Given how Minneapolis has suddenly become Ground Zero for police reform, it’s no surprise that a majority of Minneapolis City Council members say they favor defunding and dismantling the police department.
While the defund movement predates the death of George Floyd on May 25, under the knee of a veteran Minneapoolis police officer, and the protests that have followed these past two weeks, the incident has sparked a renewed public interest in defunding as a means of fixing longstanding inequities in how police approach their work in low-income, minority communities. It also underscores the public’s frustration with how police reforms of the past have had only modest effect on racially discriminatory and brutal behaviors.
Yet for those who were not paying close attention to the Minneapolis video — or perhaps did not see the subsequent video of a 75-year-old peaceful protester getting shoved by police in Buffalo only to be left bleeding on the sidewalk, or maybe the one of a police officer pepper spraying a young black man in New York City who had his hands held up, or the video of Atlanta police illegally tasering college students (well, you get the idea) — the talk of defunding might seem more frightening than the possibility of police brutality. After all, someone still has to investigate violent crime, make arrests, keep law and order, even direct traffic at accident scenes. Are the police really that irredeemable, or are there just some bad apples that need to be sorted out?
Maybe, maybe not. But at its heart, the defund movement isn’t really about getting rid of police entirely. It’s actually much more nuanced than that. It’s about whether cities and towns across the nation should be investing less in quasi-military forces and more in services and institutions that prevent crime from happening in the first place. What if on-demand drug treatment reduced crime? What if easy access to mental health services did the same? What if excellent schools and job training, decent health care, housing and nutrition helped in this regard as well? As it happens, they do, but they also cost money. And the competition for scarce resources is really what this is all about.
Frankly, police departments were already headed toward defunding. The economic downtown wrought by the coronavirus pandemic — and the failure of the White House and the U.S. Senate to support a government aid package to offset dramatic drops in tax revenue that are an inescapable result of widespread unemployment — mean all police departments are in for lean times. And even police officers themselves question whether they should be doing some of the jobs assigned them, such as dealing with the homeless population or the mentally ill. Might social workers or others specially trained in crisis intervention prove a better fit for these assignments anyway? Even the most ardent police critics, those who see the roots of modern policing in the practice of hunting down escaped slaves, largely recognize someone still has to do the front line job of responding to reports of crime.
Here in Baltimore where the post-Freddie Gray police reform efforts have barely taken root, there’s an urgency to addressing police misconduct and criminal justice disparities (as well as broader societal inequities that transcend policing) but not necessarily to fundamentally changing course. We would like to see how Minneapolis and other cities fare with their approaches, however. And we’d like to see a conversation taking place, particularly as the Baltimore City Council begins hearings this week on the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Right now, public safety is by far the biggest line item in Baltimore’s budget consuming roughly 44% of all city spending with the next highest category, “education and youth engagement,” running a distant second at 19%. Is that really the best use of limited tax dollars? Here’s another way to look at it: Mass incarceration has proven a highly ineffective way to curb crime. Even political conservatives and the nation’s self-described “law and order” president recognize that a nation with 5% of the world’s population should not have 25% of its prisoners. So there have been efforts to eliminate prison for lower-level crime, reduce minimum sentences, and invest more in — wait for it — crime prevention with positive effect.
This much is clear: Defunding is not an anarchist’s plot so much as a continuation of reform efforts, many of which have proven effective. Don’t buy the sophomoric claims that a vote for defunding is a vote for crime in low-income neighborhoods. If solving crime was as simple as having the highest number of sworn officers per capita, Baltimore with its 42 officers per 10,000 population (according to a 2015 analysis) wouldn’t have the homicide rate it has now or Minneapolis (20 officers per 10,000) wouldn’t have one-eighth Baltimore’s abysmal number.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.