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The problems with defunding the police

If the intent is to diminish the capacity and presence of law enforcement, the result will be police responding to crime after it occurs rather than preventing crime


Protesters rally Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Phoenix, demanding that the Phoenix City Council defund the Phoenix Police Department.

AP Photo/Matt York

As a Republic, Americans vote for the politicians they believe will represent their best interests. Certainly, there has been an outcry from some of the public that has been vociferous enough to cause lawmakers and mayors to seriously consider de-funding law enforcement entities.

Despite all the saber-rattling about de-funding police agencies, the devil is in the details. Basic police services will always be needed to respond to calls for service and address violent crime. Proponents of “broken windows” policing, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), and other pro-active prevention methods such as foot beat patrols and traffic enforcement, believe there should be tactics and strategies to prevent crime as well. If de-funded, surely most, if not all, community policing and prevention programs would suffer.

Long before the death of George Floyd, there have been calls to “de-militarize” the police. The Government 10-33 Program that awards military surplus to local law enforcement was first assailed during the Obama administration. The Urban Area Strategic Initiative (UASI) program, which helps identify and strengthen critical infrastructure, has seen diminished budget awards over the years as well. The accompanying Urban Shield SWAT readiness training and exercises have been defunded. All these programs are linked to the rhetoric of the “militarization of the police.”

Despite changes to these federally funded programs, the impact on the patrol force has not been significant. Although agency budgets will no doubt be trimmed, the actual trickle down to patrol operations can be expected to be minimal.

Before dismantling police departments, city officials, councils, boards and mayors may want to do some due diligence and speak to:

  • The COPS Office: The Department of Justice has valid input about the benefits of community policing grants and personnel hiring grants
  • Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD)
  • The organizers behind community policing initiatives like National Night Out; human trafficking awareness groups; domestic violence, family violence and child abuse prevention advocates; and all the myriad victim advocate programs and agencies that partner with police.

The End of Social Problems Policing?

Much of the negative shadow that palls over policing is due to the social problems the police are often called to handle.

Critics say police should not be the agency to deal with the chronically inebriated, drug abusers or the mentally ill. If anything good comes from the cry to defund police, perhaps it will shift funding for mental health professionals to respond to calls involving the mentally ill. Calls for service for the mentally ill are significant in any American city. In 2018, a Santa Clara County Grand Jury found that 40% of all police shootings involved an individual with mental illness.

Law enforcement contact with the mentally ill may not always end in a shooting, but use of force is not uncommon, which has been upheld by the courts. Still, part of the de-fund movement criticizes the ability of police to handle those with mental illness in crisis. Despite efforts to train law enforcement personnel in crisis intervention and other means of communicating with those in crisis, perhaps now may be a good time to hand duties over to mobile trained medical and psychological experts in the field. Better yet, put the mobile crisis teams in the field and have them respond directly to 911-dispatched calls for service.

Budget shifting could reallocate funds for trained unarmed outreach workers to address homeless issues, including disputes in camps. I would imagine that most line officers would gladly turn over response authority and calls for service regarding public nuisance reports. Although in reality, it would not be long before someone got hurt or stopped responding to such calls. Anecdotally, in San Francisco over a decade ago, street sweeper trucks from the Department of Public Works (DPW) were tasked with cleaning the United Nations Plaza. After some of the DPW drivers were assaulted, they refused to drive through the plaza without a police escort.

Perhaps all automated external defibrillators (AED) and naloxone will be removed from patrol vehicles and given to additional EMS personnel and vehicles to actively patrol areas where public chronic drug abuse is rampant and sometimes sanctioned and supported by the local government. That will make life easier on the patrol force, which has been dealing with “mission creep” over the last several decades.

The concept of changing procedures and shifting responsibilities to another agency has been successfully achieved. When I started my policing career, we were often called to public places where unconscious chronically inebriated or drug-infused individuals were found. We would try to rouse them from their slumber and transport them to our station detention cells until sober. Multiple in-custody deaths led to a new policy that mandated for an EMS response for those non-ambulatory individuals who could not be revived or speak coherently. The new policy was beneficial for the police and the inebriate. The downside was an EMS ambulance was taken out of service, the cost of the service ($3,000 or more in San Francisco) and inadequate bed capacities at critical care hospital emergency rooms.

Legislated Crime Mandates

Interestingly, there seems to be the usual dichotomy legislation of all or nothing. There is no accompanying message to the public to reassure them that crime and criminals will be dealt with. Do legislators understand that most crime victim legislation arises from tragedy? Do they understand the Jacob Wetterling Act? Have they heard of Megan Kanka, Polly Klass or Adam Walsh?

Are they familiar with the Clery Act? University and college police chiefs understand their required duties and obligations of the act to provide transparency around campus crime policy and statistics. Failure to act, notify or report crimes can results in fines of approximately $54,000 per omission. Not to mention that students need to know of crime problems, trends and hot spots on and near their campuses.

The grieving wounded and suffering families of these victims for which their loved ones are named after can attest to the need for a well-trained and professional police force.

Police as Firefighters

In conclusion, the idea of de-funding police departments is unrealistic. We have already anticipated negative impacts on public safety budgets from the COVID-19-related recession, but some opportunists may seek to redistribute budget allotments to other favored unarmed services in the medical, mental health and social service sectors. If the intent is not to abolish law agencies altogether, but to diminish their capacity and presence, police response from the station house will be reactive, not pro-active. The result will be police responding to crime after it occurs.

Scholars have said that inner-city urban violence can be attributed to young men with guns who exact deadly retribution in their own hands rather than relying on the police for justice. Will de-funding police be the answer to the violence we routinely witness in cities like Chicago and Baltimore? Knee-jerk policymaking will always result in unintended consequences. Cities that are quick to de-fund police agencies may see bigger problems than the ones they currently perceive.

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.