I have been musing about the ‘defund the police’ or even ‘abolish the police’ slogan, and I’m going to ramble a little about it.
The thing is that I think I’ve been thinking of the police as, in a general or categorical way, a large public works program with an obvious need. That is, not unlike municipal transportation or education—in the sense that there’s a need for these things, and a real reason why they should be done mostly by the public. There is a place for private education, and private security, and private transportation, but I that place supplements the public versions of those things—not only equality but humanity require that the community provide these to all the community. A fair amount of my liberal-left policy package takes those things as basic assumptions: we provide ourselves, through our government, a bunch of services that help us all when they reach everyone. Does that make sense?
And so, as a liberal, when one of those large public works programs is shown to be flawed, my instinct is that the program probably needs more resources, better deployed, with more support from a greater network. For the last three decades or so, that’s largely been my attitude toward the police in this country—yes, I knew they were flawed and problematic, but the policies that appealed to me were things like neighborhood policing. Which seems like a good policy! And it seems to have good results in places, and there’s some evidence behind it. An excellent idea, we should do that sort of thing.
So, the idea of abolishing or even defunding the police has not been at all appealing to me. I resisted it the way I would resist defunding the bus system because of the flaws in that, or reducing the scope and resources of the public school system because of the flaws in that. On the other hand, thirty years on, community policing doesn’t seem as convincing a solution as it used to.
My feeling at the moment is that we are asking the police to do a wide variety of things, from traffic control to criminal investigation to record-keeping to security to crowd control, and that it’s too much. We are (in theory) training the same people to do all that stuff, and overseeing it (again, in theory) through the department. It isn’t working. And even if it could work, wouldn’t it be better to have a wide municipal service of specialists, each trained only in their specialty, overseen by different civilian departments (sharing information across departments, obviously) and rarely authorized to use force?
What would that actually mean? Who would you call if your bicycle was stolen, or if your car collided with another car at an intersection, or if you were afraid your neighbor had died in their house? I have no practical idea. People have been doing work on that sort of thing, and there are some ideas out there to start with. Presumably the who-does-what answers would be different in different places—a million-resident city has different needs from a fifty-thousand-resident suburb or a two-thousand-resident bedroom community. Regions may be able to usefully combine some departments and not others. Oversight would be tricky (it usually is) and there are real risks involved. The transfer of tasks would be very difficult. I would imagine that answering 9-1-1 would become an extraordinarily complicated job, and that fact might actually mean that the immediate response of emergency teams would be slower for everybody. The courts would have difficulty dealing with some of the changes, and we’d probably need some new and uncomfortable authority for civil regulations.
I am still, as Gentle Readers can probably tell, cautious about the notion. I really distrust the idea of reducing public service. But weighing the risks and costs and troubles against the status quo, and particularly against the trends of my adult life projected into the next decades… it’s hard not to see where to stand.
In the conversation around the idea of abolishing the police, though, I suppose what I’d like to see—in addition, obviously, to the demand that we make black lives matter, that nobody in the police or otherwise should be able to kill someone black or otherwise with impunity, and that we both acknowledge that we are killing people and stop it—is a discussion that talks about the services we want from municipalities and regions, and how to peacefully provide them. That’s happening, and it’s pretty damn’ convincing.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,