New York City is the latest municipality to join the “defund the police” movement. This week Mayor Bill de Blasio and city council agreed to a spending plan that reallocates approximately $1 billion from the police department to other spending. That is one-sixth of the entire police budget.
Even that is not enough for Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who accused de Blasio of playing a shell game with the finances to minimize the impact on the police department. “Defunding the police means defunding the police,” she said.
The budget reduction may placate other defunders, but it comes at a bad time for those who still believe that the police are vital for protecting citizens from crime. The New York Times reports that in June the city had more gun violence than any month since 1996.
New York Councilman I. Daneek Miller, opposed the defund budget. “Black folks want to be safe like everyone else, we just want to be respected.”
The Times also reported that, “Nationally homicide rates are already rising in 64 large American cities for the first three months of 2020.” Last weekend in Chicago, 63 people were shot, 16 of them fatally. Three of the victims were children.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is black, says defunding ignores the practicalities. “In our police department, about 90 percent of the budget is personnel,” she told New York Times Magazine. “When you talk about defunding, you’re talking about getting rid of police officers.”
Because of seniority rules, that means younger officers, who are more often people of color, would be the first to go. “You’re eliminating middle-class incomes for black and brown folks. Nobody talks about that in the discussion to defund the police,” she said.
Defunders sometimes use the dismantling of the Camden, New Jersey police department in their argument, but they tell only half the story. Yes, Camden did abolish its police department in 2013. It was ineffective and riddled with corruption; meanwhile crime was rampant.
However, the city then replaced the incompetent agency with a new county police force that was better trained in how to de-escalate. The city threw out the restrictive police union contract and forced officers to reapply. The move has not been a panacea, but crime is down significantly.
Reasonable voices in the defund movement have a point about the need for more social service workers who can be summoned when necessary rather than always calling the police. Brookings Institute reports police data show “nine out of ten calls for service are for nonviolent offenders.”
The National Institutes of Health reports in a 2016 study that 63 percent of senior law enforcement officers surveyed say the amount of time their department spends on calls involving mental illness has increased during their tenure.
Calls for mental illness, homelessness and drug overdoses are what is sometimes called the “gray zone,” cases where the police often do not have the expertise or the resources to deal with a problem, but they are the ones who must respond.
People who really want reform of the police in their communities should drop the “defund the police” slogan. It may slip easily off the tongue during a demonstration or fit the agenda of those who prefer chaos to order, but when taken literally—and how else can we take it—it is a pathetic response to a serious problem.