Set aside the emotions. Defunding the police — reducing the money spent on policing and reallocating it to other local priorities — is common sense, whether you look at the issue from a budgetary, criminal justice or social point of view.
From the budgetary point of view, we just spend too much money on policing. Over the last 40 years, state and local spending on policing has almost tripled, rising from $42 billion to $115 billion (in 2017 inflation-adjusted dollars).
Consider these snapshots from Texas:
— The Dallas Police Department budget is $516,967,195 this year. That’s more than the city will spend on libraries, parks and recreation, public works, housing, planning and zoning, and municipal courts combined.
— The city of San Antonio police budget is $479,091,284 this year. That’s 37% of the city’s general fund spending — more than taxpayers spend on human services, housing, courts, jails, libraries, public parks and animal control combined.
— Austin’s police department’s budget is $440,000,000. That’s more than the city spends on public health, housing, libraries, city planning, parks and recreation and emergency medical services combined.
The massive municipal spending on policing simply crowds out spending on other priorities, leaving cities unable to make the investments they need to include everyone’s quality of life — by creating more economic opportunity, supporting affordable housing, improving parks and libraries, and more.
From a criminal justice point of view, more police do not give us more public safety. Black and brown communities know directly that the police are too often a source of violence, harassment and intimidation — that’s what the Black Lives Matter protests are surfacing so poignantly.
The horrific police murder of George Floyd was no exception, and stop-and-frisk and similar abuses are pervasive, not occasional. In the peak year of stop and-frisk during the New York mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg, New York police conducted almost 700,000 stops, with African Americans and Latinos nine times more likely to be stopped than whites.
The overwhelming number of police arrests are for misdemeanors, 80%, according to University of California law professor Alexandra Natapoff. Some misdemeanors are serious, but most aren’t. So long as most police arrests involves misdemeanors, more police means more crime and a lower quality of life — not just because the numbers are artificially boosted by needless arrests for low-level offenses but because people who are pulled into the criminal justice system have narrowed opportunities and are more likely to be pulled back into the criminal justice system again.
From a social point of view, we ask the police to do things they are not set up to do. In too many cases, police are the de facto case workers and jails the de facto clinics for people with mental illness. Police are often the frontline social workers for people experiencing homelessness. Police fill the gaps from missing economic opportunity. We should instead be relying on trained professionals to perform these and other tasks.
Policing is hard work, and we all need assurances of public safety. Police must be held accountable for wrongdoing, but we all should also appreciate the good-faith and hard work of most police officers.
At the same time we can recognize their importance and individual and collective commitment to protecting communities, we can also see the need for right size police departments. There’s simply too much money being thrown at police forces, and it’s coming at the expense of other priorities. Excessive policing is not reducing crime — it’s criminalizing black and brown communities and making us less safe.
At this moment of national reckoning, we should be rethinking the criminal justice system and shrinking its footprint — decriminalizing low-level offenses, reducing the prison population and yes, shrinking police forces — while redirecting resources into investments in jobs and housing, parks and libraries. In doing so, we will improve public safety and quality of life for everyone, especially those in black and brown communities.