The phrase “defund the police” has been thrown around a lot in recent days — but what does it mean? It’s a call to refocus law enforcement resources toward professionals trained to handle those social issues instead of the police. From left to right, elected officials have signaled they are open to policing reforms, but sadly, instead of joining the chorus for change, President Trump and the MAGA media have weaponized the term to fire up his base. This has caused many progressives to intensely debate the use of the term “defund” but the concept isn’t unprecedented or without success in the U.S.
In his book The Psychology of Science (1966) Abraham Maslow wrote, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
That’s been our approach to everything from addiction to mental illness and homelessness, and the result has been mass incarceration and civil unrest. It’s important to note that jails are the largest provider of mental health services in Texas yet the state still lags in the bottom five states in per capita spending for non-incarcerated residents.
Can you imagine if people were unafraid to ask for help because they could avoid the stigma and trauma of jail time and a criminal record? This is the question many cities are asking including Minneapolis where Geroge Floyd was killed by police. The City of Camden, NJ has been down this road and may be able to provide some insight. Before Camden dissolved its police department (and temporarily shifted duties to the county) it had one of the nation’s highest crime rates. It was also found that the city’s large Black population was afraid to interact with police. After reconstituting the department with training that emphasizes de-escalation, community engagement, and altering the use of force policies the city saw its violent crime rates fall 42 percent over seven years. And in May, the police chief actually marched with protesters in the Black Lives Matter rally.
Complicating matters is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has battered the economy and city revenues. Now come the tough decisions on how these calls for change will be met and where the cuts will be made. So far there is no consensus. Houston actually increased its police budget by $19 million as Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the formation of a police accountability and transparency taskforce. Dallas Council Members have declined a funding increase and at least 10 of 14 members sent identical letters to the city manager requesting proposals for reallocating funds to other social services. Austin Council Members voted to not approve additional hires, to close some vacant roles within APD and make changes to its use of deadly force policy. “I want to make sure the public knows this is no victory lap at all … The harder work is way ahead of us,” said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza.
Indeed, the work may be made harder by pressure from the state between its unhelpful budget cuts and the fact that some local progressive reforms have been quickly reversed at the state level. GOP officials, who control every lever of state government, have put out statements condemning the unjust death of George Floyd, but we can’t overlook the missed opportunities for action that have come before. Black Lives Matter organizers were behind the push for the Sandra Bland Act, for example, which was watered down to the point that family members described it as “gut-wrenching.” So when Gov. Greg Abbott proclaims that George Floyd will not die in vain we can trust but we must also verify. After meeting with the Floyd family, the governor tweeted that they will help to, “ensure what happened in Minn. never happens in TX.” However, Progress Texas reports that Texas has the second-highest total number of killings by police in the U.S. And according to a report by the Corpus Christi Times-Caller, in the last year, police shot and killed 117 people in Texas, including such high profile cases as Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, and 15-year old Jordan Edwards.
When the Chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus (TLBC) heard the Governor’s words the caucus put out its own statement in which he said that, “It is deeply troubling that these policy discussions, aimed at combating the systematic racism that corrodes every level of our justice system, excluded black lawmakers.” For its part to bring about that change, the TLBC is hosting a series of digital town hall events to take community feedback to help inform a legislative package for the next session.
It’s clear the public outcry and protests are having an impact. The shift in tone coming from Republicans, and even in some cases the president, is a notable departure from the tough talk of sending in the military and overwhelming force. President Trump is now touting a new executive order that will, “touch on use of force best practices, information sharing to track officers who have repeated complaints against them and federal incentives for police departments to deploy non-police experts on issues like mental health, homelessness and addiction.” He said, however, that “qualified immunity” — which provides liability protections to officers accused of wrongdoing — is a “poison pill” for Republicans, which highlights the limitations around what changes may be palatable to conservative lawmakers moving forward.
Incremental improvements are a step in the right direction but as State Representative and Chair of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Nicole Collier said, “We will not see an end to these protests until meaningful change occurs at all levels of government; the only next step is genuine policy reform.”
“Defund” is a cry for help that has successfully grabbed the political consciousness of our nation. Will we argue semantics, or use this energy and opportunity to dismantle systems of oppression? There has been a growing bipartisan movement for criminal justice reform but it’s not just the courts that need reforming, so do the enforcement mechanisms that fuel them. Each level of government bears its responsibility to make changes from demilitarization at the federal level to banning no-knock warrants and chokeholds and the local level. The bottom line is that our budgets are moral documents and it’s time they bend towards justice or else we are unlikely to see peace.
Photo: MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images