After a Fourth of July weekend that left many to ponder the real legacy of our country in a time of crisis, many Americans have called for a restructured policing system that better reflects the ideals of its citizenry. This not only includes “defunding the police,” but trimming budgets, solving legal problems, and limiting access to military-grade weaponry, a practice that has spun out of control over the past decade. Each of these reforms would save the department money, and could allow local governments to reallocate funding away from the police department to other government agencies or resources. After firing officers or decreasing expenditures on equipment, local governments could use funds to sponsor community programs, mental health clinics in high risk neighbourhoods, or other expenditures that would not only benefit the community, but would diminish crime. Most crime doesn’t simply materialize in impoverished communities because people get up one morning and decide to break the law, but is instead caused by structural inequalities that prevent economic mobility, promote structural racism, and create generational cycles of trauma. Defunding the police would aim to solve these problems not through the long arm of the law, but smarter and more compassionate community reform that may take a lot of work and investment, but will lay the groundwork for a better society.
Defunding the police has two basic parts: what to cut, and how to spend the newly acquired funds. Beginning with “what to cut,” we can separate this into two basic categories, by material and human resources. In Chicago, the city allocated over $1.8 billion towards their police force, a whopping sum in a city where the public’s trust towards its police force has been abysmal, particularly after the shooting of a black teenager Laquan McDonald. In the McDonald case, the city paid over $5 million to the family of the victim before the video came out, and has paid over $757 million since 2004 in settlements, legal fees, and other costs related to police misconduct. Chicago and other larger cities often prefer to settle with victims and their families, but the costs of the bonds often fall on the taxpayer and force the city to take out bonds.
According to Bloomberg News, Chicago also took out over “$225 million in general obligation bonds to pay off police settlement debts [in 2017], according to a letter to one of the bondholders from the Action Center on Race & the Economy [ACRE].”
ACRE also describes the loans as “police brutality bonds,” and argues that they “transfer resources and extract wealth from black and poor communities to Wall St., through the fees banks charge cities for the bonds. These bonds are mostly used when a city is already suffering from revenue shortages [… but] leave the root causes of the revenue shortage unaddressed.”
While this may seem unrelated to police conduct, it rates the interaction of problematic government policies at the local level, and is yet another burden that police put on their citizenry through their own misconduct. A defunded police department would not only be better trained to deal with such issues, but would also cost the department less money. Saving money and better conduct go hand in hand, and even a defunded department requires better training, especially in larger cities.
Some other reforms in this area include mandatory liability insurance, a policy that not only increases costs for officers who continually engage in risky and illicit behaviours, but brings an end to the predominant policy of absolving officers of responsibility for their actions. It would also shift a social problem to an economic one, and allow the risk of improper conduct to be reflected by one’s premiums, while also encouraging governments to collect more data on their officers to paint a clearer picture of their behavior.
Increasing officer accountability could also be implemented by ending qualified immunity. Qualified immunity grants government officials (namely police officers) immunity from civil suits unless the plaintiff shows that the official violated “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” The rationale was originally introduced in a 1967 Supreme Court case Pierson vs. Ray in order to protect officers from frivolous lawsuits and financial liability, but created a Catch-22 that limits our ability to hold officers accountable. In order to prove that someone’s statutory rights were violated, there needs to be a legal precedent of that occurring, but because qualified immunity limits our ability to convict cops for an abuse of force or murder, it’s impossible to build a precedent.
The more we examine our justice system, the easier it is to see that much like in politics, our police forces are the product of an interconnected web of institutional, legal, and monetary decisions. Cops are prosecuted by district attorneys, which at best leaves the perception of bias and at worst becomes a conflict of interest, simply because prosecutors rely on officers for sworn testimony and cooperation with their cases. Because of this interdependent relationship, many have suggested that either federal prosecutors or the office of the state attorney general prosecute the case instead of the local D.A, a solution that would remedy potential conflicts of interest.
But legal tangent aside, why are we spending so much money on our justice system, and how can we make it cheaper? One solution may be to reform a cop’s overtime pay. A government watchdog found that the Chicago Police Department spent over $575 million on overtime pay from 2011-2017, or an average of $7,657 extra per 12,000 officers in the city. Some noticeable cases included an officer who accrued “more than $336,000” in overtime pay over a two and a half year period while four officers took in over $250,000, excluding their yearly salary. It was also found that in 99% of overtime cases, the department gave no reason for paying overtime, not only illustrating corruption among the rank and file, but inaction among the local administration. Real change begins with solving corruption, and corruption can only be rooted out with more regulation and attention given to systems ripe for abuse, like overtime pay.
Yet another problem entails the militarization of police. In 1990, the National Defense Authorization Act permitted local and state police departments to access military hardware from the Department of Defense, ostensibly for use in counter-drug activities. Without this law in place, we wouldn’t be seeing police with armoured vehicles, riot gear, or advanced surveillance equipment that can easily lead to an infringement on fourth amendment protections. A 2017 study even found that “the number of civilian casualties; the change in the number of civilian casualties; and the number of dogs killed by police [had] a positive and statistically significant relationship between [military equipment] transfers and fatalities from officer-involved shootings across all models.” Simply put, bigger guns lead to a greater risk for civilians and the officers who wield them.
What’s particularly important is that material militarization, namely the police’s growing use of advanced weaponry, can lead to other forms of militarization. Anthropologist Peter Kraska defines militarization along four categories, namely material, cultural, organizational, and operational. The National Defense Authorization Act obviously encourages material militarization, but cultural militarization as well. This can clearly be seen from the June 2020 protests where officers across the country beat down peaceful protesters without any visible cause, including the assault on an elderly gentleman in Buffalo, New York. Many psychological elements are also at play here, namely the “pack mentality,” an enhanced view of one’s own power when given equipment meant for a warzone, and even toxic masculinity. The Washington Post sums up cultural militarization by describing an officer that shot a high schooler exiting a party, stating that “militarization makes every problem — even a car of teenagers driving away from a party — look like a nail that should be hit with an AR-15 hammer.”
There are so many simple reforms we could conduct to solve the problems I’ve outlined above, and countless others that I’ve neglected to mention. Collecting data on deaths caused by a police department or uses of force would likely paint an unsavoury picture across America, which is why departments don’t want to report on how violent their officers are. Enhanced psychological screenings for officers could also weed out the kinds of “bad apples” we keep hearing about, but real change won’t come unless we change the culture in a police department, or disband the blue line of fraternity that can stand in the way of progress. No one wants a society where an emergency 911 call goes unanswered, but the system we have needs a massive overhaul and systemic change. The implicit and explicit racism that has built our police force is too ugly to hide as we discuss how to reform a law enforcement entity that evolved from slave patrols designed to return “property” to its “owner.” Remnants of this mindset come to the forefront of our national consciousness when officers are caught flashing the “white power” symbol, a disgusting trend of bigotry within the ranks. America needs to get with the program and defund the police. We’re smart enough to use our money more efficiently, so why don’t we? Why don’t we rise to the occasion, vote out leaders who refuse to heed our calls to action, and vote in ones who will? Why don’t we focus on fixing our communities instead of failing them, letting our officers drive by communities filled with underpaid workers and a lack of affordable child- and healthcare? Why don’t we give a damn?
If you’d like to help, you can call your local city council and demand change, and donate to the Critical Resistance, an organization that supports defunding the police: http://criticalresistance.org/. Please also consider signing this petition from Black Lives Matter, calling for a defunded police force: https://blacklivesmatter.com/defundthepolice/.