Perhaps this document should come with a trigger warning: many people are going to be upset with the gist of my argument: I don’t think “Defund the Police” is either good politics or policy. As an alternative I believe we should argue for and adopt the slogan “Demilitarize the Police” as politics and policy.
There is both a semantic problem with the slogan “Defund the Police” and two major substantive problems. The semantic problem in turn creates a political problem. The substantive problems raise more serious concerns about how policing functions in the overall the U.S. polity and economy. The first of the substantive problems is rooted in “American Exceptionalism;” the second flows from the dynamics of class and power.
A. The Semantic Problem: What Does the Slogan Actually Mean?
“Defund the police” clearly means different things to different people. And that is a major problem with this as a slogan. If you say “I’m in favor of defunding the police,” you almost immediately find yourself having to say, “well, what I really mean is X,” whether X is complete abolition, redirecting some funding into other means of dealing with the problems for which police are too often called, changing who gets recruited to the police, etc. In contrast, when the 1960s ant-war movement adopted the slogan, “U.S. out of Vietnam,” or SNCC (and others) said “Black Power,” or Occupy and many more wanted to “Tax the 1%,” the meaning was clear – it was exactly what was said and it was also clear to others. A slogan that leaves you having to explain what you mean and that is subject to too many variations is not one that will be effective politically. In addition, this slogan has given the those don’t want to fundamentally change policing in the U.S. a political opening. They are already casting themselves as defenders of civility and social order against a rising tide of chaos and civil conflict.
In short, if your goal is abolition of police forces, just say so; don’t try to obfuscate your politics. If, on the other hand, you don’t want to abolish the police but have a range of changes to pursue, say that.
B. American Exceptionalism and the Defund the Police
The problem of American exceptionalism is one for police abolitionists such as #8toAbolition (and others). But it should also be of concern to those who want fundamental changes in policing that fall short of abolition. Both argue that many, perhaps most, calls to the police are for situations that could be better handled through unarmed public safety personnel or community members at large (Calls for Service, or CFS, data show that most calls to the police are for non-violent incidents.)
There is certainly merit in this argument. But, whether advanced by abolitionists or those who want to shift funding away from but not eliminate all police funding, it fails to address an important category of law enforcement. How will we handle violent criminal activities such as robbery, rape or murder.
The problem of relying on unarmed public safety personnel or community members at large is a problem of American Exceptionalism: too many guns in the hands of too many people. The United States is the only country in the world in which there are more guns than people. We are outliers by a very large margin when compared to other wealthy, industrial nations. We have about 120 guns/100 people. In contrast, our next door neighbor, Canada, has about 35; Germany and France 20, Australia 15, India and the UK less than 5, etc. The 19 countries where police do not routinely carry firearms are ones where the ratio of guns to population is much lower than in the U.S. I, for one, would not be willing to serve as an unarmed public safety officer charged with stopping the crimes that inflict bodily harm on others. Nor do I think that many others would be willing to serve in such roles.
But beyond this problem with guns is another that should be of particular concern to progressives/socialists/the left: who has most of the guns in civilian hands in the U.S. Despite the claims that some make about Antifa, it is the case that gun owners are more white, male and self-described conservative than the population as a whole; this is particularly true for the 2/3rds of gun owners that own more than 1 gun. We have seen this pattern of gun ownership again and again in the actions of right-wing militia, most recently in efforts to intimidate elected officials over shelter-in-place policies (as I write this even the current Justice Department has become concerned about the arms and aims of armed to-the-teeth right-wing organizations.) As bad as the police may be at solving serious crimes (homicide clearance rate in the U.S. is barely over 60%) or providing protection for left organizations and actions, we would be foolish in the extreme to entrust “the community” with these tasks.
C. Who Would and Would Not Have Police
This second substantive problem with the “Defund the Police” slogan applies primarily to the abolitionist position.
The origins of the modern urban police in northern U.S. cities came from the interests of merchants and other well-off segments of the population concerned about “social disorder.” This occurred in the 1830s and 1840s when the immigrant population first became significant in places like New York, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere. “Commercial interests,” aka the economic elite of the day, wanted to protect their lives and property and also wanted to be sure that the new urban working class would be available for employment. The previous system of private and for-profit “policing“ was both expensive (and had to be paid for by this elite) and inefficient. So, the answer was to shift the costs to the public as a whole but also to rationalize the activity of policing. The class nature of origins of policing in the U. S. is even more starkly illustrated in developments in the southern states. There the roots of police forces were the “slave patrol” of the ant-bellum South that morphed into police forces in the post-bellum states of the Confederacy.
So, you may say, it would be good to rid ourselves of an institution that is rooted in class power and the desire of our rulers for social control. But, that is not what would happen; instead the institution of the police would in all likelihood simply change form. And the change in form would also be a change in accountability.
While it was true that the economic elites of early to mid-nineteenth century U.S. waned to shift the costs of policing to the public purse, they most definitely wanted policing that protected their power and privilege. Is there any doubt that, should the public institution of the police actually be abolished, our current, extremely wealthy rulers would quickly establish their own private, for-profit, police? The U.S. already has a higher percentage of its labor force engaged in mostly private “guard labor” than other countries. This percentage would multiply in a post-public police world. And, as weak as the oversight for today’s police forces often is, this new private, for-profit police would not be accountable to anyone except their billionaire-class employers. If they harassed, attacked, or injured a citizen not protected by this private police force, there would be little or no recourse.
D. Demilitarize the Police
I think the “demilitarize the police” is a better slogan and better politics. Demilitarization has two primary thrusts.
First, end the flow of military hardware into police departments (and return the grenade launchers, the armored vehicles, etc.) In and of itself this would be a significant change in the police presence in our cities. The ready availability of this military hardware—much of it actually brand new—naturally leads to its use. It reminds me of the Arlo Guthrie song “Alice’s Restaurant” where, in the very small town of Stockbridge MA, the pursuit of Guthrie’s littering “crime” brings out helicopters, multiple police cars, etc. It was funny in the song; it’s serious in our cities. Here’s how to start this aspect of demilitarization.
Second, change the internal culture of the police. Accomplishing this will not be easy, but one very important place to start is with the often overlooked question of who becomes a police officer. Over the past two decades we have encouraged veterans to become police officers. Veterans receive bonus points in their application for police work. It's a relatively good job in terms of pay, benefits, and stability, especially for working class people who have joined the military in the economic draft. Today, although only 7% of the U.S. population are veterans, more than 25% of police officers are veterans.
This recruitment demographic brings a problem with it. These veterans have learned the military approach to new and unpredictable situations, which seeks to immediately establish control, by whatever means you can. Perhaps a good tactic for the battlefield but a very bad one for policing communities. Coupling this with the increased access to military hardware simply compounds the police culture problem.
Of course changing the culture of the police will require more than reducing—maybe even eliminating—the flow of veterans into U.S. police departments. There are many other ideas out there that need to be explored and applied. The example of Camden NJ is intriguing—disband the existing police department and build a new one along very different lines.
Demilitarizing the police opens the path to these changes.
The opinions expressed here are those of members and allies of DSA North Star Caucus meant to educate, inspire discussion and encourage comradely debate.