Whether we should defund and dismantle the police depends on what we mean by “defund” and “dismantle”.
If by “defund” we mean punitive reductions in police budgets, not in my opinion. If by “dismantle” we mean abolish police forces, again, not in my opinion.
However, if by “dismantle” we mean reducing the scope of police departments by removing responsibilities from them they probably never should have had, yes, absolutely. If by “defund” we mean reallocating budgets based on those responsibilities shifted from police to other agencies, of course police budgets should reflect reductions in their mission.
As we see seemingly unending video of police abusing their authority, of initiating violence against peaceful protesters, it can be difficult to resist the sentiment police endanger more than they protect, and they engage in disservice more than they serve. Irrespective of such thoughts, in any complex society, police are needed. The question becomes what transformations are needed to eliminate the abuses, and establish departments in which every officer indeed protects and serves, as police routinely describe their mission as being.
First, we need to understand most of the current proposals for police “reform”, while necessary first steps, are just that—necessary first steps. As will be discussed below and next week, more needs to be done; much more.
Second we need to understand, if we go no further than these first steps, we will not achieve our objective of eliminating police abuses. We need to transform police departments and policing into something they never have been.
Third, to understand why transformation is required, we need to understand something of the history of policing in the U.S..
Fourth and relatedly, we need to understand while “Officer Friendly” exists, Officer Friendly is far more a mythical being than a reality.
Fifth, the task at hand is far more gargantuan than most people think. To transform police departments and policing, there must be some transformation of our society as a whole. This nation simply cannot continue down the path it has followed for at least the last 150 years, the last 40 years in particular.
Sixth, we must understand, because we live in more of a pretense of a democracy than actual democracy, meaningful change almost always occurs only when people take to the streets to exercise the ultimate form of democracy—demonstration, protest, civil disobedience. For me, that ultimate form of democracy must exclude rioting, looting, vandalism, property destruction. Demonstrators must be the moral conscience of the nation. Dr. King was absolutely correct in insisting the civil rights movement had to be non-violent.
Many public officials, including several police departments, throughout the nation are calling for eight specific reforms of police departments:
1. Bans on chokeholds and strangleholds;
2. Requiring de-escalation before using force;
3. Requiring warning before shooting;
4. Requiring all alternatives be exhausted before shooting;
5. “Duty to intervene” policies;
6. Bans on shooting at moving vehicles;
7. A use of force continuum;
8. Requiring comprehensive reporting, including when an officer threatens a person with a firearm.
Click here to read a summary of these eight proposals.
These proposed changes are necessary, but very insufficient in and of themselves. The list easily can be doubled to include:
9. Become much more thorough in background checks and psychological evaluations of police recruits;
10. Stop using police for school security;
11. Demilitarize the police;
12. Change the nature of police academies and the basic nature of police training, including demilitarizing police training;
13. Get more police out of patrol cars and walking or bicycling the streets;
14. Establish genuine community policing;
15. Establish civilian police review board comprised not of local elites, but of citizens representative of the communities being policed;
16. Perhaps most importantly, ending ability of police unions to keep abusive officers on the force.
The history of policing in the U.S. is far from glorious and is full of instances such as police and military brutally clearing Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. for President Trump’s upside down Bible photo-op. In the South, police forces were developed primarily to keep slaves on the plantations and track down, even kill, runaway slaves. Thus, the culture of running down and murdering African Americans is deeply embedded in many police departments.
In the North, police departments were created to keep disgruntled workers under control. There were brutal police attacks on workers trying to organize and strike against unsafe working conditions (such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Manhattan, New York), child labor, and for a 40 hour work week, and women’s right to vote. There are innumerable accounts of women, not just being imprisoned, but being beaten by police simply for demonstrating for their inherently democratic right to vote.
Historically, the primary purpose of police has been to hold the underclass down; to control, suppress, oppress, and in the process brutalize the bottom rungs of the socio-economic order. That includes slaves, “freed” slaves, African Americans to this day; and whomever was/is at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole at any particular time—particularly immigrants, whether they be Irish, Italians, Jews, or more recently Latinos sitting in concentration camps in the Valley.
Do you remember the “Pharr Riot” in February, 1971? Or the infamous McAllen police “C Shift Animals”, as they proudly called themselves, of the late 1970’s? If you were not old enough to remember these events as they happened, you probably know nothing of the Saturday afternoon Pharr police fired on non-violent demonstrators seeking their civil rights, including the right to vote. You probably know nothing of McAllen police booking desk videos showing officers brutally beat, throw to the floor, and stomp dozens of handcuffed prisoners. Virtually all were Mexican Americans and all poor. You know nothing of these events because they seldom are taught in schools or universities, not even in the Valley. In many respects, this is “Forgotten History”.
What about the Chicago “Police Riot” at the 1968 Democratic Convention? After investigating that riot, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence concluded, yes, it was a “police riot”. (Daniel Walker, Rights in Conflict: The Walker Report, 1968)
So, the police and military riot we saw at Lafayette Park really is nothing new.
The “take away” from these references to the historical purpose of police should not be condemnation of the police. As will be discussed next week, “Officer Friendly” is not a complete myth. We must hope; we must believe transformation is possible. But, to effect genuine transformation, to turn “Officer Friendly” from myth to reality, we first must understand the history and historical purpose of the police and policing in the U.S.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above op-ed shows the tombstone of Alfonso Flores, who was killed by Pharr police during a 1971 riot in Pharr. Flores was not even part of the demonstration. He just stepped out of a barber shop where he had gotten a hair cut. Click here to read a recount of the incident from the UT-Rio Grande Valley archives.
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