Every moderate Democrat I know cringes when they hear the phrase “defund the police,” and think of all the swing voters they may lose based on rhetoric. But let’s take up this call to action and continue the fight to empower communities.
Communities that could not be more different, from large cities and small towns to suburban counties and rural villages, share a common challenge: exactly how to take up the rallying cry that became widespread following George Floyd’s death while being arrested in Minnesota and continues with the shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers in Wisconsin.
As daunting as it is — especially during a pandemic and a recession — to take a new approach that can deliver the results that proponents of defunding the police desire, it can be done. And it can be done successfully with long-term impact. I know from personal experience as the former county executive of Prince George’s County.
When I first took office in December 2010, after the previous county executive had been arrested, the county was in a recession, our graduation rates were poor and our health outcomes were worse. Most disturbing, we were experiencing a huge spike in murders. The new year began with 13 homicides in 13 days in the first full month of my term. Residents were frustrated and wanted relief.
In areas wracked by violence, calls from concerned citizens for more police on the streets were increasing. Police were seen by some as the only solution to combating crime because they were often the most prominent part of government that residents saw in their communities. But I wanted people to believe that government could serve them holistically. Together with my department heads, including the police chief, we created a program called the Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative (TNI).
The plan was to take our six most underserved neighborhoods and make them the highest priority in the county. If we could improve outcomes there, the entire county would benefit. We dedicated our discretionary funds to multiple key areas: crime, dropout rates, health disparities, and lack of transportation and job opportunities in our TNI neighborhoods. Deputy administrators representing every government department would facilitate weekly brainstorming meetings with residents and community leaders in each TNI area to address the issues in their neighborhoods. The meetings were solution-oriented and collaborative.
Many people hated the idea at first, and some residents even wanted more police stations built instead. Council members worried about losing funds for projects that weren’t tied to one of the priority areas. Already-overworked administrators weren’t thrilled with having to make time for community meetings and listen to residents' complaints. Even worse, violent crime increased during the first year of the program.
But after that first year, things started to change. Even if people didn’t always know the initiative’s name, they began to see its impact in positive ways. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing as leaders if people don’t feel like we’re improving the quality of their lives. Debates over what it would mean to defund the police overlook an important fact that’s true in communities all across the country: the police are only part of the equation.
By the time I left office, the county’s crime rate had dropped 50% and economic development was booming. A group of local officials from around the country came to Prince George’s County to observe and learn from our initiative.
We became the leader in the state in job creation and economic growth without gentrification. This happened because we focused on the communities that needed help the most.
As someone who worked as a community organizer, ran a small education nonprofit, and went on to lead the second largest county in Maryland, I know what it takes on a micro and macro level to address these systemic issues. I also know the problems seem enormous, because they are. But, as we emerge from this once in a 100-year pandemic, there will be an opportunity to build anew. I now work to help train and support elected leaders who take office without having formal training or a mentor to guide them.
As leaders, we need to meet this moment. But the beauty of this moment, and this movement, is that leadership is not and cannot simply be top down. As leaders, we need to empower the community so that they can contribute their skills as well.
As leaders, we rise and fall on our willingness to be transparent and accountable.
Rushern Baker III (email@example.com) is former Prince George’s county executive, and president and CEO of the Baker Strategy Group.