Monday, June 08, 2020

Listening: On "Defund the Police"...

Admit it, no matter what your political inclination, the first time you heard this slogan, it sounds like advocating for anarchy. It's definitely inflammatory. So, why are people saying this? Is this just crazed protestors who hate the police and want to create an every-man-for-himself society?
I decided to actually listen to my more liberal friends and also seek out other informed sources of information, and here's what I understand is actually being said:

What if, when you dialed 911, it was always a police officer who responded? If there was a fire, the police would have to be equipped and trained to put out the fire. If there was a medical emergency, the police would have to keep you alive and get you to the hospital. And of course, if there was a crime in progress or evidence to collect and analyze, the police would also have to be prepared for that.

What you have is a lot of police, who have to be trained, equipped, and skilled at addressing an enormous variety of emergency situations, and of course, when the police show up, the stakes are high. So, one obvious way to help the situation is to specialize: you create a fire department, using some of the budget that was previously allocated for police response to emergencies. The fire department can be uniquely equipped and trained to deal with fires. Their trucks carry hoses and ladders. What's more: firemen don't carry guns and handcuffs: no one is afraid that a fireman is going to arrest you, and firemen don't have to worry about people responding in fear or violently to their presence, thinking they might be arrested or worse. If the firemen encounter a situation that calls for police, then they can call the police, but in general, it's more efficient for police to deal with crime, and firemen to deal with fires.

Extend that logic to medical situations, and you get EMTs and paramedics with ambulances.

And that's where we are today. But is that enough? Is that even what we had in the past? What situations are police responding to that could be better (and more cost effectively) handled by another specialty under most circumstances? What about adding social workers, who are uniquely trained, equipped, and empowered to deal with situations such as domestic violence, mental illness, and drug addiction? That seems like an obvious step. What institutions can we invest in, other than courts and jails, that can effectively prevent, reduce, and address crime and other social issues?
This is what is meant by the phrase "defund the police". Could they have picked a less sensational slogan? Maybe, but now they have your attention, and they didn't have your attention before with the other slogans and messaging on this topic.

Another aspect of this issue is "bad apples". It's common for people who are defending the status quo of police accountability (and lack thereof) in our society to say, "there are a few bad apples, but there is no systemic problem". Remember when there were "a few bad apples" in the Catholic Church? Just a few child molesters, that's all. What was the Catholic Church doing when it became aware of child abuse? It was covering up their crimes, paying off their victims in exchange for silence, and moving the "bad apples" around to different locations, where no one suspected their pattern of behavior. The bad apples were spoiling the whole barrel, and it was rotten. It needed to be reformed. Guess what's happening with police? The exact same thing. They are protected by their colleagues and supervisors and unions. They call them "gypsy cops". When someone tries to hold them accountable, they quit or get fired and are hired by another precinct without scrutiny.

If there was a systemic problem with sexual molestation in the Catholic church, then there is a systemic problem with abuse of power, and especially abuse of power towards blacks, in the police force.

There are more dimensions to this, such as the militarization of police departments that is on display in cities around the country right now, deployed with riot gear and armored vehicles against protestors. They form up a skirmish line, lob tear gas, and shoot pepper spray, rubber bullets and flash bangs into the crowd. Is that really the most effective way to prevent riots and vandalism? I think we can do better.