Minneapolis City Council took a surprising step this past weekend and announced their intention to disband their city’s police. This is a significant step for two reasons: they have a veto-proof majority so even Minneapolis’ young mayor who is against this move can’t do much about it and this is the first concrete win for the #defundthepolice movement that has suffered growing criticism up until this point that their demands are too radical.
During a community meeting, Minneapolis City Council President, Lisa Bender, is reported as saying, “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed — period…Our commitment is to do what’s necessary to keep every single member of our community safe and to tell the truth that Minneapolis police are not doing that.”
An impressive statement that comes only weeks after Floyd’s death. The main question I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances is if we defund the police, then who will keep us safe?
In an interview with NowThis, Patrisse Cullors, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, outlined exactly what a police-free world might look like saying, “We can put those dollars towards social workers responding to mental health crisis, to doctors responding to drug and alcohol crisis, to caseworkers responding to homelessness. We can give everybody a good life, if we discontinue our obsession with giving the police everything.”
The majority of police interactions are nonviolent in nature, posing little risk to the cop. This begs the question of why we are sending cops into these situations in the first place if there is a little risk to their safety or anyone’s for that matter? Why can’t we send doctors, traffic enforcement, case workers, and social workers on these calls, people who are trained specifically to handle these types of situations?
Frankly, it’s unfair to the cop to be expected to be an expert in handling all these varied situations. Also, it’s been made tragically clear that cops across the country are only trained in handling one type of situation: violent ones.
Now, as much as critics want to whine about semantics, no one’s saying completely remove police from the equation. #defundthepolice is a starting point, a powerful phrase that was made to get everyone’s attention, and I’d say it worked. In practice though, there is room for a reformed police in this new world, one that solely responds to more violent crimes like armed robbery or a mass shooting and nothing else.
No matter what it’s that massive reform is needed in all aspects of policing, and what better place to take a lesson from than Camden, New Jersey? A city that dismantled their police department seven years ago and rebuilt it to be a model for the nation.
What dismantling a police department could look like.
Sarah Holder, writing for Bloomberg, reports, “Across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in Camden, N.J. (population 74,000), officers left the riot gear at home and brought an ice cream truck to a march on May 30. The police department’s chief, Joseph Wysocki, who is white, brandished a ‘Standing in Solidarity’ poster alongside residents holding ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs.”
An endearing sight I’m sure, but one that’s incongruous with Camden’s history. Up until a few years ago, Camden was routinely ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country until 2013
Camden initiated its change after a spike in homicides. It couldn’t afford to hire more officers due to expensive union contracts so the mayor and city council decided to dissolve the local police department and instead partner with the county PD. It took a series of incremental reforms including adopting an almost 20-page use-of-force policy; mandating that any force used is reasonable, necessary, and proportionate; and requiring officers to intervene if these see a violation of these policies to get the current state of policing in Camden to where it is today. Holder goes on to state that, “By the department’s account, reports of excessive force complaints in Camden have dropped 95% since 2014.”
Former Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson, who led the Camden County police through much of these changes, said in an interview with NPR, “A police is only effective if it has the consent of the people. And to have the consent of the people, you have to be legitimate…As a police leader, I say, what is the harm with giving them voice, allowing them to come in and be a part of the process? And all the while, it gives us the ability to have the dialogue and the education, in both directions, of how difficult and challenging situations can be better resolved.”
I’d imagine scaling back the police will look a bit different depending the city. Many aspects of a police department vary by location, but the lessons are here: the community must play a major role in directing the operations of a police department, how it functions, and what that important relationship looks like on a daily basis. There are a lot of situations where police aren’t needed and are at a huge risk of doing more harm than good and seriously thinking about ways to change that is long overdue.
So when someone questions how defunding the police would work or some blue checkmark berates Democrats for handing this political goldmine over to Trump, tell them this demand is far from unreasonable. In fact, it’s smart policy. I was skeptical at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Because of privilege, my interactions with police over my lifetime have been few and rather benign in nature. If the police were defunded, my life wouldn’t be radically impacted, and for many people, it would be a welcome relief.