Scott Thomson, former Chief of Police, Camden, NJ
After witnessing the murder of another unarmed black man by police, some continue to cry “just a few bad apples.” But police forces across the country seem determined to prove the existence of a pervasive, corrupt and brutal police culture. Images of cops in full body armor striding through clouds of teargas, beating protesters or ramming them with vehicles seem more fitting for 2003 Fallujah than 2020 America. When our Commander-in-Chief gassed protesters for a photo-op while threatening to call in federal troops, our transition to a fascist police state seemed complete.
It stands to reason that these drastic actions would produce an equally drastic and opposite reaction. Thus, a new reform movement has cropped up that’s raising eyebrows and questions: Defund Police.
What does “Defund Police” actually mean?
The short answer is that there seems to be no agreed-upon meaning.Many communities in the US are wrestling with what to do about police departments that have forgotten how to “protect and serve.”
Some in the movement claim it means exactly what politicians on the right claim it does. That is, a total abolition of policing in America. Others say “defund police” is a call to address the growing imbalance between spending on law enforcement and community services that fuels racial and economic injustices.
On the face of it, “defund police” does sound like a wild-eyed radical idea. Hence, the shock that swept the country when 9 of 12 members of the Minneapolis city council vowed to abolish the city’s police department in favor of a “new community safety model.” However, there may be sound reasons for disbanding police departments in some cities.
Those bad apples have powerful friends
There’s no shortage of ideas for reforming existing police departments. Some of these ideas are even addressed in a bill proposed by House Democrats. Nevertheless, even Democrats are shying away from all this “defund police” talk. The Democrats’ longstanding financial and political ties to the police unions have made them willfully blind to that simple fact that, in many cases, reforms are meaningless unless you’re willing to upturn the bad apple cart.
In many cities with police brutality issues, well-meaning attempts to reform existing police departments have been stymied by powerful police unions. For example, in Minneapolis, the police union chief recently defied the mayor’s ban on “warrior training.” This training conditions officers to be an occupying force rather than public servants. Meanwhile, in Buffalo, NY, 57 officers resigned after two riot cops were dismissed for brutally shoving a 75-year-old protester to the ground. You can see the video here, but it’s not for the faint of heart. The police union first stated that the mass resignations were in solidarity with the two dismissed officers (which is bad enough). However, some riot cops say they resigned because the city revoked legal protections which allowed them to brutalize protesters with impunity.
So, what can cities do when facing intractable unions who resist any reasonable restraints on their members’ behavior? In Minneapolis and other cities like it, the answer may be: You close up shop.
That’s essentially what happened in Camden, NJ. In 2013, the city had a murder rate 18 times the national average and numerous excessive force complaints against police. After attempts at reform failed, the city took the “radical” step of firing all the cops and disbanding their city’s police department.
What “replaces” the police?
Camden established a countywide model to replace their old city police department. Most of the city cops were rehired, but only after completing a 50-page application, psychological evaluations and an interview process. Scott Thomson, the chief of the old city department, again headed the reformed countywide system from 2013 to 2019.
Under the old system, Thomson says he was “an expert practitioner of failed police policies” which had alienated the community. Thomson says the old department had lost legitimacy among citizens due to its heavy-handed and counterproductive policing methods. The reform created an opportunity to “build culture as opposed to changing culture” within the police department. Thomson restructured the incentive system by encouraging his officers to become “guardians” rather than “warriors” within their city.
Instead of locking people up or writing citations, Thomson’s officers entered neighborhoods to build relationships with residents. Thomson credits this change with reducing complaints of excessive force by 95% (from 65 in 2012 to 3 in 2019). The city’s murder rate also came down (from 67 in 2012 to 25 in 2019). Thanks to the trust built between police and residents, Camden’s “solve-rate” for murders rose from 16% in 2012 to 61% in 2014.
Policing vs. Prevention
Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender has voiced her support for doing away with police in favor of a “community safety model.” While Thomson isn’t in favor of totally abolishing police, he sees some merit in the idea of “defunding” police. He says that from a prevention and public safety standpoint, money could be better spent on community programs, education, and social services. As Thomson puts it, “I would have traded 10 cops for another Boys’ and Girls’ Club.” This is something that even the sweeping reforms in Camden have failed to recognize.
Both Bender and Thomson emphasize the importance of community involvement in public safety. Given a voice, proper funding, and support, community organizations may be better equipped to solve certain issues. For example, police aren’t trained to deal with mental health problems. But most cities have no professional emergency mental health services. As a result, police are generally called when someone experiences a mental health crisis, often with tragic consequences. Civil networks would also be better equipped to address problems like drug addiction or panhandling, which currently take up a lot of police resources. This could also reduce the rationale for the “for-profit” policing in which many police departments engage to make up for budget shortfalls, and which disproportionately penalizes poor and minority communities.
Is “defunding police” right for you?
Having said all this, only the most radical elements are calling for an end to policing altogether. High ideals aside, there will always be people in our society who want to do harm to others, whether it’s rape, robbery or murder. Given that fact, and the fact we live in a country with more guns than people, it stands to reason that there will always be a need for an armed, and well-trained, police force. The question is, do we want our police attending to those serious crimes, or hassling people for so-called “lifestyle crimes” like selling loose cigarettes or sleeping in their car? This type of overpolicing has only served to perpetuate a vicious cycle of distrust and, often, violence between police and the citizens they’re meant to be serving. This in turn erodes the ability of police to bring the real evil-doers to justice.
At the end of the day, the decision to fund or defund police forces is a local matter. It is up to each community to decide if their policing is working for them or not. If you’re in a town where you’re happy with your local police force, by all means keep it. But in cities where the police have forgotten how to “protect and serve,” citizens must make their wishes known and local governments must act accordingly. Ultimately, every community in crisis has to define what “defunding” means to them and what it will look like.Camden, defund police, George Floyd, Minneapolis, Scott Thompson