We may need police reform, but defunding is not the answer
WASHINGTON: It is clear that police reform is needed. The deaths of George Floyd and other black men and women by the police in questionable circumstances have focused attention on the proper use of force as well on the nature of the training our police officers receive. It has also led to a campaign to “defund” the police, and in some cases to eliminate police departments entirely. This, in reality, is a dangerous idea. It would be most harmful to minority communities.
William J. Bratton, who served as Police Commissioner of New York City and Boston and chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, declares that,
“…abolition—-or even broad defunding—-of the police is absurd. Most people want the police, particularly those in marginalized communities…The truth is, when the crunch comes, people want more police, not less. Today’s crunch is that, after three decades of falling crime rates, the U.S murder rate surged more than 20% in 2020. The speed at which hard fought gains are evaporating is alarming.”
New York City Council member Vanessa L. Gibson, who represents the West Bronx, said this during a debate over defunding:
“New Yorkers want to see cops in the community. They don’t want to see excessive force. But they want to be safe as they go to the store.” The interim head of the city’s transit system, Sarah Feinberg, said, “Our employees and customers agree—-87% of riders say that seeing a visible police presence in our system is very important to them.”
To the question of how to trust in the police can be restored, William Bratton notes:
“Trust starts with accountability. When a use of force is unjust, justice must be as swift as due process allows. Derek Chauvin was fired within 24 hours and convicted within 11 months. And police departments need oversight mechanisms like the force investigation division I established in Los Angeles and recreated in New York…Cops should have body cameras and keep them on—-and make the footage available to the public—-even when it reveals a problem with policing. Every department should have an open data portal and the federal government should mandate wider statistical reporting….Right now, cities are seeing waves of police resignations and finding it difficult to recruit new officers. Considering the studies that show more police equals less crime, this is a problem. We need to hire more officers, train them in de-escalation and crisis intervention practices and connect them to the communities they serve. To build trust, we need refunding, not defunding.”
It is minority communities that are most seriously harmed when police departments are defunded. Black residents, for example, are 23% of the population of New York City. Yet, 63% of all murder victims are black, for shootings, the figure is 73%.
Consider Asheville, North Carolina, one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. The Asheville Police Department recently announced that it won’t respond in person to all calls about theft, fraud, or trespassing after 84 police officers left the force since January 2020. The police chief says that staffing shortages have reached “crisis proportions.” Last Fall, the City Council voted to reallocate 39% of the Asheville Police Department’s $30 million budget. Police Chief David Zack said the attrition rate has accelerated dramatically since protests against law enforcement became widespread in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, experts are warning that a police failure to respond to low-level, non-violent crimes could lead to an escalation in more serious offenses.
In Seattle, the police department staff is now smaller than it was in 1990 even though the city’s population has increased by more than 40% since then.
A proposal from the mayor’s office could reduce the police force still further. Something has to give and that has been answering all calls and routine policing. Local business and community leader Don Brunell wrote in the Courier-Journal,
“If this trend persists, it will ruin cities, making them unsafe and unappealing. People and businesses will leave.”
Police Chief Adrian Diaz said that “The more stress we put on those officers, it can create some adverse effects.”
After the Seattle City Council voted to slash police funding and jobs, its first black female police chief, Carmen Best, resigned rather than implementing these cuts.
Criminologists Justin Nix and Scott Wolfe write:
“We have enough research evidence to be concerned about the immediate impact of drastic budget cuts or wholesale abandoning of police agencies. Crime and victimization will increase. These collateral consequences will disproportionately harm minority communities, that need help not further marginalization. Cities that have more police officers per capita tend to have lower crime rates.”
Matthew Yglesias, writing in Vox, criticized police defunding and abolition activists for lacking a plan for how to deal with violent crime and for ignoring the substantial literature finding that having more police leads to less violent crime.
In the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City, candidate Maya Wiley, who has been endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and other progressive Democrats, was asked in a debate whether she would remove guns from police officers. She refused to answer the question. Her staff was later forced to clarify and said she did not intend to disarm the police. Wiley, who has been sharply critical of the police, has been ridiculed by New York newspapers for hiring private security in her neighborhood while simultaneously calling to defund the police during a period of soaring crime.
She calls for cutting $1 billion from the police budget, but Wiley and her husband Harlan Mandel pay $550 per month for a private security car to patrol their Brooklyn neighborhood. Eric Adams called that, “the highest level of hypocrisy.”
All four other mayoral candidates——Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia, Scott Stringer, and Andrew Yang pledged to allow police to keep carrying guns, Adams, a former police captain who is black and serves as Brooklyn Borough President, once founded a leadership group for black police officers. He has risen to the top of most polls as issues of crime and policing have dominated mayoral debates.
Daneek Miller, co-chair of the New York City Council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus says,
“You would be hard-pressed to find a black homeowner in southeast Queens who agrees that dramatically reducing the size of the police force is a worthwhile endeavor. Gun violence, for instance, remains a concern. To diminish the progress and value of our work as the defund the police movement threatens to do would be to silence the voices of communities we represent.”
Since the Spring of 2020, the number of shootings in New York has soared. By June 6, there were 181 homicides in New York City, up from 121 in the same period in 2019, an increase of 50%. (NYPD – Supplementary Homicide Report)
Polling shows crime is the top issue among likely primary voters. Andrew Yang said,
“My first act as Mayor will be to go to the police and say, ‘We need you.’”
While a few people at the outer edges of the Democratic Party have embraced the defunding of the police movement, party leaders have rejected this idea——from President Biden to Bernie Sanders to former President Barack Obama. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), Democratic Whip and a long-time black civil rights advocate spoke of his conversations with the late civil Rights stalwart Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). He said, “Defund the police is killing our party and we’ve got to stop it.
John Lewis and I were very concerned when these slogans came out about defunding the police.
We’d get together on the House floor and talked about how that slogan could undermine the Black Lives Matter movement just as ‘Burn, baby, burn,’ destroyed our movement back in the sixties.”
The movement to defund—-or abolish—-the police comes just as violent crime is growing. Police Executive Research Forum Director Chuck Wexler fears that summer of gun violence lies ahead. He says that a recent spike in gun crime appears to be a long-term trend rather than a brief blip. He notes that repeated calls to defund or abolish the police have led to mass resignations and staff shortages.
Every society, made up of imperfect human beings, requires effective policing. That policing, of course, should be conducted fairly and offenses should be quickly dealt with. But calling for defunding the police at a time when violent crime is growing, and affecting minority communities most severely, could not be more irresponsible.
About the Author:
Allan Brownfeld is a veteran writer who has spent decades working in and around Washington, D.C. Brownfeld earned his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary. His M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonwealth, and The Christian Century. Visit his Writers Page to learn more.