Defund Or Disband?
Why attempts at incrementalism are almost certainly due to fail
There’s a lot of talk at present about defunding or even disbanding police forces. Most people seem to equate the two, but in fact they are very different things indeed.
Disbanding is the more conceptually simple of the two options. Were this to be done, it would mean firing all current police officers and shutting down all departments and then starting again from the base up.
In many ways this option has a great deal to recommend it. There are times in history where we see organizations that are so dysfunctional that the only option is to clear the decks and begin again, because reform is in practice impossible. Several years ago the reforming President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushenko, realized that attempting to reform his country’s blatantly corrupt forces would be futile. Instead, he fired all regional police chiefs and totally disbanded the Traffic Police. Overnight, Ukrainians found themselves able to drive without being pulled over every few kilometers and shaken down for bribes. The replacement service was structured with totally different hiring and training policies and was a huge improvement over what had gone before.
While Ukraine experienced no significant change in the rate of traffic violations and accidents, it’s likely that disbanding a regular police force would lead to a temporary increase in crimes such as burglary. Assaults and rapes would probably not increase, as these are most often “in the moment” crimes and are not influenced by the presence or absence of an active police force. Such an increase, however would likely be modest as current police practices neither deter crime nor result in post-crime convictions. Despite the pleasing fantasy portrayed in countless TV shows and despite the heavily massaged statistics presented by senior police officers, the hard fact is that nearly all policing in nearly all countries is largely ineffectual and (as we shall see later in this article) in far too many cases actually creates more crime than would otherwise have occurred.
Disbanding the police is thus a viable and coherent option. This is especially the case when we look at the data surrounding attempts at police reform, which have been going on in one way or another around the world since the 1950s. The inescapable conclusion is that in nearly every case the problems are so systemic and so self-reinforcing that attempts to improve matters through training courses, consent decrees, and the like, are doomed to fail despite a few much-publicized but temporary and wholly superficial changes.
On the other hand, it’s easy to baulk at the prospect of taking such a radical step as disbanding the police. We humans generally like to keep what we are familiar with and merely tinker around the edges in the vague hope of improvement.
The psychological appeal of defunding is that it allows us to retain our current police forces while slightly reducing their funding.
The idea behind defunding is that some small percentage of money currently going into the local police force budget will be redirected toward non-violent options such as providing emergency response counselors, community helpers, and so forth. Meanwhile a fractionally reduced police budget would mean less money to spend on grenade launchers, week-long military-style courses on how to forcibly assault buildings, and armored personnel carriers.
Unfortunately for proponents of the defunding option, there’s no reason to believe that police budgets would suffer in any way. Worse still, there are several good reasons to expect that defunding would in fact increase police malfeasance.
In the USA since the 1980s, civil asset-forfeiture laws have enabled police forces to seize and auction off private property and retain the proceeds. This can be done even without any charges being brought to bear against the person whose assets are forcibly taken, never mind requiring a conviction to occur.
Over the last few decades, not surprisingly, police forces across the USA have made generous use of such laws to supplement their budgets. There is every reason to project that such practices would continue to grow if defunding resulted in a reduction of current budget levels. And there is no way to stop it from happening.
The ACLU has amassed data that shows how people of color suffer disproportionately from such asset seizures. For example, forfeitures in Philadelphia (nearly all of which were situations where police stopped a person and relieved them of the cash they were carrying) were focused on African-Americans. Whereas 42% of the city’s population is African-American, 71% of such forfeitures were from African-Americans. Remember: the police can stop someone and take their assets without even having to charge them with a crime, never mind securing a conviction. And in practice there’s no way for the person ever to get their money back.
Normally, we’d call this robbery. But when the police do it, we dress it up in a legal term and tell ourselves it is OK.
Although there are a few laws in some States that attempt to restrict what such ill-gotten gains can be spent on, in practice such laws are easy to circumvent. For example, in Massachusetts between 2000 and 2013 the local police were able to make use of approximately $130 million obtained through asset-forfeiture. That’s $10 million per year, which pays for a lot of ammunition, armored personnel carriers, weapons, and salaries. And Massachusetts is one of the cleaner States. One can only wonder how much some of the police forces in the southern States are shaking down their most vulnerable citizens for every year.
Meanwhile, there are other sources of revenue that are also perfectly legal shakedowns. Traffic fines have long been a favored way of supplementing the police budget and countless articles have been written revealing how local police forces create ticket quotas in order to ensure a suitable inflow of revenues. And lest we pretend to ourselves that such fines are levied on those who deserved them, it’s useful to note that local forces often conspire with local lawmakers to create laws expressly designed to create infractions for which fines can be imposed. For example, in one jurisdiction a law was created to enable police to impose fines on anyone devious and criminal enough to have mis-matched curtains in their home.
As The Economist noted in a recent article: the police department of Ferguson, Missouri — where the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer led to widespread unrest in 2014 — was notorious in this regard. A Department of Justice report in 2015 found that city officials had systematically engaged in “a pattern and practice of constitutional violations” with the aim of “maximising revenue”.
As always, areas where there is a significant population of African-Americans and Hispanics are preferentially targeted. As many of these people are already financially fragile, even a small fine and the resulting late-payment fees, additional charges, and a criminal record (for having mis-matched curtains, for example…) can result in loss of job, collapse of income, and absolute poverty. Which in turn can, you guessed it, lead to an increase in petty crime as people attempt to feed themselves in order to avoid starving to death.
And as nobody is really interested in looking into the details of such arbitrary fines, they grow and grow and their harmful effects spread wider and wider with each year that passes.
Thus, defunding the police in order to punish them for racist brutality would, perversely, most likely increase race-based discrimination and bad behavior.
The USA, therefore, is much closer to the Ukrainian situation than the vast majority of white US citizens understand.
Due to the fact that it is highly unlikely any place in the USA will totally disband its current police force and start again with a clean slate, it is probable that for all the currently fashionable talk of defunding the police, nothing really will change and the current bad situation will persist and continue to grow worse.