In the wake of the death of George Floyd, the arrests of the officers involved, and the often violent protests that have followed across America, a new political movement has seized center stage that proposes to shrink or abolish—the details are still rather sketchy—law enforcement agencies across the nation. The money saved by defunding or perhaps drastically reducing expenditures on police departments would be transferred to social welfare programs operated by both public and private agencies in order to counteract the adverse human conditions that are believed to lead to criminal behavior, which is expected to lead to an overall reduction in the incidence of crime and the need for a police force.
As a practical matter, eliminating police forces and their public safety functions would crash into provisions of many city and municipal charters that clearly delineate a responsibility to maintain—and fund—the police. It is possible to amend or change charters, but any effort to do so would provoke a stampede to the courts to file restraining orders and lawsuits on behalf of residents and businesses that might be understandably concerned about the impacts of a “police-free” future on their lives and livelihoods.
One would be hard pressed to find a modern nation that has been able to maintain public order and safety without the presence of well-funded police agencies, and there would need to be more explanation, study, and smaller scale tests of this concept before anyone would accept this as a practicable idea worthy of consideration.
Slogans are easy; implementation is another matter altogether. Human nature being what it is, it is difficult to see how this might work unless we plan to put huge quantities of tranquilizers into our water supplies in order to create a nation of compliant, goofy zombies, but we will just have to look at the details to see if there is any sense to be found here. Moreover, we need to be prepared for the distinct possibilities that elected officials might find themselves charged with reckless endangerment or be sued personally, government agencies could be hauled into court, and multimillion dollar damage awards would become the norm if reductions in police agencies lead to death, injury, or destruction of property—unless we actually go the tranquilizer route and drug everyone.
In addition, would businesses, homeowners, and individuals suddenly find themselves uninsurable—or insurable only at premium costs that are all but unaffordable? Think of the breathtaking expenses associated with insuring properties where there is a high risk of hurricane, tornado, or flood damage and ask yourself whether insurance companies would be excited about writing life, health, property, liability, or casualty policies in a city where the police are either absent or reduced to practical non-existence. How would it be possible to live or work in a city where you are only one unfortunate incident away from financial ruin because there is no way to insure yourself against the daily risks that would certainly follow elimination or diminution of essential public safety services?
Finally, the proof that more spending on a variety of social services will inevitably lead to the disappearance of crime is simply not to be found. Although it is certainly true that both public and private agencies will welcome the opportunity to hire and spend on behalf of the populations they serve, there is very little reliable research about the long term crime fighting efficacy of social service programs that are designed for entirely different purposes. It is both reasonable and necessary to help Americans to obtain quality education, reside in safe housing, learn work skills, secure medical care, and be free from hunger as a bridge to productive futures, but whether this will eliminate—or even reduce—criminal behavior is an open question.
The images of George Floyd gasping for breath with a police officer’s knee on his neck were shocking to anyone with the least bit of human decency, and we need a thoughtful dialogue about the use of police force as a necessary adjunct to ensuring public safety. Given that a lot of criminals will flee, fight back, or fire guns at police officers attempting to apprehend them, how to balance officer safety and suspect rights is likely to be an ongoing question.
However, real reform cannot be predicated on a slogan. There is work to be done, and individuals of conscience and compassion must be able to have conversations without fear of unfair partisan attacks.