Opinion: Defund the police, reinvest into the community.
September 8, 2021
The United States of America was founded on the idea that all people are created equal and that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are rights guaranteed to all people, but the country has yet to guarantee that to its citizens.
From slavery to unequal rights for women and significant amounts of income inequality, the U.S. has not held up its end of the bargain. While progress has been made, the country still has a lot of work to do if it truly wants to guarantee those rights to everyone.
The U.S. now has another major question to answer as calls to defund — and even abolish — law enforcement have increased as the state of policing has come into question over the past year.
History of police brutality
Police in the U.S. kill around 1,000 people every year, which is a rate far higher than any other country, according to a 2020 study from Prison Policy. The study shows that 33.5 civilians per 10 million are killed by police every year in the U.S., which is more than three times the rate police kill civilians in Canada, the country with the next highest rate at 9.8 per 10 million.
Police are also killing people of color at disproportionate rates. Black Americans are killed at nearly 2.5 times the rate that white Americans are killed and Hispanics are killed at just less than two times the rate, according to a study from the Washington Post that tracked police killings since 2015.
Overall, law enforcement in the U.S. has killed 5,836 people since 2015, according to the Washington Post’s research.
There are a lot of factors at play for why it keeps happening and it will continue to happen until they are addressed.
To start with, police in the U.S. are highly militarized departments that often look like they are ready for war with the communities they are supposed to serve. This is thanks to the 1033 program that was part of the 1997’s National Defense Authorization Act.
The program has given more than $7 billion worth of weapons from the U.S. Department of Defence to nearly 10,000 law enforcement agencies, including grenade launchers, bayonets and armored vehicles, according to the ACLU.
In 2015, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order that attempted to make it harder for police departments to acquire military weapons, but the restrictions were too narrow and offered too many loopholes.
At the time, there were at least 1,300 military vehicles being used by police and only 126 were recalled by the executive order. After the vehicles were recalled, 400 new ones replaced them, according to the ACLU. The only thing the executive order clearly did was ban equipment that was not in circulation or being transferred, such as weaponized aircraft and .50 caliber firearms.
“The total number of items that were recalled represented less than a tenth of 1% of all 1033 equipment in circulation at the time,” the ACLU wrote.
There are also the problems of gangs that promote abusing their communities within U.S. police departments. The most documented of such abuses are within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
The problem of LASD gangs dates back to at least the 1970s, according to a 1992 report by Special Counsel James G. Kolts, and in 2020, a report from the Los Angeles County Inspector General said L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva promotes a “code of silence” regarding the deputy gangs within his department.
There are at least 18 gangs in the LASD that have killed at least 19 people and litigation related to their cases has cost L.A. more than $100 million, according to a comprehensive report by Knock LA.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General in July demanding that the Department of Justice investigate one of the LASD’s gangs, which refers to themselves as the “Executioners.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra also announced a state civil rights investigation into the LASD for allegations of excessive force.
“The California Department of Justice investigation comes on the heels of allegations of excessive force, retaliation, and other misconduct, as well as a number of recently reported incidents involving LASD management and personnel,” Becerra’s office wrote in a news release.
The culture problems within police departments are also highlighted by the fact they are three times more likely to use excessive force against left-leaning protestors than right-wing protestors, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
This country guarantees the right of freedom to protest, yet too often police abuse protestors and shoot them with “less-lethal” projectiles and face no punishment. Thanks to the work of activists and journalists, it is easy to find countless cases of police violence at protests against people who are exercising their First Amendment right.
The U.S. is often quick to condemn the abuse of protesters in other countries but always fails to condemn it in our own country.
There is also the problem of police brutality that does not get reported and does not result in the death of a person, such as chokeholds and punching. Police abuse has become so common that the United Nations human rights experts issued a statement calling for an end to the rampant police brutality across the world.
“We have repeatedly voiced our concern over a steady increase in the use of excessive force, police brutality, and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as well as arbitrary detention, against predominantly peaceful protesters in all regions of the world,” the experts said.
Police officers are rarely held accountable because of qualified immunity, which protects government officials from civil lawsuits. Only 1.7% of officers who kill someone are charged with a crime and less than 0.3% are convicted of a crime, according to Mapping Police Violence.
In 2018, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that qualified immunity allows officers to “shoot first and think later.”
When an officer is actually held accountable for their actions, it becomes the national story that dominates headlines because it is such a shock to society. It is insane that we are shocked by justice. We saw this happen with the Derek Chauvin trial after he murdered George Floyd.
It is also important to note that Chauvin was only convicted of murder because of a citizen’s video that contradicted the original police report. If it wasn’t for that person recording what happened, Chauvin would still be on the police force today because the other officers that were at the scene did not stop the murder and tried to help Chauvin cover it up.
Police advocates often say if you just follow police orders you won’t get killed or that they’re only killing criminals so why should we care. However, both those claims are untrue and present problems.
To start, there is no correlation between levels of police violence and violent crime in America’s largest 50 cities, according to Mapping Police Violence using data from 2013-2018. If the police were only killing violent criminals, there would be a clear correlation.
We also need to remember every person is innocent until they are proven guilty in court by a jury. The police do not have the right to determine if someone is a criminal and they absolutely do not have the right to determine if a person should be killed. When they kill someone, they are stealing that person’s constitutional right to a trial.
While it would likely help most people to follow police orders, that is not always possible for everyone, and those people do not deserve to lose their life because of it. People who are deaf or partially deaf might not be able to communicate with the officers and people who are dealing with mental illnesses might also not be able to fully cooperate with police orders.
This is highlighted by the fact that conservative estimates say at least 25% of people killed by law enforcement are individuals with serious mental illnesses, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. These people need help, not death.
There are also cases every year where police still end up shooting people who are following their orders. The most well-known recent case is when officer Eric Stillman shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo while he had his empty hands in the air. At the time, Stillman had three misconduct complaints against him in five years, according to the Invisible Institute, but he was never disciplined.
Where do we go from here?
While the activist’s dream of abolishing the police might work in a perfect world, we are far from a perfect world. The reality is we do need someone who can provide an armed response for the worst cases, but there are things we can do to make policing better and more accountable.
The first step is to end qualified immunity. If an officer takes someone’s right to life or abuses a person, they must face justice, because right now it’s just not happening.
Then we need to take a look at the leadership of each department and see who is being enabled to continue their violent treatment of citizens. This would also include prosecuting every officer who is involved in a deputy gang and everyone who helped cover it up.
It’s also long past due to take a serious look at the police budget and reinvest some of their funding into other programs.
The U.S. spends nearly $200 billion per year on policing and incarceration with most cities spending around 25-50% of their budget on policing, according to the Action Center on Race and the Economy. So when most people say defund the police, they mean to take some of that money and re-invest it into the community.
You might be saying, “Well, wouldn’t there just be more crimes with fewer cops patrolling and protecting us?” Not exactly.
When New York police officers took a break from proactive policing in 2014-15, crime complaints actually dropped, according to a report from Nature. It is not a definitive answer because the sample size is small, but as the report points out, using those resources to police the community “diverts finite resources and attention away from investigative units, including detectives working to track down serial offenders and break up criminal networks. Proactive policing also disrupts communal life, which can drain social control of group-level violence.”
The best way to reduce crime is by investing in the community. Funding education, after-school programs, and making sure every person has the necessities needed to live and the right to a job with a living wage would go much further to reduce crime rates than spending billions every year on policing does.
States with the highest graduation rates and states that make the most significant investments into higher education are the states that also have the lowest crime rates, according to Criminal Justice Research.
Crime also drops when people have access to the health care they need, according to a study published in Science Direct. The study looked at the expansion of Medicaid to adults from 2001 to 2008 and found it “led to an economically meaningful reduction in the rates of robbery, aggravated assault and larceny-theft.”
The rate of police killing people with mental illnesses could also be reduced by having mental health professionals respond to those situations. This is being looked into in California through Assembly Bill 988, which would establish a hotline in California that people can call as an alternative to 911 for mental health crises.
Having trained experts to deal with those situations would make the situation safer for everyone involved and provide better outcomes than a 25% chance of death for the people who are struggling.
One final point is that most police officers don’t live in the city they serve, according to FiveThirtyEight. There is not much evidence that requiring police officers to work in their own communities would bring change, but it still makes sense to require them to serve their own communities as it could help them better understand the area and develop stronger relationships with the people they live near.
Being a police officer is not an easy job, but our society makes it even harder when we rely on them to do more than keep the peace and protect us.
As of now, police respond to mental health crises and domestic violence cases, shootings and robberies, they deal with drug problems, any unexpected thing that might come up and more. It is too much for any organization to deal with effectively.
Taking some of the police budgets and reinvesting it into other programs would lift the burden on police, allow us to hold cops to higher standards, from the leadership to the newest recruits, as we wouldn’t need so many officers, and it would make the community safer and happier.
We can make policing better for everyone, we just have to be willing to do it.