"Defund the police! Defund the police! Defund the police!” It’s a call of vitriol we’ve heard shouted out for several months following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. It’s also one of the main themes pressed by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Some calls to defund the police have demanded outright elimination of the local police force or diverting some funding to other municipal programs in order to reduce the number of interactions that individuals have with police.
A staunch proponent of the defund the police movement—U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)—said in a recent public appearance, “Defund the police means reallocating or redirecting funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by the local municipality. That’s it. It’s that simple.”
Other anti-police politicians have made similar statements, with the general underlying message that the funds taken from police departments will be applied to other government agencies.
In New York City—where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once worked as a bartender before being elected to Congress—Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the NYPD budget would be cut by $1 billion dollars.
The mayor said that the funds would be reallocated to youth and family
“From reinvesting funds from the NYPD in youth programming and social services, to building new community centers, this budget prioritizes our communities most in need while keeping New Yorker safe,” de Blasio said.
In a world of defunded police outlined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others, people will call the local Health and Human Services Agency when there is a homeless person defecating on the doorstep of their small business.
Glass Half Full
Looking at this issue from an optimist’s perspective, the defunding movement may possibly result in police officers not being responsible for calls related to homeless or mentally ill individuals ranting and raving outside a local diner.
People will instead call the 311 non-emergency number for an incident in which an emotionally disturbed person is swinging a blunt object at a parked car or chasing an innocent victim down the sidewalk.
They will call the local methadone clinic when a young man appears to be overdosing on a sidewalk outside a hardware store on Main Street between Pine and Elm.
They will not call the police because they will know that other service providers are at the ready—and fully funded—to respond to incidents in which the presence of a police officer might result in a physical confrontation.
Those citizens will have the presence of mind—during a traumatic experience—to call the psychology department at the local hospital or the reverend at the local church to deal with the domestic dispute currently happening. The single father who reports on a Saturday night to Child Protective Services the abduction of his five-year-old son by his estranged wife will be met by staffers from the agency at his doorstep ASAP.
Okay, now that fantasy hour is over, let’s get back to your regularly scheduled programming of “How the Real World Actually Works.”
None of that is going to happen.
People in panic will continue to call 911 in every instance. Airplane crashes into the neighbor’s yard. Dog barking uncontrollably in the neighbor’s yard. There’s some sketchy unknown subject lurking in the neighbor’s yard.
People will call 911 because that’s what people have been conditioned for decades to do.
Those amazing 911 call takers will do what they’ve been trained to do—dispatch one or more officers to the scene of whatever calamity is underway. The police will be the first to arrive at every one of those scenes because—generally speaking—people don’t have any understanding of what the 311 non-emergency call line is even intended for, much less how to employ it to their benefit.
Those citizens will call 911—immediately creating a response call by police officers on patrol—unless they’re unavailable… because the agency has been defunded and those officers aren’t available.
Then, who knows who will arrive and when? The guy next door with the 12-gauge and no clue what he’s about to get into?
The biggest impacts of the “defunding” push is that police agencies that rely on overtime to just maintain basic levels of staffing will no longer have the funds to pay those officers for patrolling for hours beyond their assigned shifts. The consequence of this change in staffing is that responses to calls for service will be lengthened, putting citizens at risk of further suffering when victimized by criminals.
Following efforts to defund police agencies in certain cities, the citizens who reside there have pressed back on their elected leaders.
In Minneapolis—the city in which George Floyd died in police custody, sparking the “defund the police” movement in the first place—it’s been reported that “a plurality of residents, including 50% of black people, opposed reducing the size of the police department,” according to a New York Times report.
Eight residents of Minneapolis are suing the city council over a lack of police presence amid spikes in violent crime in the city after elected leaders there said they would pull back on funding of the police department.
A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 42% of respondents say that spending on their local police should stay about the same as it is now, and 31% say that spending should be increased.
Going back to that element of the “glass being half full” for a moment, I point you to the words of the 19th Century French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.
He wrote romance novels, and to be totally truthful I’ve only read one of them as a college assignment. However, among the things he said and wrote over his lengthy career was something that has stayed with me: “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.”
In the event that things go according to the alleged plan—and resources are taken from police and diverted to other agencies whose expertise is better suited to responding to individuals in crisis—then the bitter pill of defunding the police may end up an elixir of sorts.
Cops won’t be placed into circumstances for which they have little or no training, placing themselves at risk of a career-ending calamity, or a life-ending tragedy.
However, as has been the case with law enforcement for the past half-decade or more, we have seen sadly negative impacts on communities when the police withdraw—or are withdrawn—from proactive policing.
In some cases, officers have simply elected to not initiate contacts—instead just answering calls long after the perpetrator has left the vicinity—and in other cases the practice of de-policing has even led to agency-wide directives to pull back from initiating contacts.
With departments facing shortfalls in staffing—and now new shortfalls in funding due to efforts to cut back even further on police budgets—what is the most likely outcome for the citizens who are in the greatest need of police protection?
I’ve said it multiple times that a society that dismisses its police—out-of-hand—will quickly devolve into a landscape of lawless dystopia resembling a combination of scenes from the movies “Mad Max” and “The Purge.”
Nature hates a vacuum. When the police withdraw from the field, criminals are inspired to commit more crime.
In cities that have decided to defund the police, the consequences could very likely be dire.
Doug Wyllie is contributing web editor for POLICE.