Among his obnoxious ravings during Tuesday night’s rumpus, President Donald Trump again accused Democratic challenger Joe Biden of wanting to “defund the police,” an accusation Biden had several times denied and denied again on the debate stage.
Trump does this because the phrase, “defund the police,” is a verbal hand grenade easily tossed at anyone associated with the important social justice movement that has developed in the wake of the death in police custody of George Floyd in Minnesota.
Trump likely knows full well what the true meaning of the phrase is, but he has weaponized it against Biden, and Democrats generally, in Trump’s campaign to stoke fears among voters. The phrase sounds extreme and even dangerous. As such, it serves Trump’s dystopian warnings about a Biden presidency.
Problem is, the call to “defund the police” requires explaining; it doesn’t say what it means in its simplest, most practical interpretation — that we must shift some government spending from conventional policing to other services, such as public education and health, that will build a better society.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe more people than I suspect can comprehend what protesters mean when they say “defund the police.” But this is America in the time of Trump and, as his performance in the debate demonstrated, he’s incapable of honest, productive dialogue.
Politics aside, the fraught moment we find ourselves in raises the question: Could Baltimore shift some of the millions it pays for law enforcement to the services that could produce better life outcomes for more of its citizens, thereby reducing the desperation that begets criminality that begets encounters with cops and the criminal justice system?
Police Commissioner Michael Harrison gets it. He was in the street with protesters in late May after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. A career cop, Harrison acknowledges the practical wisdom of shifting some resources and responsibilities away from police to social workers and mental health professionals. In fact, he says, most police officers would welcome it.
But, he quickly adds, an augmented social services system has to be in place before the shift can happen, and such a transition would probably take years and lots of money. In the meantime, Baltimore police have to fight crime, and they have to do so under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.
In July, the federal judge overseeing the Baltimore Police Department’s compliance with mandates of the consent decree stated in court that “defunding the police” was not an option.
The city made a commitment to reforms, said U.S. District Judge James Bredar, and that includes hiring more officers, training them better and equipping them better. All of that comes with a significant cost. “A specific path has already been chosen here,” Bredar said. “The court will require that the city travel down that path until it reaches the destination of ‘substantial compliance.’ Until the city comes into compliance, the decree will be the template for how police reform is accomplished here.”
Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who wrote a book about being a cop in the city’s Eastern District, is now a sociologist on the faculty at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Moskos is a progressive, but not when it comes to “defunding the police” because, he says, it wrongly assumes that people who live with crime problems and quality-of-life issues want to see fewer police officers on their streets. Baltimore, after all, is still one of the most violent cities in the country.
“You’re not going to have a more racially just society while people are getting shot,” Moskos says. “You’ve got to have some level of public safety so that you can solve other problems. But we are not addressing the other problems. Teachers get some of the blame and cops get the rest, but they’re so far down the pipeline of these problems.”
He notes that most of Baltimore’s shooting and homicide victims are Black. And most of the people who live where the violence takes place are Black. They have issues with cops; surveys by the Pew Research Center show that Black people are far less likely than whites to give police high marks for how they do their jobs. But research shows they still want them around, and they want them to be effective in stemming crime.
“I mean,” says Moskos, “I don’t mind people in the Eastern District or the Western District disliking police, that’s their right. But, if you live in some safe neighborhood, don’t be telling people that they need less policing. That’s not what they think. They want more. Police are still needed.”
Moskos resents progressives who claim there are too many cops. He calls that view paternalistic approaching racist. Progressives, he says, should “defund police in your own neighborhood.”
As for shifting some responsibilities away from police, Moskos, like Harrison, believes that only works if Baltimore devotes more funds to a larger and more effective system for solving people problems.
“Cops would love it if they didn’t have to deal with mental health issues and domestic violence,” Moskos says. “As soon as we set up a system where those aren’t problems, we would know. We would know exactly when we were ready for fewer police because people wouldn’t call them.”
A personal note about this: Years ago in this column, I suggested that Baltimore’s government and its philanthropies fund an “army of social workers” to attack some of the city’s toughest problems — generational poverty, drug addiction, ex-offenders unable to find a decent job after prison, teenagers at risk of dropping out of high school. A lot of people liked that proposition. Several progressives slammed the suggestion as patronizing.
It’s my hunch that some of those same progressives who were offended by my idea are now calling for Baltimore to “defund the police” and devote more taxpayer dollars to an army of social workers. Glad we’re all in now.