‘Defund the police’ hits a wall of reality in major U.S. cities
Because of the numerous killings by law enforcement officers of Blacks and other persons of color that have received national attention, policing looms large as an issue in mayoral elections around the United States this year. A year after George Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed nationwide, the question of what to do with the institution of the police is a major issue in places like New York City (which held primaries this week), Minneapolis, Boston, Atlanta, Detroit, Seattle and St. Louis.
Many Republican candidates, such as Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa in New York City, call for expanding and “refunding the police.” As a Catholic theological ethicist, I try not to be partisan, but reinforcing the status quo of policing in the United States fails to address and may even exacerbate the disproportionate stops, arrests and killings of people of color. Democratic candidates, by contrast (but to the chagrin of activists who call for abolition), mostly support significant reforms to policing. In New York, several candidates who initially allied themselves with the “defund the police” movement backed away from the slogan as the mayoral campaign became more heated.
In New York, several candidates who initially allied themselves with the “defund the police” movement backed away from the slogan as the mayoral campaign became more heated.
Polling suggests that most Americans support police reform—including many components of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, now waiting for a vote by the Senate. At the same time, most broadly support the police, and they are aware that violent crime rates have increased in cities such as St. Louis, where the murder rate is the highest it has been in 50 years, and New York, where shootings have spiked 77 percent this year. Public safety is a key issue, and this legitimate concern offers a common ground for everyone. But the question remains: How can we best provide it?
For example, in St. Louis, where my family resides downtown (and where we regularly hear gunfire), Tishaura Jones was sworn in as mayor on April 20. She is a proponent of reallocating resources from the police to other city departments and partner organizations. “One of the things we want to do is take a look at the deployment of officers and how do we deploy the right professional to the right call,” Ms. Jones said in an interview with The Washington Post, “which means staffing our police and public safety departments with different types of professionals like mental health professionals.”
St. Louis is also directing funds toward organizations such as Cure Violence, which offers community-based solutions and a public health approach to violence prevention. The Cahoots program in Eugene, Ore., which I examined in my piece on police reform for America last year, is another good example of such a public safety partnership.
Public safety is a key issue, and this legitimate concern offers a common ground for everyone. But the question remains: How can we best provide it?
In New York’s mayoral race (where results from the city’s first election under a ranked-choice system are still being tabulated), former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales was the candidate who most strongly supported the “defund the police” movement. But Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former City Hall lawyer who was endorsed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called for “transforming” policing by shifting at least $1 billion from the police department to mental health and homelessness services, as well as schools. Eric Adams, the Black former police captain who got the most first-place votes but is not yet assured of victory, and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang ran more moderate campaigns on policing, with reform measures mostly having to do with bolstering accountability. Kathryn Garcia, recently the city’s commissioner of sanitation, proposed in one mayoral debate “a new culture, where P.D. are guardians rather than warriors against their communities.”
“Reform” efforts have often fallen short, especially when police revert to their old ways as public scrutiny fades over time or when reforms are not genuinely implemented, as when “community policing” becomes a guise to obtain federal grants for SWAT teams and military equipment. For reform to be truly transformative, simply narrowing their scope of duties is insufficient. As Ms. Garcia suggests, their purpose, or telos, must also be addressed.
But someone still has to provide protection, including through the use of coercive force, against violent crime ranging from active mass shooters to domestic assaults. Funding more social programs, education, health care and the like should decrease such crimes markedly. However, crime cannot be completely cured or eliminated. Those elected to office will soon realize that a bumper-sticker solution—whether it’s “defund,” “reform” or “refund”—is insufficient to the task of governing.
Policing is not always about privilege
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.” Although the Catechism does not refer explicitly to the police here, it clearly refers to its function. Still, this is not a magisterial stamp of approval for “any means necessary” policing. Strict criteria must govern the use of force, and the aim of public safety should be restoring a just peace for all, including perpetrators.
Policing has been a lacuna for the magisterium and theologians because the police, as an institution, appeared on the historical scene fairly recently. As noted in my previous America article, Sir Robert Peel created the first modern police department in London in 1829. But in Plato’s ancient Greece, there were “guardians” whose function was the protection of the polis. In Rome, around the time of Jesus, there were the vigiles who patrolled the city streets, and before Peel’s police there were night watches and constables in England. In all these situations, someone was authorized by the community to use coercive force for public safety. Peel intentionally created the police to be an alternative to the military’s more violent means of maintaining order.
Those who define the police by its history of upholding slavery in the U.S. South and protecting propertied privilege in the North are committing a genetic and etymological fallacy. (“Black and brown communities have been brutalized and terrorized by the police since their inception as slave patrols,” Ms. Morales said in one campaign interview.) Although these evils are part of the narrative of U.S. policing, there is more to the story. After all, no one is calling for the abolition of higher education because universities such as Georgetown and St. Louis University were originally dedicated to white male privilege and built upon slave labor.
Those who define the police by its history of upholding slavery in the U.S. South and protecting propertied privilege in the North are committing a genetic and etymological fallacy.
From Plato to Peel, policing has been about more than protecting the privileged and the powerful. Today, too, there are other examples of nonracist, less violent policing, such as the relatively unarmed garda siochana (“guardians of the peace”) in Ireland. Of course, unlike in the United States where there are more guns than citizens, the Irish garda are less worried about encountering armed suspects. But even U.S. police need not be so quick to use their firearms at least against unarmed or knife-wielding persons. There is also growing empirical evidence of transformed policing in U.S. cities, such as in the New Jersey cities of Camden, which has emphasized accountability and transparency in leadership, and Newark, where Mayor Ras Baraka has focused on getting rid of the militaristic “warrior cop” approach to policing. Both cities have seen decreases in both crime and the use of violence by police.
More success stories of real and radical reform of policing can be found (though not nearly enough yet). If we are rightly going to insist on giving serious attention to empirical evidence on other issues, like climate change or vaccinations, we should also look at the criminological science on police reform and the examples of its successful implementation. We do not have to start from scratch.
Nor am I necessarily committed to calling those who are authorized to protect and serve the community “the police.” That word has gained a negative connotation. (Who wants to live in a “police state”?) I am happy to, as the Catholic theological ethicist María Teresa Dávila recently phrased it to me, “rename and reframe” the function of public safety in the United States. A step in the right direction would be to call them “peace officers” again. Others have suggested a “guardian” or “champion” approach rather than the problematic “warrior” or “military” model. There is also the philosopher John Kleinig’s “social peacekeeper” (I would call it “public peacekeeper”) model, in which the police are more engaged with fellow citizens and more present within their neighborhoods (perhaps by walking the beat or riding bicycles).
Such renaming reframes policing not only by abolishing certain problematic practices—including stop-and-frisk, chokeholds, no-knock warrants, racial profiling, using deadly force against fleeing suspects who do not pose a grave and imminent threat to anyone’s life—but also by giving rise to, and sustaining, a culture wherein those who are so authorized provide public safety for the entire community. This is a major order for mayors, but it is not only up to them. Real community policing, which is just policing, requires our participation, too.