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Rethinking everything: Defunding the police?

It turns out that reform hasn’t worked: more training; lethal holds; new guidelines for use-of-force, new leadership; more training. These reforms assume that the police are neutrally enforcing a set of laws that are beneficial to everyone. Instead of questioning the validity of using police to wage an inherently racist war on drugs, advocates of procedural reforms politely suggest that police get anti-bias training, which they will happily deliver for no small fee.

Have the police do it

What “procedural justice” leaves out are questions of substantive justice. Over the last 40 years we have seen a massive expansion of the scope and intensity of policing. Every social problem in poor and non-white communities has been turned over to the police to manage. The schools don’t work; let’s create school policing. Mental health services are decimated; let’s send police. Overdoses are epidemic; let’s criminalize people who share drugs. Young people are caught in a cycle of violence and despair; let’s call them superpredators and put them in prison for life.

Why a “war” on crime?

Police have also become more militarized. The Federal 1033 program, the Department of Justice’s “Cops Office,” and homeland security grants have channeled billions of dollars in military hardware into American police departments to advance their “war on crime” mentality. A whole generation of police officers have been given “warrior” training that teaches them to see every encounter with the public as potentially their last, leading to a hostile attitude towards those policed and the unnecessary killing of people falsely considered a threat, such as the 12-year-old Tamir Rice, killed for holding a toy gun in an Ohio park.

What’s the alternative?

The alternative is not more money for police training programs, hardware or oversight. It is to dramatically shrink their function. We must demand that local politicians develop non-police solutions to the problems poor people face. We must invest in housing, employment and healthcare in ways that directly target the problems of public safety. Instead of criminalizing homelessness, we need publicly financed supportive housing; instead of gang units, we need community-based anti-violence programs, trauma services and jobs for young people; instead of school police we need more counselors, after-school programs, and restorative justice programs.

Let’s build up individuals and the community instead

A growing number of local activists in Minneapolis like Reclaim the Block, Black Visions Collective and MPD 150 are demanding just that. They are calling on Mayor Jacob Frey to defund the police by $45m and shift those resources into “community-led health and safety strategies.” The Minneapolis police department currently uses up to 30% of the entire city budget. Instead of giving them more money for pointless training programs, let’s divert that money into building up communities and individuals so we don’t “need” violent and abusive policing.

Alex S Vitale is professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. This is an excerpt from his article in The Guardian, May 31, 2020: “The answer to police violence is not ‘reform.’ It’s defunding.”

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