oligarchic class of rich citizens, should control the means of production.
Through a critique of production, we arrive at many micro-level political situations that need to be resolved. For example: A specific worker wakes up with a high fever and symptoms similar to that of COVID-19. Her boss demands she comes in even when she is sick, otherwise he will fire her.
This example represents a micro-political situation in which the boss, with little-to-no stake in the outcome, holds inordinate power over our meager and underprivileged worker, whose entire livelihood will collapse, perhaps being rendered homeless, if she does not return to work when she is sick. The demands of the boss are therefore excessive, ill-informed, and directly opposed to the general interests of the workers — of course, they don’t want to get sick, especially in a pandemic — as well as the specific interests of our poor, ailing worker who will have her livelihood stolen from her if she does not oblige the demands of the boss. Importantly, this specific type of social relation, in which the boss holds power over her, exists because of institutionalized norms and state-backed property laws that define capitalist production.
Similarly asymmetric social relations exist in policing. Our society justifies a boss’s control over a worker with appeals to property rights, scarcity, and overall economic benefit. In the same way, our society justifies a standing police army with a monopoly on violence by appealing to public safety, protection from crime, and the good faith of individual officers.
In reality, police officers seldom operate in the name of public safety, protection, and good faith. Police officers are people, just like our CEO, with interests, biases, passions, and vices. And they typically use their power to pursue an idea of the public good that prioritizes the rigid enforcement of institutional norms over the well-being of individuals and communities.
In a modern police state like the US, a single officer has both the practical power and the legal justification to drive out thousands of homeless people from a public park. For the officer, his stake in the decision is minimal. Perhaps he has to witness homelessness in its glaring reality, which makes him uncomfortable. Or maybe his ego will take a hit if he allows such immense power to go to waste.
On the other hand, thousands of homeless civilians will have their residences destroyed and won’t have a place to sleep. In this specific social relation, like the CEO, police hold inordinate power. Of course, this is disastrous for homeless people. But socialists also hold that this social distortion holds dire consequences for the police officer. Namely, he reifies his near-unlimited social powers into his identity and sees citizens as objects to be policed. Officers lose a piece of their humanity when they fail to consider the effects that their unilateral decisions have on others, and thereby undermine the collaboration that democracy emphasizes.
What it means to be “policed” remains up to the officer — not the general public or working class — whether it’s issuing traffic tickets with excessive fines, prosecuting minorities for smoking marijuana, or committing murder by kneeling on someone’s neck for more than eight minutes.
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