The brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer has sparked nationwide protests and unrest over police brutality, as well as the pushing into the limelight the wider discontent felt by black Americans surrounding entrenched inequalities and institutional discrimination. This isn’t the first time America has seen race riots in its recent history; the same happened in 1965, 1968 and 1992, to point to just a few. Every time black Americans are promised reform – to no avail. So, to hear criticism from some quarters that the notion of defunding the police is too extreme or radical seems to me blind of the false historical promises the black Americans have been made. Promises of reform are simply no longer good enough; a financial hit on police departments will finally make them more receptive to change.
As a federal republic, policing in America is fragmented across states, cities and counties. In total there are over 18,000 law enforcement agencies, with only 65 of them being run by the federal government. This makes expansive reform enforced by the federal government extremely difficult to do. It will be up to the legislatures and governors of each state to implement and oversee reform. But even in the state level, there are difficult hurdles; police unions consistently prevent its members being held to account after fatal incidents and halt even a whiff of reform to a variety of police practices. In addition, the justice system does not appropriately prosecute police officers who do wrong. Collusion between prosecutors and the police often mean cases are dropped. Since prosecutors are often reliant on police accounts when prosecuting those who are charged with other crimes not directly related to police brutality, they need to keep officers happy. This means turning a blind eye. Locally elected legislators are also disincentivised to seek reform given that unions can make re-election very difficult. Furthermore, those that stand to benefit the most from police reform are the most politically disengaged – purely from an electoral perspective, seeking significant police reform is difficult for those who want to remain in office and implement more permanent change.
Yet despite the dire chances of success, every so often the American people unite on a single issue which creates a limited political opportunity for change. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have acknowledged the need for some police reform, something that was unthinkable only a month ago.
But simply changing guidelines on the use of force or implementing mandatory bias awareness training is not enough. America’s police forces have become bloated, partly because of its culture of criminalising social and health issues at the expense of funding for social care and community outreach, and partly because of the militarization of police forces in the United State in general. Since 1990, surplus military equipment has been provisioned to local police forces with the goal of better tackling organised crime in a heavily armed society. The problem is those police officers are not in a warzone, and equipment designed to kill people hardly help serve the police’s purpose to serve and protect American civilians – if that’s what their purpose even is nowadays.
This is where calls for defunding police departments emerge from. While there certainly are differing opinions as to what exactly defunding the police would entail, I scold those who have jumped to the conclusion that this would, and can only, mean abolishing the police. Rather, defunding the police would allow for funds from police budgets to be re-allocated to other public services such as social care, mental health counselling, drug abuse support and educational. Police budgets would then be slimmed down to be focused on one purpose: law enforcement. This potential positive impact would be substantial; the most vulnerable members of society like those in a mental breakdown would get emergency support specific to their needs, not a person armed with a weapon trained for a confrontation.