Abolishing the police—or at the very least, significantly defunding them, to the point they are only a minimal presence in our communities—might sound like a radical and far-fetched solution to systemic police violence. Who would you call if someone stole your car or broke into your house? What if you were a victim of a violent crime, such as rape or sexual assault?
A radical solution is exactly what we need right now.
As Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociology professor and author of The End of Policing, said in a recent Mother Jones interview:
The reality is a lot of people just don’t call the police as it is because they feel like it’s just going to make their lives worse. That is a deep truth. And so what we want to do is not just to leave them on their own, we want to try and start fixing their problems.
There are smarter ways to solve our problems
Many of the issues police deal with, such as mental health crises or homelessness, could be better handled through a mixture of social services and community-based organizations. Meanwhile, many people—including minorities and victims of domestic violence or sexual assault—are reluctant to seek help from police. How we spend our money matters, and for every dollar we spend on a heavily militarized police force, with officers rarely being held accountable for their acts of violence, that’s one less dollar that can be spent on programs that offer meaningful help.
We spend twice as much on prisons, police and courts than what we spend on social programs aimed at helping people in need, at every level of government. We also put people in jail at a rate that is five times higher than other countries, at a cost of $31,286 per incarcerated person, per year. As a point of comparison, we spend $12,201 a year educating a primary and secondary school student.
Rather than spending our limited money on an extensive police force, it might be smarter and more effective to invest in social services and community-based organizations, rather than a heavily militarized police force.
Social services and community-based organizations are often more effective
When it comes to many of the issues police respond to, the best solution isn’t involving them at all—it’s locating the right services that can solve the underlying issue.
For example, if the disruption is because of someone experiencing a mental health emergency, the problem is better served by a social worker and comprehensive mental health services. Our current approach—looking to police to solve the problem—means people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be shot and killed by law enforcement. Some cities are already carrying out changes in this area: In Portland, Oregon, a new program called Portland Street Response sends first responders trained in behavioral health, rather than police officers, to address 911 calls related to homelessness or mental health crises.
What if your car is stolen, and the culprit is caught and turns out to have a drug problem? Rather than simply locking up the thief for a period and then releasing them again with little to no attempt made to solve the root cause of why they stole the car, we might be better off turning to addiction services. That is a solution that would address the root cause of the issue as well as reduce the likelihood the crime will reoccur.
This strategy—attempting to solve the underlying issues behind criminal acts—is an approach that, in the long run, would make our society safer. Research shows the involvement of community-based organizations focused on crime prevention has a measurable impact in reducing a city’s murder rate, violent crime rate and property theft rate.
Police officers aren’t serving a lot of people already
A black man has a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by the police, and studies estimate they are up to 3.5 times more likely to die at the hands of police than white men. That includes George Floyd, as well as countless others whose names have become rallying cries on social media. That’s a public health crisis—as well as a reminder that the police don’t work for all people, just some of us.
The question of whom the police really serve has been painfully apparent this past week, given the extensive incidences of police brutality against peaceful protestors in cities all across the country. This Twitter thread cites dozens of examples, including Salt Lake City police pushing over an elderly man walking with a cane as well as NYPD officers in SUVs driving into a crowd of protesters. Just last night in Buffalo, New York, police officers were caught on tape pushing an elderly man to the ground; a number of officers then walked by the man as he lay on the ground, bleeding. These are not isolated incidents, and tell us just how pervasive the culture of police violence is.
Victims of sexual assault or domestic violence often report receiving little to no meaningful help from the police. Some of that is likely due to the fact that sexual misconduct and domestic abuse in the police force are systemic issues, and there is no effective system of holding them accountable.
Police sexual misconduct, which ranges from sexual harassment to forcible rape, is rampant, with an officer accused of sexual misconduct every five days. In a survey of acts of police sexual misconduct that resulted in an arrest, about half occurred when an officer was on duty; acts of misconduct while officers were off duty were often complicated by the fact of their status as a police officer, as well as the presence of a service weapon.
And these were the cases that ended in an officer’s arrest. The actual prevalence of such incidents is thought to be much higher, as few women report sexual assault, and a victimizer’s status as a police officer seems likely to deter reporting even more. In a survey of 1,000 NYC youth, two out of every five young women reported being sexually harassed by police officers. If someone is sexually assaulted by a police officer, where are they supposed to go for help?
Studies of domestic violence involving police officers are limited, but suggest police officers commit domestic violence at a higher rate than the general public. When it comes to their victims getting help or justice, there is often little to nothing they can do. Whether an abuser is a police officer or not, all too often police just aren’t a meaningful source of help for these victims.
Instead, we could address issues of domestic violence or sexual assault with social services and community-based initiatives, where victims are given the help they need to escape from their abuser, as well as to recover. This would allow victims—particularly in black communities—to actually get the help they need, without having to weigh the risk of becoming another police violence statistic.
Money is limited, and how we spend it matters
Government budgets are finite, and what we choose to invest in makes a difference. If we choose to spend our money on a heavily militarized police force whose officers who are rarely held accountable for their misconduct, those are dollars that aren’t being spent on programs that can more effectively help people in need.
The United States spends an enormous amount on policing—a budget that is double what we spend on social welfare programs such as food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and supplemental social security programs. In Minneapolis, the police department occupies 30 percent of the city’s budget. They also have a horrific track record of racially motivated police brutality, using force against black people at a rate seven times higher than against white people.
George Floyd’s death was not an exception. It was evidence of the painful norm. Imagine what could be accomplished if the money powering the police was used to fund programs that would be a source of help and comfort for George Floyd and others in his community, rather than pay for their brutalization.
George Floyd would still be alive. Countless other victims of police violence, whose deaths went unrecorded and unremarked upon, might be too.