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Fund what serves, defund what doesn’t

The recent wave of protests following the murder of George Floyd have focused national attention on racial discrimination and many other serious flaws in American law enforcement. In seeking remedies, the slogan “Defund the Police” has gained popularity. While the meaning of these three words varies, their central idea is that a portion or all of police funding should be reinvested in other areas like community development, alternative approaches to conventional policing, and initiatives to remedy underlying socioeconomic inequalities.

U.S. crime is rooted in large, long-standing structural flaws in American economic and social policy. Lack of adequate education, health care, economic opportunity, and socioeconomic mobility produce massive disparities in the opportunities afforded to Americans. These injustices fall disproportionately upon the shoulders of Black and non-white Americans and are exacerbated by racially discriminatory practices and societal norms.

Police are not responsible for these underlying problems. But they have been the enforcers of destructive policies, and have a poor track record when it comes to violence and accountability. Recent American history is riddled with “tough-on-crime” initiatives including the war on drugs, mass incarceration, stop and frisk, and broken windows policing. These practices have not only harmed Black Americans, but have proven largely ineffective in reducing violent crime and protecting public safety.

In my home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we trust police officers to keep us safe. But our officers are members of our community; we trust them to protect us because they are us. In other parts of the country, the police are seen as outsiders, as enforcers of racist and harmful policies, as instigators of violence, and as enemies of the community rather than guardians. This is the reputation that many police departments have earned.

Despite these harsh realities, the full-scale defunding of police departments is not a solution. We absolutely should create new non-police channels to address some of the issues that police departments are currently tasked with, from mental health services to drug abuse programs. It is also crucial that we remedy suboptimal economic, health, and education conditions along with a myriad of other destructive policies and norms that deny basic rights, destroy opportunity, and disproportionately hurt Black Americans. But funding for these initiatives should not be procured by defunding police.

Although US police budgets are substantial, the average police budget is not so large that its redistribution is likely to produce material improvements that outweigh the negative consequences of an underfunded police force. But more importantly, America is a violent country in which legally owned civilian guns outnumber civilians and backward socioeconomic policies continue to incentivize criminal activity. Until these problems are solved, armed law enforcement is necessary.

Studies of police performance demonstrate that overworked and understaffed departments generate more use-of-force complaints. Studies also indicate that having more officers on patrol leads not only to less crime, but also to fewer arrests and fewer use-of-force complaints. American police are actually underfunded compared to most EU nations, where police are better trained and do a better job of preventing violent crime and not hurting or killing their own citizens. Thus, cutting police funding without an extremely well-constructed strategy is likely to lead to more violence and abuse by officers rather than less.

To achieve real change, it is necessary to fund broad police reform along with new non-police programs, community improvement initiatives, and efforts to address underlying socioeconomic issues. American police institutions are deeply flawed, but they are a public service that can benefit communities when operated effectively. Examples like Camden, New Jersey demonstrate that with the right philosophy, leadership and operational policies and practices, police departments can be reformed to effectively serve the people.

We need drastic police reform including higher standards for officer conduct, vastly improved training, stricter use-of-force standards, greater community oversight, increased transparency and accountability, a paradigm shift in police strategy to focus on crime prevention rather than locking people up, and a reimagining of police duty and responsibility to prepare officers to be guardians rather than warriors. Police are essential, but they must establish rapport with their communities and prove that they can be trusted to serve and protect the people. In some cases, this may require eliminating the existing police institution, and rebuilding from the ground up.

Achieving serious reform requires serious funding. Instead of defunding police, defund the destructive and ineffective US penal system and reduce incarceration rates. Defund charter school subsidies that exclude the majority of American students. Defund fossil fuel subsidies that keep us dependent upon inefficient and harmful energy sources. And defund tax cuts to billionaires and corporations that have allowed 1% of the population to amass more wealth than the bottom 80%.

Defund the policies and systems at the root of the problem, but don’t give up on the institutions that have the potential to help people. Reimagine, reform, and remake our police departments so that they live up to the ideal of serving and protecting the American people.

Nick Wilson is a junior at Boston College and is studying environmental sciences.

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