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Opinion: Why defunding police departments doesn’t always work

Chief of Department of the New York City Police, Terence Monahan, takes a knee with activists as protesters paused while walking in New York, Monday, June 1, 2020. Police officials in New York City and elsewhere say recent shootings has shown there are consequences to some police reforms they see as misguided. Emboldened criminals feel "that the cops can’t do anything anymore, that no one likes the police, that they can get away with things, that it’s safe to carry a gun out on the street,” Monahan said. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Chief of Department of the New York City Police, Terence Monahan, takes a knee with activists as protesters paused while walking in New York, Monday, June 1, 2020. Police officials in New York City and elsewhere say recent shootings has shown there are consequences to some police reforms they see as misguided. Emboldened criminals feel "that the cops can’t do anything anymore, that no one likes the police, that they can get away with things, that it’s safe to carry a gun out on the street,” Monahan said. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Credit: Craig Ruttle

Credit: Craig Ruttle

Past budget cuts have had unintended consequences, leading some to call latest efforts a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction.

The promise to develop a new system of public safety— supported by a veto-proof majority — had followed weeks of protests across the country in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

Officials in other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have also said they would cut police budgets, though neither has echoed the statements by Minneapolis city council members that the city’s police department is beyond reform.

Once a radical notion, the push to defund the police is gaining ground. Across the country, organizers, celebrities and former city officials are calling on lawmakers to reimagine the role of police in public safety.

But past attempts to cut police spending or alter police policies offer cautionary tales of how some efforts backfire.

Proponents of taking money away from cops say cities cannot simply reform their way out of the current crisis. In the wake of the pandemic, some have highlighted a disparity: Many cities spend millions more on law enforcement than they do on most other services, including public health.

Opponents, though, say it is too soon to abandon the progress police departments have made to curb officer violence and improve their relationships in communities of color. Some point to the effects of the 2008 recession, where cities cut police funding with no real plan and with unintended consequences.

In fact, previous Marshall Project investigations into cases of attempted police reform in cities such as Memphis and Chicago found that cutting law enforcement budgets did not reduce police violence or produce healthier relationships with the neighborhoods they patrol.

Crimes went unsolved

What do people mean by defunding the police?

It doesn’t just mean slashing budgets. One of the main ideas is that police departments are often the only agency to respond to problems — even if the problems are not criminal in nature. Police handle mental health crises. They enforce traffic laws. They patrol public school hallways and contract with colleges and universities. In many small towns, police answer 911 calls about barking dogs and loud parties.

Advocates of defunding the police argue that many of these functions would be better left to other professionals, such as social workers.

A better approach, proponents of defunding the police argue, redirects law-enforcement funding to social services programs such as public housing, early childhood education and healthcare. By equitably distributing resources, they say, the need for police could be dramatically reduced.

After 2008, cities reduced police spending as the Great Recession depleted their coffers. Departments that once had record numbers of cops were forced to downsize. (The single largest line item in most police budgets is personnel.)

As dollars dried up, police manpower plummeted, more crimes went unsolved, community outreach dwindled, and the cops that were left were forced to work high amounts of overtime.

In Memphis, overtime costs nearly doubled from 2015, reaching $27 million two years later. Wait times for 911 calls rose. City officials then pressed a nonprofit to raise money in secret to pay for police bonuses.

To bolster community trust in police, cities such as Chicago turned to academics from top-tier universities to develop training using the latest buzzwords, such as “implicit bias” and “procedural justice.” But the programs did not always take hold —and one Chicago police officer sued the city for inadequate training after he accidently shot and killed a Black grandmother despite the new classes.

Court-ordered consent decrees were enacted, under which the federal government essentially acted as watchdogs of a local police force, often costing millions of dollars for cities to implement. And in some cases, there were abuses: A 2015 Marshall Project investigation into the failures of federal oversight found that a Detroit monitor had billed the city as much as $193,680.55 a month and had an affair with the then-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

There are fiscal incentives for defunding, too.

Police departments are often one of the largest slices of the city budgets. Nearly 7 percent of the city budget in New York, for example, goes to police; in Los Angeles, it’s 16 percent. In Minneapolis the police account for roughly 15 percent of the city’s $1.3 billion budget.

But the current debate over defunding the police is different than the challenges following the Great Recession, said Alexander Weiss, an expert on police staffing.

That financial crisis forced police departments to scale back out of necessity. The current defunding debate asks how officials can redirect money from law enforcement and move into social services.

Other ideas have worked

Some efforts to reimagine how police departments operate have worked.

In 2011, the Camden Police Department in New Jersey became the first law enforcement agency in recent memory to implode as the state struggled to pay for officers. Police officials blamed the four police unions then operating in the city for having too much power, driving up overtime costs and dictating how patrol cops were used.

A county police department emerged tied to only one police union, which local leaders say is why Camden now has a national reputation as a place where residents and cops get along.

“We get a lot of information from residents now to help us fight crime and help us solve crimes,” said Louis Cappelli, Jr., the county executive.

Some cities, it seems, are cutting budgets without plans to reimagine the police force. And some worry the push to defund the police is rash.

James McCabe, a former commander in the New York Police Department who now is a consultant for scores of departments, says changing the culture of a police force takes time. Training in many departments has only just begun, and it’s too soon to tell if it is working, McCabe said.

“I am a proponent of good government and efficiency and not overspending on something that you shouldn’t,” McCabe said. “But it might be a little bit of a knee-jerk reaction right now to just unilaterally defund the police because you don’t like something that happened.”

“The more pressure put on police from without,” he said, “the more they will resist that change from within.”

Simone Weichselbaum and Nicole Lewis are writers for the Marshall Project, a nonprofit, online journalism organization focusing on issues related to criminal justice in the United States.

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This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.