September 23, 2020

Debunking Defunding

By Stephen Tuttle | Aug. 1, 2020

“Defunding” the police means different things to different groups. For some, it is synonymous with reforming the police. For others it means a diversion of some funding, now used by law enforcement, for social and mental health workers. Still others hope for a Utopian future in which there is no policing at all. 

The United States didn't even have municipal police departments until Boston created the first in 1838. Prior to that, citizens complained to appointed magistrates who then investigated and determined if a trial should be held. The jury was comprised of other magistrates and local businessmen. All involved were men.

Almost no civil rights were observed, torture was frequently used to elicit confessions, and defendants were often on their own. It was the process that resulted in 20 women in Salem, Massachusetts, being executed as witches. 

Early municipal police departments were no bargain, either. Often minimally trained and brutal, they meted out their own brand of justice with clubs and fists. It took a very long time for the courts and too many municipal police departments to recognize the rights of individuals. It wasn't until 1966 the Supreme Court determined those arrested have the right against self-incrimination and to an attorney, the so-called Miranda Rule.

We've now reached a moment when all men and women in law enforcement are under pressure because of the historically, and ongoing, biased culture of some departments. The calls for defunding grow louder.

Unless somebody can tell us how to eliminate crime, we aren't going to eliminate law enforcement. But what about the other options? Can we defund a department and start over from scratch? Can we use money earmarked for law enforcement for alternative public interventions? People are now pointing to examples of both.

In 2012, Camden, New Jersey, eliminated their city police department and started over with a countywide operation. While the department today has good relations with their minority constituents and crime is down, the department reformation had little to do with a desire to better serve those communities. Nearly the opposite.

Camden, a former industrial center that industry abandoned, was a a poverty and crime-riddled city of 73,000. With a poverty rate of more than 40 percent (annual household income of less than $22,000) and dependent on state aid since the late 1980s, the idea was to increase law enforcement presence, not reduce it. Eliminating the city police department also eliminated union contracts so more officers could be hired for less. In fact, the new department had nearly 50 percent more officers, and arrests increased dramatically, especially the arrests of minorities. The crime rate was basically unmoved.

Finally, local activists began protesting, and the new department evolved into a neighborhood policing policy in which officers have become part of the communities they serve. Violent crime is down more than 45 percent. 

On the other coast, Eugene, Oregon, is held up as an example of using interventions that are alternatives to police. 

Eugene, a college town (University of Oregon) with a population of about 171,000, has partnered with their neighboring city of Springfield (population 63,000) to create a nonprofit mobile intervention program that uses medics, social workers, and mental health specialists to answer some calls. They mostly deal with homeless or drug-ravaged individuals who might have previously encountered the police. Although some 9-1-1 calls end up being referred to the program, they have their own number, about 40 workers, and a couple of their mobile vans on call 24/7. Their budget is about $2 million. 

According to Eugene officials, the program saves the police department more than $8 million annually. Ambulance and hospital savings are even greater.  

But Eugene has been doing this for 30 years, not as a response to current events. They have both the human and financial resources to staff and run such a program. They also have sufficient services and shelter space for those in such need.

Every law enforcement agency could benefit from anti-bias training, and some are in need of significant reformation. But not every department everywhere needs defunding, and neither Camden nor Eugene benefited from that strategy.

The Camden defunding was headed for failure until local activists resuscitated it through protest. More cops and tougher enforcement wasn't the answer; a more benevolent policing philosophy was. 

Eugene's non-police interventions have proven successful and freed up police from dealing with public health issues so officers could focus on crime. But other cities need to know this requires human, financial, and various service and shelter resources they might not have.    

For some police departments with historically discriminatory track records, we may have reached a day of reckoning. Their reformation is long overdue. But no police? We simply have not evolved sufficiently as a species to be trusted to police ourselves.


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