Across the country, reforms to police policies and practices are happening at lightning speed. As they should. The death of George Floyd, after being held under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer for more than eight minutes, has sparked more than a week of protests around the globe. The marches, moments of silence — and yes, demands for change — have prompted long-overdue action.
The New York Senate has passed a bill to end the practice of keeping police personnel records, including disciplinary information, secret from the public.
And Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced a set of police reforms.
These are important, if overdue, steps forward.
Another popular sentiment is calling to “defund the police.” This is a bit of a misnomer. Not all are suggesting a complete elimination of police forces or allocating no dollars to police departments. Rather, the calls are for smaller, less militarized police forces with more money directed to community services — such as education, affordable housing, health care, and job training, that can improve the lives of a community’s residents while also increasing security — for everyone.
In 2017, local governments devoted 6 percent of their annual budget to policing; 4 percent was spent on public welfare, which includes cash payments to individuals, according to analysis by the Urban Institute. That year, state and local governments spent more than $115 billion on police.
Camden, New Jersey, is highlighted as a community that has successfully made a transition in how it does police work and how it invests in community services. The city of about 80,000, which only a few years ago had a murder rate comparable to El Salvador, has pared a shrinking and remaking of its police force with policies that emphasize de-escalation and community building, rather than force and punishment.
At the same time, the city directed more money toward education and workforce development to improve the community. Both the murder rate and the excessive force complaint rate have plummeted. There are glimmers of economic hope, too. The Philadelphia 76ers opened a training facility there and other companies have come to town.
“I would have traded 10 cops for another Boys & Girls Club,” former Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson said during a recent NPR interview. “But the system needs to change as far as having police respond to incidents such as mental illness. Police are not equipped. They’re not trained. They’re not specialized in that. But yet it continues to get delegated to them.
“So I think if we changed the expectation of police and did not have them intersecting with community as frequently as it is in areas where they don’t have expertise, I think that the tension on some of these issues could certainly lower,” he added. “If you put the money towards having specialists handle these situations, I think cops would actually appreciate that.”
The expanded expectations of police officers must also be part of the discussion. We are in no way minimizing the deadly misuse of police power that has become too common in America, nor do we have illusions that investing in needed community services will stop all police misconduct.
But we must also recognize that as federal, state and local government have invested less in social services, the need for those services has not gone away. In many places, police and other law enforcement and first responders have picked up these responsibilities.
We now expect police officers to take the lead on mental health, substance use disorder, domestic violence, child welfare and other concerns that would be better handled through social workers and case managers.
Again, this is no excuse for police misconduct, but providing more funding for essential community services, so they could be provided by experts would both improve those services and allow a smaller, better-trained police force to focus on improving the community.
Police practices must be reformed to, in the words of Thomson, remake officers from warriors into guardians. At the same time, policymakers must understand that a police response is often the wrong way to handle many of the challenges in American communities. Shifting more money to services that can directly and continually improve people’s lives, rather than focusing resources and energy on enforcement, has to be part of the solution.
Watch: Police departments speak on recent Portland protests