Public services, perhaps without so many tanks and drones

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,

2 thoughts on “Public services, perhaps without so many tanks and drones

  1. Vardibidian Post author

    Thinking about this a little later, I find that I didn’t articulate one of my concerns with defunding the police—if we shift a bunch of the municipal services that I like out of the politically untouchable police budget—that would not longer exist as it has—and instead fund them like the schools, buses and libraries, I am not sanguine about the results.

    That doesn’t mean I oppose the idea! Balancing out the upsides and downsides, I have to put the most weight on reducing police violence. I just bring it up because it’s worth thinking about, for locals who are pushing for a practical transition.


  2. Michael

    If we separate out a variety of social services from being delivered by the police department, we reduce the power of the police who can currently provide or withhold those services, who can decide which services to prioritize, and who currently control the balancing of a larger aggregated budget for a variety of services whose funding levels should appropriately be increased or decreased by our elected officials.

    If the role of the police is narrowed, it is politically easier to discuss training and budget and deployment and equipment and oversight because then those decisions don’t inherently also directly affect the delivery of that vast array of non-crime-related services.

    If the role of the police is narrowed, it is hard to envision maintaining the long-standing consensus that the police need to be revered and deferred to because of the centrality of their role in the community.

    So while I understand the concern that we’re only getting some of the non-crime-related services because the police are deigning to deliver them to the people they decide to deliver them to in the way they see fit, I think if we separate them out we might actually see a political consensus evolve in favor of the social services agencies and less in favor of the crime-related services. For many decades, Social Security was the most untouchable part of the budget. We could get back to that notion of putting the general welfare first if we strengthened the social services agencies and weakened the police department.


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