Let’s begin with the perception of crime and policing. Nancy LeTourneau at Political Animal blog explains, How Television Has Distorted Our View of Police and Crime:
Those of us who grew up watching television were surprised at some point to find out that there were professions other than being a police officer, lawyer, or doctor. An incredibly disproportionate number of TV shows are dedicated to plots involving those three professions. And because the purpose of television is to attract eyeballs for advertisers (or to sell cable subscriptions), everything was dramatized. We were trained to assume that police work involved tracking down really bad guys, which always ended in fights, shoot-outs, or car chases.
None of that, however, represents reality. As an example, Philip Bump took at look at the data on police calls for service in New Orleans during 2019, which can be placed into seven categories.
1. Checks on people and property
2. Vehicles and traffic
3. Property crimes
4. Minor crimes
5. Sex-based offenses
6. Major crimes
7. Crimes involving bodily harm
While television cop shows focus exclusively on the last three, those calls make up less than five percent of the total. On the other hand, the first category made up 70 percent of the calls. Bump provided this helpful chart.
Jerry Ratcliffe found something similar with data from the Philadelphia Police Department.
Of course, it’s not just television that presents this distorted view of police work. News organizations do the same thing by focusing their reporting on that five percent in the bottom righthand corner [Local news: “if it bleeds it leads”]. That explains why, as Pew Research found, voters’ perception of crime is at odds with reality. The facts are that, “between 2008 and 2015 (the most recent year for which data are available), U.S. violent crime and property crime rates fell 19% and 23% respectively.” Nonetheless, 57 percent of Americans said crime had gotten worse since 2008.
That perception is at least part of the reason for this disconnect.
As you can see, while crime rates have fallen, spending on police has continued to skyrocket.
OK, here is where “law and order” Republicans will argue that the immense spending on policing, just like the U.S. spends more on defense than the next 10 countries combined, is the “but for causation” for the dramatic decrease in the crime rate. There are a number of conservative think tanks that make this argument. But it is not supported by the data. More cops. Is it the answer to fighting crime? (excerpt):
Data shows that the raw numbers of police have declined over the past five years, and the rate of police officers per 1,000 residents has been dropping for two decades. At the same time, the violent crime rate has also dropped.
After at least 16 years of growing police agencies, the nation lost more than 23,000 officers from 2013 to 2016, according to a U.S. Justice Department survey, bringing the total down to about 700,000. Two-thirds of 397 law enforcement agencies reported in a December survey that they have seen a decrease in applicants compared to five years ago.
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James McCabe, a retired New York Police Department official who travels the country as a police staffing consultant, says there is little clear connection between staffing numbers and crime. “New York City made the conscious decision to reduce the number of cops,” he noted in an interview. “And crime continued to go down. It’s not what you have, it’s what you are doing with them.”
For more detail on this topic, see Annie Lowrey at The Atlantic, Defund the Police.
Former Dallas Police Chief David Brown explained part of the problem after several of his officers were killed during a protest against police brutality.
“[W]e’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. We’re just asking us to do too much,” Chief Brown said. “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding. Let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding. Let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas, we’ve got a loose dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. You know, schools fail. Give it to the cops…Policing was never meant to solve all of those problems,” Brown said to reporters.
Those who are suggesting that “defund the police” [as a slogan] is politically damaging for Democrats have a good point. But that is primarily because television shows and news organizations have completely distorted both the job of police officers and the level of crime in our communities.
This is the perception of reality in which you must clearly communicate your goals.
When you get the facts, it’s not hard to imagine cops continuing to respond to that 5 percent of calls for service that are covered by the last three categories in Bump’s list up above (albeit with some of the reforms currently being considered). But other groups of trained professionals would be perfectly capable of handling the other 95 percent of calls for service.
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[This] is the kind of thing that is possible in all of our communities. It requires leaders being prepared to envision something different, including the role of police officers. We just have to get away from thinking that guys with guns are the answer to everything.
Now let’s explore this concept of “defund the police.” Politico reports, How ‘Defund the Police’ went from moonshot to mainstream:
To many watching the historic protests against racism and police brutality unfold across the country, it was a call that came out of nowhere: Defund the Police.
Yet hours after the first videos of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer went viral online, those three words became the rallying cry of a movement that had suddenly won America’s undivided attention.
To critics — chief among them the president of the United States and his allies, as well as the elected Democrats who quickly distanced themselves from a slogan they deemed too radical to embrace — it was baffling. Was it meant to be taken literally? Seriously? Both? Neither? Were the protesters really calling for no police whatsoever?
But the demands to abolish the police didn’t spring from nowhere — they have deep roots among a group of activists and academics who have been arguing for years that merely reforming a system they see as fundamentally broken is futile: To truly address the unfair way police departments treat Black and Latino communities, they say, you need to tear down the entire edifice and start over.
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As the calls to defund police departments echoed across the country, they forced elected officials to reckon with a movement that had suddenly broken into mainstream discussion. The breakthrough came after years of seeing activists’ impact diluted through incremental reform measures or wholesale ignoring of their demands.
“It’s different than the 2013, 2012, 2017 iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Oluchi Omeoga, an organizer and core team member with the Black Visions Collective. “We’re no longer asking for convictions or folks to be indicted. We’re asking for an actual narrative shift, a seismic shift in the systems of police.”
Since Floyd’s death, city councils in more than a dozen cities including Minneapolis, New York and Washington have proposed reductions in their police departments’ annual budgets. Los Angeles’ mayor Eric Garcetti has embraced a more limited role for the city’s police department. Congress, too has proposed legislation that addresses police violence and aims to vote on the bill by the end of June. The words “DEFUND THE POLICE” now appear in giant yellow letters along 16th Street in Washington, D.C., mere blocks from the White House and made indelible on street-mapping software.
But perhaps most notably, many Americans who might have never imagined communities without police officers no longer see it as an impossible feat, though most still oppose the idea. A new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans support major reforms in policing, while close to one-third say they are in favor of defunding the police.
A combined 59 percent say police departments across the country need either a complete overhaul (22 percent) or major reforms (37 percent). Just over 1-in-4, 27 percent, say police departments need a minor overhaul, and only 5 percent think they don’t need any reforms at all.
But that support does not extend to the slogan “Defund the Police,” which some activists say is about reforming law enforcement as much or more than actually making sizable budget cuts. By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, more voters oppose the
movement [slogan] to “Defund the Police” (57 percent) than support it (29 percent). More than 4-in-10, 43 percent, strongly oppose the movement.
As I have said before, this a branding problem. Rebrand or lose the strong public support which exists for these long-overdue policy reforms to demagoguery over a slogan. Do you want to succeed, or not?
“I think what we’re seeing now,” said Kim Burke, a senior fellow at the Center for Policing Equity, “is a renewed call and an increased attention to these fundings as a product of the large-scale and incredibly rapid changes we saw the government take during the corona epidemic.”
Burke said the recent stampede toward police reform had shown that “government can almost overnight change policy, allocate money differently, change city budgets differently in the name of public safety. And this is what black communities have been asking for years.”
Even if the sudden discussion of defunding the police has been astonishingly swift, it’s an idea decades in the making. Scholars and activists on police and prison abolition have been pushing an invest-divest model that calls for lower police budgets, removal of officers from schools, demilitarization of police equipment and reallocation of police funds for schools, housing and public health. The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 50 black-led organizations under the purview of the Black Lives Matter movement, adopted this idea into its core organizing vision in 2016, marking a shift away from a platform that called for fair treatment under the law for black Americans to a focus on stripping police systems altogether.
Andrea Ritchie, who has studied and engaged in movements to defund police as early as the 1991 Rodney King uprisings, said the call has been for “disinvestment not just financially but politically, ideologically and I think for many of us, emotionally.”
“It’s not time for just budget cuts across the board. That’s not what ‘defund the police’ is calling for,” Ritchie said. “What ‘defund the police’ is calling for is saying, ‘we need to take money, power and equipment and scope of operation away from police and we need to invest that money and more into what people need to survive this pandemic and this economic crisis.’”
America — plagued by economic turmoil and growing outrage at President Trump’s law-and-order approach to policing — provided a perfect backdrop for the movement to grow. This time, Omeoga argued, instead of repeating a pattern in which all the attention zeroed in a single focal point — such as Minneapolis or Louisville, or Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 — activists are encouraging change within their own communities.
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Organizers say their work now involves helping interested parties understand what a safe community looks like without a police presence. The idea has not fully taken hold in some circles, who say they support police reform but oppose defunding or abolishing police.
Top Democrats who are leading the congressional response to police reform have maintained that they are not interested in defunding the police. South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn, fully distanced himself from the idea on Sunday, calling instead for a “reimagining” of policing. Other figures have taken issue with the phrasing, saying it alienates those who might be on the fence about how to change police moving forward, while embracing the general concept of shifting resources and responsibilities to other parts of government.
Black activist groups of all kinds are now seeking to capitalize on all the attention and rush of support for their platforms, while coalescing around a shared goal of aggressive police reform, if not outright defunding. Black organizations across the country have seen their membership numbers skyrocket and netted millions in donations.
“I think that this is a great conversation for this country to be having, especially in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. “Especially at the brink of a recession, where we’ve got, I believe, the latest figures of 40 percent black unemployment and facing a massive crisis in our democracy. I think these are absolutely the right questions that this country needs to be grappling with right now.”
The biggest question that remains, Garza explained, is what the alternative to policing would be in the conversation about community safety.
“You cannot police your way or jail your way, or frankly, kill your way out of crisis.”
Advocates need a clear vision and be able to clearly communicate their answer to this question.