Oct 30, 2020 | OPINION | By Reed Schaefer | Illustration by Grace Nedelman

No current topic is more deeply misunderstood on social media and in public debate than the “defund the police” movement.  Defunding the police may sound like a radical or even dangerous effort, but it is a much more nuanced proposal. 

I have recently trained for involvement/participation in Chicago’s grassroots Defund CPD effort. I want to share what defunding the police means to the Black Abolitionist Movement so we can clarify misunderstandings and begin to understand how this proposal can be most successful for everyone.

While policing practices are problematic nationwide, I will use Chicago to illustrate why the demands for defunding the police make sense.  Defund CPD was created by the Black Abolitionist Network, which is part of a constellation of Black abolitionist organizers who share the goal of fighting for the abolition of police, prisons, and jails as we know them. Prison is modern-day slavery, ensured in the Constitution by the loophole in the 13th Amendment. 

While slavery was formally abolished, the 13th Amendment includes the following clause: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (Section 1). 

Racism is intertwined with policing, prisons and jails, and we cannot escape racism while supporting these systems. Time has shown the ineffectiveness of the punitive and coercive practices of police, prisons, and jails in preventing crime.

To understand the “defund the police” demand, we must situate ourselves in the community before the crime occurs. Poverty and segregated neighborhoods are a reality in Chicago, particularly on the city’s South and West sides. Characteristics of poverty are a lack of resources, lack of housing, and lack of economic opportunity and mobility. 

In the last decade, Chicago has seen significant cuts in public housing, public schools, and mental health facilities and resources. At the same time, policing has increased in these areas under the philosophy of concentrating on “high crime” areas — getting “tough on crime.” These policies all converge disproportionately on the shoulders of poor, predominantly black and brown communities in the city.  

As a city known for its crime and experimentation with criminal justice policies, Chicago is an ideal venue to assess whether being “tough on crime” is effective. Since the 1960s, the city has seen an increase of laws that define criminal behavior coupled with increased policing, all in the name of public safety. 

The “broken windows” policing theory has been put forth as a justification for using police as a tool to create social and racial change in these same neighborhoods.  Broken windows policing advocates for targeting small infractions on the assumption that by punishing small infractions, larger offenses can be prevented — evidence for this correlation, however, is slim to none. 

To measure the success of such claims, we need only look at the current conditions in Chicago. Theoretically speaking, if the broken windows policies and intense policing worked, Chicago’s South and West sides would now be the safest places in the country. Unfortunately, that is simply not true. Chicago has the most police per capita in the nation; however, crime rates are still above average. Despite rhetoric that claims otherwise, police are not meant to prevent crime.

Policing is reactionary by nature. Police can only respond after a crime is committed, and once the crime is committed, the only tools they have access to are punitive ones. Thus, the only means of prevention is a punitive threat. A police officer simply has no other tool to use other than an arrest (or the threat of one). If crimes are not committed, then the police are not necessary. Thus, the police have an incentive to find crimes, and the more police there are, the more crimes get reported. It’s an endless cycle with negative results. 

Policing and criminology have been used as a one-size-fits-all fix for every social problem. When we demand a reduced role for police, we are acknowledging that the police’s role has expanded to services for which they are not trained, nor should they be, such as mental health, drugs and homelessness. These areas are better served by social service and health care professionals. 

Given funding cuts, some services, such as mental health, are only supplied to a person after an arrest. Further, county jails have become the largest mental healthcare providers in the nation. Patients in these jails, however, typically don’t get the care they need and the jail environment only exacerbates these problems.

Other non-violent areas that are highly policed are drugs, sex-work, immigration, and now, peaceful protests. In reality, police are coercive, punitive enforcers, particularly of black and brown people. Furthermore, the role police have taken in demonstrations that protest the police — like in Minnesota — shows not only that they coerce and control, but that they are better protectors of property than of bodies. The idealistic claim that more policing prevents crimes is simply not the case.  

The police should really be viewed as a branch of the military. Police training is carried out by military training companies, the police use redistributed military equipment through the 1033 Program, and many report that the mindset that police use is close to that of a soldier in the military. Our police, like our military, enjoy a monopoly on the threat and use of violence. At the same time, while we often criticize the effectiveness of our military’s violent international enforcement of democratic freedom and equality, we often fail to hold our domestic police to the same standard.  

Actions have been taken to “reform” policing and their tactics, but those changes are misguided. These reforms are what we call “reformist reforms,” or reforms that only serve to provide greater power, resources, or legitimacy to police. Reformist reforms that are popular right now are body cameras, increased training, increased resources/methods for accountability, and community policing. Supporting these reforms is an means of propping up the status quo and giving undue credence to policing as a necessary means of dealing with crime. 

The Black Abolitionist Network and Defund CPD, alongside similar groups across the country, are working instead for abolitionist steps. Inverting the same criteria, if any proposed reform takes away resources allocated to police, the power and discretion that police have over our communities, or the overall legitimacy of police, then it fits the criteria for an abolitionist step. 

Much of the money and resources allocated to the police should instead be used for social services within the community to address the root causes of poverty: education, mental health, employment and housing. Thus, the goal of defunding the police is to better address the safety and advancement of our communities by encouraging social improvement in a less coercive and criminalizing manner.

Demands to defund the police are not new, but they are louder and are increasingly entering national discussion. Chicago has claimed that there is not enough money to make desired community reforms, such as increased funding for mental health and policies to address homelessness and joblessness. 

According to Gov Tech, in 2019 Chicago had the fourth largest city budget in the U.S.  The problem isn’t a lack of money; the problem is the priorities in the budget. Research by the Black Abolitionist Movement shows that the 2020 budget allocates 40% of the city’s budget to police, for a total of around $1.8 billion. Other areas of the budget focused on community development are evidently a far lower priority. The Defund CPD movement is not just demanding a dissolution of policing, but equally emphasizing that the money from the police should be reallocated to rebuilding our communities, particularly those that have been negatively affected by the modern system of mass incarceration.  

The most common question to the defund the police movement is: how would a society without police deal with those who break the law? As a preliminary matter, the proposals are not absolute, and Defund CPD is more than willing to work with city official officials who keep an open mind to our proposals. Our demand is for a 75% decrease, with the hopes of working toward complete dissolution in the future. 

More importantly, however, the answer to this question gets to the heart of understanding the source of crime. Studies have found that poverty, which is reinforced by the racial segregation of neighborhoods, is most often the culprit of crime. If we never address the underlying causes of crime, we can never hope to fix the problem before it arises. Putting resources and energy into our communities proactively prevents crime from formulating. A threat of punishment has proven not to be enough to deter individuals from committing crimes when their very basic needs of life are not met.  

The defund the police solution must be different in each city. In Chicago, some key areas of emphasis are increased public-sector hiring, a livable minimum wage, and hyper-local social support. For example, Chicago must push to reinvest in public schools, public housing, mental health care and a more universalized general healthcare system. Further, restitutive justice systems have shown success on a community scale, involving a community-elected advisory board, as well as many health and other professionals who ensure that proper healing is reached for the perpetrator and the victim.  

Crime will not disappear altogether, but what we are working for is more than a way to prevent crime. It is a rethinking of the idea of crime, the criminal, and even our society. This can appear so abstract as to be impossible, which just goes to show the extent to which the status quo is ingrained in us.  

I challenge you to visualize a world which addresses crime by looking at the sources and not just by reacting to the crime itself: Where in society do you want to see greater investment?  What makes you feel safe and supported? What can we do to make our communities supportive enough to operate without policing? I challenge you, not only because it is possible that this would make our communities better places, but because in the future we may find ourselves in a world where the status quo is no police.  

Presently, I have only scratched the surface of this topic. There are issues that run through every aspect of policing and it is too much to describe here in its totality. With this article, I hope that I have sparked your interest. If you are interested in exploring this topic further, I recommend Alex Vitale’s book “The End of Policing”and Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” You can sign on to Defund CPD’s demands here.

You can also find Defund CPD and the Black Abolitionist Network on actionnetwork.org and on Instagram and Facebook under their respective names. Look for defund and abolition movements near you!  If none exist, then be the spark to create them. If you have any further questions or thoughts, I am happy to help. You can reach me on my CC email, r_schaefer@coloradocollege.edu

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