Proposals to “defund” the police make us on the left look completely ridiculous to the rest of America.
Now, I realize that what people mean when they say “defund the police” is not always as it sounds. As reported recently:
Supporters say it isn’t about eliminating police departments or stripping agencies of all of their money. They say it is time for the country to address systemic problems in policing in America and spend more on what communities across the US need, like housing and education.The Associated Press, Updated June 7, 2020, 8:26 p.m.
Well, if that’s what it’s about, then don’t call it “defunding the police.” Policing is one of the core functions of local government, and it doesn’t have to be done the way that we do it here in the United States. Take, for example, the country of Norway, where their police haven’t killed anybody in almost a decade.
As it is, we have all of right wing America taking it literally that the left wants to defund the police, and raising the spectre of lawlessness and chaos in the streets.
Now, forgetting for a moment about the fact that this tweet (supra) is from a Trump and that means it is at least partially incoherent — what the hell is he talking about not defunding private security and what does that have to do with the price of eggs in China? — Trump Jr. mirrors the reaction of a lot of right wing America.
It’s a shame too, because this is a potential inflection point where one might really be able to change something significant about policing. Two of the most important things that have to change are (1) attitude and (2) police protection from liability.
Attitude, needless to say, is hard to change. Some police officers will change their attitude by observing what is happening in the country right now, and a few may change their attitude because of training or other efforts to widen their consciousness. But widening someone’s consciousness, as we already know, is hard to do. The “blue line” mentality is deeply ingrained in policing.
Liability is another matter. Right now, police are generally protected from liability for their own misdeeds, and a lot of the blame for that goes to police unions who are only interested in protecting their own.1 The rules around liability, those can change.
There have been a few serious attempts to tackle the current crisis, and one of them has been put forward by a coalition of Democratic House members and Senators who released the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which includes the following proposals2:
These are good ideas, for the most part, and I hope they actually get enacted. Especially important are the proposals to change rules around qualified immunity. Nothing will change police behavior as quickly as the knowledge that officers can be held personally liable for abusive behavior. While that might not put more police officers in jail, it will put others in risk of personal bankruptcy and that’s a powerful incentive to avoid doing certain things.
- The city of Camden, New Jersey, has made a good faith effort to reform its policing. Back in 2013 it essentially disbanded its police department (and the police union contract that came with it) and turned over the policing to an expanded and invigorated county police department, with largely positive results. Of course, it should be noted that this was a kind of union busting, which Camden clearly believed to be necessary. But it didn’t disband its police department without replacing it with something.
- Because policing is a local government function, there are limits to how directly federal law can influence how local policing is done. Here, the federal government would do what it normally does when it wants to change the behavior of state and local actors, and that is to condition the flow of federal dollars on adherence to these requirements. That’s how the federal government influences state behavior around things like Medicaid and unemployment, and got all the states to raise the drinking age to 21.