Defunding the police: what does that actually mean?

In the past couple weeks, following the murder of George Floyd, there has been a lot of talk about how we can eliminate police misconduct and police brutality. This issue has been illuminated time and time again by egregious acts of violence, many of which have disproportionately affected African American, Latinx, Indigenous peoples and other visible racial minorities. However, despite these repeated occurences, George Floyd’s killing reminds us that this issue still goes unsolved.

From these conversations, the idea of “defunding” the police has emerged. But, what does that actually look like, what does it actually mean?

Defunding the police is often used as a precursor to “police abolishment” — getting rid of the police as we think of them today. Now, many might wonder at this statement: who, then, will protect us? The fact of the matter is that the stuff the media makes the police out to be — a profession that deals with tense and potentially violent situations — is largely false. According to statistics Canada, 80% of the calls that police answer are related to situations like mental health crises, homelessness, domestic disputes, noise complaints and bylaw infractions. Not always the situations with a high potential for violence we envision.

Which is why in part, we hear so many stories of the police responding inadequately to or escalating situations. They are trained to walk into situations where they need to handle violence — with a mentality that will only serve them well 20% of the time.

But, indeed, it is more than likely that a subset of the public servants appointed to protect a population will be armed officers, because we still need to have people who respond to these situations. But, we don’t need these people to respond to every situation.

This is where defunding comes in — redistributing the funds we currently allocate solely to the police to other systems better equipped to serve us. This doesn’t mean just taking funds away from the police, it also means taking away responsibility. And, ultimately finding better alternatives to assume those responsibilities.

What it also should imply is how we can reform how police handle whatever responsibilities they have left. Because one thing is undeniable: the police being ill-suited to address all they are expected to is not the only problem with the system. It is also the underlying policies that make room for racist and discriminatory behaviour.

Part 1: Rethinking the responsibility of the police

Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous woman living in Toronto, died on 27 May after her mother called the police asking for her to be taken to a mental health facility. After the police died, Ms. Korchinski-Paquet fell 20 stories off her balcony. A week later, while responding to a mental health call, police in Edmundston, New Brunswick fatally shot Chantel Moore, a 26-year old Indigenous woman.

“Police are trained to respond to complex social situations with force,” said Alexander McClelland, an activist and post-graduate researcher at the University of Ottawa. “And the idea of applying violence in a complex social situation and expecting a nonviolent outcome is very confusing. It’s not logical. Policing just adds more to the crisis.” — The Guardian

This begs the question, is a fully armed person carrying a gun really necessary for helping an individual going through a mental health crisis? Frontline workers at institutions like homeless shelters respond to similar situations all the time, but are much more effective at deescalating them.

“We need a new emergency service that connects us with unarmed, mental health emergency service workers specifically trained to provide the health and social care required in crisis situations” — Washington Post

An organization called CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon is a promising example of just this. When a 9–1–1 call is taken, if the situation doesn’t have to do with law enforcement or pose a risk of extreme violence, it is routed through to CAHOOTS. They then send a medic and a crisis worker to handle the situation.

In 2019, the organization responded to 17% of the county’s 9–1–1 calls and only had to call for police backup in 150 out of the 24,000. This costed them $800,000 a year vs. the $58 M annual budget of the county police.

Police are often called upon to answer complaints about individuals experiencing homelessness, and that demand is growing — disporportionately. In San Fransisco, between 2013 and 2017, the unsheltered population grew by 1 percent, while the 911 dispatches citing “quality of life violations involving the unhoused” jumped 72 percent, and 311 calls about “homeless concerns” grew 781 percent.

In the fall of 2019, Donald Trump announced he’d take “radical federal action” on homelessness in California including clearing San Fransisco’s “filthy” streets, and rehousing Los Angeles’ Skid Row residents in a government-run detention center.

The criminalization of homelessness isn’t going to solve it — an armed officer telling people who have no other place to go to get off the street isn’t going to enable them to do so. Homelessness isn’t a choice, and we have to treat it as such. Rather than punishing it, we need to invest in better long term solutions such as housing first or transitional housing.

In 2015, Marc Ekamba-Boekwa was shot at 19 times and killed by Peel police after a noise complaint was made in his Mississauga, Ont. public-housing complex. On May 23rd, Maurice Gordon was shot at 6 times and killed by a white New Jersey state trooper during a routine traffic stop.

These are just two of many stories of police responding to minor infractions which are then escalated far beyond what they need to be. A person should never die because of a noise complaint or at a traffic stop — lethal force should not be necessary at an otherwise peaceful and routine encounter. It shouldn’t take an armed officer to handle these small concerns — not just calls relating to noise complaints or traffic stops, but ones relating to domestic disputes, parking tickets and (as we’ve seen above), about 80% of the low risk situations current police are tasked with dealing with.

For so many situations police walk into, they are neither necessary or qualified to provide the kind of help. Could we decrease the prevalence of the police by instead creating another kind of civil servant who responds to these kinds of low risk situations? One specifically trained to deescalate and is unarmed?

Part 2: Limiting the remaining responsibilities

“U.S. law enforcement arrests about 1.5 million people each year for drug law violations — and more than 80 percent of those arrests are for simple drug possession. On any given night, there are at least 133,000 people behind bars in U.S. prisons and jails for drug possession — and 63,000 of these people are held pre-trial, which means they’re locked up simply because they’re too poor to post bail.” — Huff Post

Yet, society still tries to send us the message that addiction is a disease that deserves compassionate treatment — persistent criminalization directly counters this message.

“We can either criminalize drug possession or fight stigma: we can’t do both at once any more than one runner can sprint in opposite directions at the same time. The whole point of criminalizing drug use is to stigmatize drug users.” — The Guardian

And this stigmatizing approach hasn’t proved to be effective in their intent: despite continued efforts to crack down on drug use, overdose rates in the United States are skyrocketing.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the possession of a drug supply for any drug lasting less than 10 days (drug dealers are still incarcerated). Instead, outreach teams give out packages containing supplies necessary to do drugs safely including sanitation wipes, sterile syringes and citric acid. A number of safe injection sites with frontline personnel were also introduced.

According to the Transform Drug Policy, Portugal’s rate of drug induced death declined to five times less than the European Union average and one fiftieth that of the United States. Between 2000 and 2015, cases of HIV were reduced 26 fold.

According to the EMCCA, safe injection sites do not correlate to increased crime rates but do decrease the number of interactions with the police. According to the North American Syringe Exchange Network, they also combat the spread of blood borne diseases and link more people to treatment while not encouraging increased use of drugs.

Countries like Canada have followed suit with the legalization of marijuana in 2018, which has also been shown to have positive effects on public health. The Czech Republic decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cocain and countries including Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador have decriminalized minor drug possession as a whole.

This supports the idea that treating addiction for what it is rather than stigmatizing it not only improves public health but decreases it’s intersection with the police. The same can be said for other minor vice related crimes (although, the extremity of the crimes should be taken into account).

According to the NICJR, the cost per shooting in the United States is between $765,000 and $2.5 M, including the cleanup, healthcare, the trial and prison. On the other hand, the Center for American Progress predicts that through violence prevention, the cost to prevent a homicide is $30,000.

Cure Violence is a program dedicated to violence prevention. For every dollar a city invests in that program, they can expect to yield between a 26 and 83 fold return. These measures also support the housing market — just a 10% reduction in violence correlates to a $600 M increase in housing stock value in Jacksonville — as well as provides a potential way to reduce the role of the police.

Part 3: Reforming police operations

Ever since 1871, American citizens have been allowed to sue law enforcement officers for infringing on their constitutional rights. However, “in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government officials were entitled to qualified immunity from civil-rights lawsuits, if their actions didn’t violate “clearly established” rights.” — Forbes

The issue with this is that the Supreme Court historically takes a narrow viewon what actions actually violate said “clearly established rights” and tend to base it solely on what previous rulings have deemed unlawful.

And as a result, many civilians are unable to take their cases to court. For instance, Shaniz West’s house was destroyed during an (unsuccessful) SWAT raid — her walls and windows smashed in and possessions saturated with tear gas to the point of being unlivable. However, as a result of qualified immunity, West received only $900 in compensation and a three week hotel stay from the city.

In early June, Congressman Justin Amash has proposed the End Qualified Immunity Act.

According to UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz, there are three guiding principles for civilian-police officer lawsuits. “1) plaintiffs must be fully compensated for the harms they have suffered; 2) officers and police departments should suffer economic or other consequences of these suits; and 3) budgeting and liability rules should be structured in a way to prevent strategic undermining of the first two goals by government.”

Because an individual police officer is often unable to pay the full amount demanded in a settlement, so in order to satisfy the first requirement, a city or police department is usually called upon to pay.

However, due to the Monell Law, cities are only responsible for their officer’s actions if that officer violates a civilian’s rights in accordance with city or department custom. In order to get around this, “most municipal employers indemnify law enforcement officers, covering their damages when they’re held liable in court.” — Slate

This is why, even with the End Qualified Immunity Act, police officers are still often protected by their department or the city, and as a result only end up paying 0.02% of the charges raised against them. So, requirement number 2 is only partly satisfied.

According to NYU Law Review, once a case gets to court there have been many cases in which the defence counsel will tell the jury that officers will be held personally responsible to drive down the settlement amount only to have city indemnify them later. So, once again, the suing civilian is forced to accept a diminished deal (and requirement number 3 is broken).

As a substitute for indemnification, The Committee for Professional Policing pushed (unsuccessfully) for a ballot that would require officers to carry professional liability insurance which the city would pay for. If the cost rose (due to lawsuits and risky behaviour), the officer would be responsible for paying the difference. In this way, plaintiffs still get their settlement and officers have an incentive to maintain just behaviour or will be financially punished otherwise.

For many police departments, recording data for things like

  • how often police officers use force
  • how much they engage in high speed pusuit
  • how many people are injured when in custody or released without charges
  • how civilian complaints are addressed
  • how offending cops are disciplined.

is not compulsory in the long term. As a result, individual officer records including information about civilian complaints and misconduct can be disposed of in as little as 30 days, making it difficult to launch thorough internal investigations.

While there are voluntary data sharing tactics like the FBI’s National Use of Force Data Collection, it is generally considered to be an incomplete picture.

The United States Congress gave the Department of Justice the power to require police agencies to record their use of force, but this power has never been exercised. The Stanford Policy review found that only 12 states have public police records, and Utah is the only state to require record keeping of forced entry.

Recently, Senators Chuck Grassley and Tim Scott proposed the Walter Scott Notification Act which would require police departments to keep complete records of these metrics. The idea is that comprehensive data storage would make it easier for departments to investigate misconduct amongst police officers.

Like with many other institutions, police officers are able to win the right to collective bargaining, or to form unions.

A working paper from the University of Chicago has found that officers who have won the right to collective bargaining commit 40% more acts of misconduct than officers who do not have that right.

The study specifically focused on acts of violent misconduct amongst Florida law enforcement officers before and after they won the right to collectively bargain in 2003. Since their baseline rate of misconduct before 2003 was low, this increase only translated to an additional 0.2 cases each year.

The main reason is that these contracts contain measures which make it harder to investigate police officers. A study from Duke University found that union contracts contain measures that “limit officer interrogations after alleged misconduct, mandate the destruction of disciplinary records, ban civilian oversight, prevent anonymous civilian complaints, indemnify officers in the event of civil suits, and limit the length of internal investigations.” Specifically, about about 88% of such contracts have a provision that blatantly inhibits justified discipline.

The other piece is that forming a union helps develop a sentiment of “solidarity” between officers which might contribute to a “culture of silence” — so officers perhaps may not be as diligent in reporting acts of misconduct and holding each other accountable otherwise.

A 2006 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that on average, use of force complaints from civilians is 7.7 each year for every 100 non unionized officers and 9.9 each year for every 100 unionized officers. Unionization from 1950s through 1980s led to 60–70 additional civilians killed by police each year — the majority of whom were non white.

Additionally, non unionized police agencies are also more likely to use innovative police policy — policy designed to inhibit police misconduct such as car cameras or civilian review boards. For instance, 91.5% of departments with a civilian review board do not use collective bargaining and 79.5% of departments that don’t have such a board do use collective bargaining.

On the other hand, the right to bargain collectively has been argued to have positive implications for officer wages, benefits and internal treatment. So, perhaps rather than ending unions as a whole, we could rewrite union contracts in such a way to these aspects while eradicating the tendencies that lead to higher levels of misconduct.

Many of us might believe that the “code of silence” present in some police departments is inherent to the specific officers that compose it. But, there are also legal codes which turn this social phenomenon into a concrete policy — similar to the above police union contracts.

For instance, the Fraternal Code of Police is a contract which covers the majority of Chicago’s police force. Some of it’s requirements are that

  • “People making complaints must file a sworn affidavit, and their names are turned over to the officer they are accusing. The U.S. Department of Justice said this creates a “tremendous disincentive to come forward with legitimate claims.” A provision permitting investigators to override the affidavit requirement is rarely used.
  • Police are allowed to wait 24 hours before making statements after police-involved shootings, and they can amend those statements after seeing and listening to video or audio evidence.
  • Rewards for police officer whistleblowers are banned.
  • Police misconduct records are destroyed after five years.
  • Interrogators are limited in what they can ask officers during investigations of alleged misconduct.”

A “wandering cop” is an officer who was previously fired for misconduct or quit under threat of being terminated for that reason. A study published in the Yale Law review found that wandering cops who are able to find work in law enforcement at another agency are more likely to engage in future acts of misconduct.

For instance, an officers who secures a new position without being fired from their previous one has an 8.7% chance of being fired and a 6.6% chance of being fired for misconduct. “Rookies” are fired 10.5% of the time and 7.2% of the time specifically for misconduct. On the other hand, wandering cops will be fired again 18.4% of the time, 13.8% of the time for more misconduct.

Similar trends hold for civilian complaints. Officers who aren’t fired for misconduct get an average of 0.07 complaints (0.02 for sexual misconduct or violence), while wandering cops get 0.13 complaints (0.04 for violence or sexual misconduct).

WSJ Opinion has said that civilian complaints are a “meaningful” predictor of serious misconduct. To name two of many examples, Jason van Dyke who killed unarmed Laquin Macdonald in 2014 was in worst 3% of civilian complaints in Chicago. Derek Chauvin who killed George Floyd in 2020 was in worst 10% of civilian complaints in Minneapolis.

One potential explanation is that wandering officers often take jobs at agencies with fewer resources, and as such, might be more conducive to further misconduct. In this way, a police agency might hire wandering cops because they don’t run the background checks required to figure out someone is a wandering cop, they are unaware of the risks involved, they lack alternatives, or for a wandering cop’s “unique” reputation.

“Even when well-intentioned — as a second chance for a hardworking cop — hiring a wandering officer is risky business,” wrote the study co-authors, Ben Grunwald of the Duke University School of Law, and John Rappaport of the University of Chicago Law School.

According to the New York Times, SWAT style “no knock” raids caused 100 deaths between 2010 and 2016 in the United States and 54%of these kinds of “no knock raids” implicate Black or Latinx people.

Three months ago, in Louisville Kentucky, Breonna Taylor was killed by police during a no knock raid. Recently, the city announced legislature to ban no knock raids. Their ordinance” requires law enforcement officers serving future warrants to knock and identify themselves as law enforcement in a manner that can be heard by the occupants. Absent “exigent circumstances,” police must wait at least 15 seconds or for “a reasonable amount of time for occupants to respond” — whichever is greater — before entering.”

According to the Atlantic, there are only 36 statues that govern use of force (and some states have more than one statue). In the absence of such a statue, uses of force are regulated through judicial decisions based on the fourth amendment. However, the fourth amendment regulates something called “police seizures” and not all uses of force are considered seizures — a discrepancy which leaves a lot of room for subjectivity.

The statues that do exist are also somewhat ambiguous. The University of Virginia Law review has found that use of force policies at the 50 largest police agencies are all over the board. Some repeat the constitutional standard, some put forth an aspiration to defend sancity of life, others have specific scenarios for everything from arrest to traffic light.

One promising sign of reform is California who amended their statue to include that “use of force is acceptable when faced “imminent threats of death or serious bodily injury,” and says that an “imminent threat” exists when “a person has the present ability, opportunity, and apparent intent” to cause such harm”.

“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s planning to push provincial premiers to equip police with body-worn cameras as a rapid, substantive solution to allegations of racism and brutality.” — CTV News

The use of body cameras as a way to decrease instances of police misconduct is a controversial one. Deray Mckesson, the cofounder of Campaign Zero and #8CantWait says that “more body cameras, community policing, mental health support for officers, implicit bias training, and having more police officers of color are all reforms that have been tried in various departments. But they don’t actually result in fewer people being killed by police”. No study has been published to date that proves body cameras do result in less police violence (although, there is no evidence to the contrary either).

Many cities across the United States have attempted the implementation of body cameras, but it has generally been short lived. For instance, when the Phoenix Police Department tried to integrate cameras,they found that after a month, officers were only recording 42.2% of incidents and after 11 months, only 13.3%.

Now, this doesn’t mean that body cameras are objectively useless — they might be helpful if states introduce legislature to make their widespread use mandatory rather than optional.

Instead, #8Can’tWait - a project by Campaign Zero has proposed eight reformist policies which are supposed to reduce police violence by 70%. They include banning chokeholds and strangleholds (22%), requiring de-escalation (15%), requiring officers to issue a warning before shooting (5%), exhausting all other means before shooting (25%), requiring officers to intervene and stop excessive force by other officers and report them immediately (9%), banning shooting at moving vehicles (8%), developing regulations governing when force can be used (19%), requiring officers to file reports every time they use force (25%).

At the same time, the way in which these methods are implemented might be just important as what they are — they need to be aggressively engrained in department policy rather than an unspoken belief of department culture.

In the event of misconduct, a state can decertify an officer to prevent them from returning to work as someone who enforces the law. But, depending on the state, the bar is often set high regarding what are sufficient grounds for decertification. For instance, in some states, officers can only be decertified after they themselves are criminally convicted.

Between 1960 and 2017, only about 30,000 officers were decertified in the United States. Half of those were exclusively in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina because those states specifically have more active decertification programs.

States should lower the bar for decertification and remove the ability to enforce law for a wider range of misconduct than breaking the law itself, because after all, misconduct goes deeper than that.

Modern policing was initially invented in France where it was used to defend the property of the wealthy including recapturing slaves who had liberated themselves. When it expand to Canada, the RCMP was invented for the purpose of seizing Indigenous lands for colonial purposes.

The origins of policing were not ones meant to protect all civilians, they were ones meant to criminalize the minority. And though policing has evolved, it’s founding intentions are repeatedly illuminated in acts of discrimination and violence most are surprised still exist.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way, particularly if we think about defunding the police. If we consider who is best prepared to serve our communities and investing in them.

Activator at The Knowledge Society | A Sandwich or Two Founder

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