We should not confuse public safety with investments in systems of punishment.
As Chicago has shuttered schools, closed mental health clinics and cut public transportation in poor neighborhoods, the police budget has only grown, surviving as the last vestige of a well-funded government.
“Defund the police.” The demand has gained life in wake of the death of George Floyd, who was murdered on Memorial Day by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis cop with a record of 18 citizen complaints. As protesters flooded city streets to demand justice for Floyd, they added the names of victims of their own local police departments: Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado, Andres Guardado in Gardena, California.
According to recent polling, 55% of Democrats now support defunding the police. After years of police reforms and bias-training and body cameras—which always seem to be turned off at the key moment—activists’ calls for radical change are gaining support.
The reaction from some, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and runner-up Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has been to caution that defunding the police is a step too far. And according to polls, 64% of all Americans agree with them. Matthew Yglesias, a founder of Vox, writes that cutting police budgets makes no sense as evidence indicates that more police on patrol means fewer violent crimes. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also opposes defunding the police: “What I’ve heard from the people in neighborhoods is that they want more police protection, not less.”
Take Chicago. During the largely peaceful protests that followed George Floyd’s murder, there was opportunistic looting. Along with the big box stores, Black-owned businesses in the largely Black South and West Sides of Chicago were hit hard. Simultaneously, Chicago experienced a spike in homicides. Over this past Father’s Day weekend 104 Chicagoans, mostly in Black or Latino neighborhoods, were shot, 15 of them (including five children) fatally. Against that backdrop, it’s understandable that people in afflicted communities say they want more police on the beat, though they may not like them.
According to a May 2019 poll by Gallup and the Center for Advancing Opportunity, 68% of residents in Chicago’s low-income communities wanted the police to spend more time in their neighborhood. At the same time, 59% say they know “some” or “a lot” of people treated unfairly by police, and 60% said that most people in their neighborhood had a negative view of police. But maybe the interest in more police reflects a desire for any type of city investment and attention after decades of neglect. As Chicago has shuttered schools, closed mental health clinics and cut public transportation in poor neighborhoods, the police budget has only grown, surviving as the last vestige of a well-funded government.
This year Chicago has budgeted $1.8 billion (about 40% of the city’s total operations budget) for its 13,000-member police force, the second largest in the nation. That works out to about $5 million per day. What do the police in Chicago accomplish with $5 million a day? They don’t help convict many people of murder, especially if the victim is Black. According to WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate, police solved 47% of the cases if the victim in white and 22% if Black. Police rarely interrupt and prevent crimes, and less than 25% of reported crimes result in an arrest. The Washington Post reports that, over the past 60 years, there is no correlation nationally between police department spending and crime rates.
Chicago’s finest, however, do a fine job of arresting the mentally ill. In 2019, an estimated one-third of the 6,000 people imprisoned in Cook County Jail had a diagnosed mental illness. This year Chicago has budgeted $10.5 million for community mental health services—about what the city spends in two days on its police. Imagine a city where the response to mental health crises is treatment, rather than incarceration.
Defunding the police is about reallocating resources from punitive and carceral methods and toward the publicly funded social supports and services that guarantee the well-being of all residents. It’s about undoing the neoliberal policies that have imposed austerity upon public goods and services, while leaving police departments fat and militarized.
In a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed, Chicago’s six democratic socialist city council members wrote:
We can’t keep giving 40% of [city resources] to a system of punishment that does nothing to address root problems. … Substance-abuse treatment, mental healthcare and after-school programs all have a clear and sustainable impact on reducing crime. We need to fully fund public programs that are proven to reduce inequality and improve public safety in ways that policing fundamentally does not.
An absolutist demand to “abolish the police” may seem cockamamie. It did to me for the longest time. But when that radical idea aligns with a historic moment and is cleverly rebranded as “defund the police,” it challenges us to confront the choices we make as a society about what we’re supporting.
The function of the state is not to misappropriate resources and thereby entrench historic disparities and violations of human dignity. It is to ensure the health and well-being of its citizens.
We should not confuse public safety with investment in police and penal systems, two institutions that conflate the ruling class’s self-interested preservation of power with the notion of justice.
We should likewise acknowledge that defunding the police, is not the complete solution to our deeply entrenched problems. Justice for the ravages of racial and economic inequality demand not only holding those in power to account, but that we also create a structure for economic redress.
The beauty of the protests is that they challenge the core values of the status quo. “Defund the police” demands that we choose between a society that invests in the “root causes” and one that mobilizes paramilitary and surveillance forces.
It is not a new idea. Prison abolitionists and criminal justice reform activists like Angela Davis and Mariame Kaba have long envisioned and advocated for a world without police, basing their arguments in moral and practical reasoning. Their research, writing and arguments are now a gift and a guide to the millions of Americans who like me are catching on, and up, to them.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.