Since protesters took to the streets a month ago in the wake of the death of a Minneapolis man who was pinned under the knee of a police officer for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the phrase “defund the police” has become a rallying cry of marchers, social activists and politicians.
Exactly how that should be accomplished and how far it should go, however, depends on the speaker.
For some defunding means diverting money from police departments to improve social support and mental health services in communities. For others it means removing some categories of emergency calls from police purview.
Still others call for shutting the whole policing system down, putting money into community services and assistance and rethinking community security.
“[It means] divesting funds from a police force to be reallocated to other social programs that are better suited to handle situations like homelessness, mental health, domestic abuse, etc.,” one person on Twitter responded to a Daily Progress reporter’s query.
“Reduce funding, responsibilities and military-style gear,” responded another. “Refocus that money to other social programs that help. Should help cops focus on protecting all people, not just responding to crisis calls.”
Others said it means shutting the departments down altogether.
“Reform doesn’t work,” one responder wrote. “Reform serves those who are unaffected by the consequences of mass incarceration, school to prison pipeline, and police violence.”
“There is definitely a difference of opinion on this,” said local attorney Jeff Fogel, a member of the Charlottesville-based Peoples Coalition on Criminal Justice. “If I could live in a society without police, it would be my preference and we need to keep our eyes on that prize. For now, police are a necessary evil, but we want to restrict as much of that evil as possible.”
Fogel has represented many social activists and sued the Albemarle County police and an officer for allegedly targeting Black drivers for traffic stops and car searches looking for drugs.
In June 2017, he was arrested by several Charlottesville officers at his home around 12:30 a.m. He was charged with misdemeanor assault after late night verbal dispute with Jason Kessler, the man who organized the August 2017 Unite the Right Rally attended by members of Nazi and white supremacist organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan.
Fogel was charged after gently pushing with an open palm one of Kessler’s associates. He was found not guilty by a Charlottesville General District Court judge.
Fogel believes the community needs to shift more funding away from the police department and use it to provide housing, food, mental health and other social assistance in communities. The shift, he said, would help ease or eliminate social factors that lead to crime as well as provide mental health services to people in crisis that police are poorly equipped to handle.
“It requires shifting of resources away from police and reducing their obligations, reducing their contact with the community in areas that law enforcement is not needed,” Fogel said. “The criminal justice system is designed to be punitive. It does nothing to help people reintegrate into society.”
In recent moves, the Charlottesville School Board on June 11 voted to remove the city police officers who work in the schools, known as school resource officers. Protesters have pointed to similar programs across the country as leading to teenagers and children being arrested and entering the criminal justice system at an early age.
The board’s goal is to have a new model in place before school starts Aug. 19.
Four full-time Charlottesville Police officers were stationed in the buildings during school and were responsible for security, investigating crimes on school grounds and serving as a resource to students and staff.
On June 18, Albemarle County’s school board voted to end its agreement with the county police department to have five officers in the schools during school hours. Like the city’s board, the county board is working to determine what police presence, if any, will be in the schools this fall.
For city officials, the idea of shifting police funds to pay for social programs is one of dozens coming at them even as they balance budgets, work on community resources and deal with personnel issues.
“It deserves a lot of attention and we need to have some meaningful dialogue,” said City Councilor Heather Hill. “We’re going to have the conversations to determine what it means for Charlottesville. There is common ground to be found here with law enforcement.”
That common ground involves police responding to persons with a mental health crisis, officials have indicated.
Charlottesville and Albemarle County police declined to comment on calls to defund agencies. However, officials with both departments have within the last month discussed police roles and responses in public schools and to persons experiencing a mental health crisis.
City councilors have posted on their social media pages their intent to investigate shifting some police funds to provide better mental health care, including emergency response teams, to decrease police response to individuals in crisis.
“The conversation we are having locally and nationally is about the fact that our officers should not be responding to mental health emergencies,” Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said in a June 27 Facebook live chat with city residents. “There is probably no one on council [or the police] chief who believes that is what the job is or that they can handle it well.”
Councilor Lloyd Snook agreed.
“The appearance of an armed officer can be triggering for people with mental health issues,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “It leads to the potential for criminalizing an encounter that shouldn’t be a criminal justice issue. It puts the responsibility to figure things out in the hands of someone who might be fresh out of the police academy, but who likely has relatively little training in appropriate, mental health-sensitive responses.”
The call for police reform is not new. In 1894, the Lexow Committee in New York City called for reform after investigating widespread corruption in the city’s department, including regular beatings of civilians by officers wielding nightsticks.
In 1932, President Herbert Hoover’s National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement brought to light police interrogation tactics involving “the inflicting of pain, physical or mental, to extract confessions or statements.” The committee noted that the process, dubbed ‘the third degree’ was “widespread throughout the country.”
In 1961, a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report called for reform and training after discovering violence by police across the country to “enforce subordination or segregation,” implement street justice and coerce confessions. The violence, the commission reported, was used “with disproportionate frequency” on Blacks.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice found continued problems between minority communities and police and called for revising police practices and reform, including developing community-oriented policing programs.
In 1968, Johnson’s Kerner Commission reviewed race riots that broke out in major cities across the county in 1964 and 1967, determining that poor policing practices, a flawed justice system, consumer credit practices, inadequate housing, high unemployment and “culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination” touched off the riots.
In 2015, President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended a series of changes to police departments, including better use of social media and technology, clear policies on use of force, improved training and an emphasis on community policing.
Nationally, very few arrests made by police are for violent felonies. The FBI calculated that 4.8% of the 10.3 million arrests reported across the country in 2018, the last year for which figures were available, were for violent crimes.
The FBI estimated 16% of 2018 arrests were drug-related, 14.5% were alcohol related, including DUIs, and 31% were for a variety of misdemeanors excluding traffic-related offenses.
Exactly how a defunded police department would respond to the rare but attention-grabbing event such as an armed assailant in a public place or school has not been addressed in depth in current conversations across the country.
For some communities, it’s part of the study of how to develop a safer community.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota where the city council voted to dissolve the police department, a committee is reviewing how to create a community security network that includes those situations and other violent incidents to which a police department may be required to respond.
The committee is expected to make its first report later this month.
Most proponents of fully defunding police believe that violent incidents such as school shootings and domestic violence may be thwarted by community-based mental health and peer-based counseling efforts combined with programs to improve housing, eliminate hunger and provide medical care.
Althea Laughon-Worrell, a Charlottesville High School graduate and college student organizer who put together a recent Defund the Police march in Charlottesville, believes the community should handle as much of the police department’s role as possible.
“Community care is supporting each other rather than punishing each other. This means that instead of calling the police when someone is going through a mental health crisis we call a trained social worker to aid in their care. Instead of calling the police to talk down a violent offender you call someone who is trained to de-escalate the situation rather than respond with more violence,” she said. “Instead of allowing people to sleep on the streets we expand our housing system creating more emergency and long term housing options.”
Laughon-Worrell said helping the poor, homeless and mentally ill will help reduce crime.
“People who are desperate and have no other options are the ones who commit crimes. We have a system that is not serving our community in a helpful and constructive way,” she said. “The idea is that we create options and a community-based system of specialized support to eliminate the role of police in our society. We want to create a society that helps support the people who live in it and helps create lives that are not dependent on drugs or violence to survive.”
Police presence could also be further reduced by training intervention specialists working in the community, Laughon-Worrell suggested.
“When diverting funds to social services we want to see it used to fund trained specialists for specific services. The Guardian Angels were originally formed to protect their communities from violence and the police,” she said. “They served to de-escalate violent situations and negotiate conflict for communities.”
How much of a police department’s duties and funding can be shifted needs to studied, Fogel said.
“We need to study carefully all of the functions of the police and decide whether they are essential or if they aren’t and decide how much money can be shifted,” Fogel said. “We need to discuss what is needed and to what the funding is going to be shifted.”