In the days following the brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the subsequent protests across the country, activists are calling for defunding the police as a solution to systematic institutionalized racism in America. Here is why we should not defund the police.
Major reforms are underway. In Seattle and Washington state, we already are doing what defunding proponents and police abolitionists are calling for within the existing system: restorative justice, alternatives to incarceration, demilitarizing the police, crisis intervention and de-escalation training, community engagement and holistic collaborative services. Reforms in Seattle and Washington state offer a model that law enforcement agencies in every city and state should implement.
Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, who was a member of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, has replaced warrior-oriented training with guardian-oriented training in the Basic Law Enforcement Academy training for all police and corrections officers to create an empathetic police academy. The Seattle Police Department has made changes over almost a decade in response to the 2012 Department of Justice consent decree, including creation of the Community Police Commission, Crisis Intervention Training, and the police department’s mental health Crisis Response Teams. Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program has become a model for the nation.
Police culture is changing. Yes, this change is painfully slow and incremental, and many argue we have no time to wait. However, starting over is not realistic or reasonable. Police reform in Seattle and Washington state has not been successful in changing police culture entirely or in other jurisdictions across the country and does not change the hard, heartbreaking fact that police killed Floyd. The Major Cities Chiefs Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police condemned Floyd’s death, noting that Floyd’s arrest was horrific and blatantly inconsistent with good police procedure on use of force. Police culture has been slowly changing for many years through the implementation of guardian-oriented policing, policy and oversight, crisis intervention training, community policing, and police-community engagement efforts, collaborative partnerships with mental-health and social-service agencies, and the increase in women and minorities in law enforcement.
The clashes between protesters and police in Seattle over the use of tear gas and crowd-control tactics, and Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best’s willingness to listen to the protesters and modify SPD’s approach by “meeting peace with peace” reflects this change in police culture and willingness to work with the community for change.
We need the police. The police are the first responders to a broad range of public-safety issues and serious crime. Crime will not end if we abolish or defund the police. If the police are defunded, there will be delayed response when people who are in need call 911, fewer police on the street in neighborhoods and communities, and lack of police capacity to respond to serious crimes that present significant threats to public safety. If we defund the police, those most affected will be the poor and the marginalized. Wealthy neighborhoods will hire private security as they are already doing, and poorer neighborhoods will have to fend for themselves even more than they already have to. Delays in police response and lack of police capacity will increase fear of crime, render victims of crime helpless and wreak havoc on communities, especially communities of color, even more so than is already the case.
Are we there yet? No. We all owe Floyd’s family and every Black American and person of color who has to fear the police an apology and a promise that law enforcement in the United States will never again be the same as it was the day Floyd was killed. Justice for Floyd means prosecuting officers and those who stand by and do nothing, policing that is inclusive of the community, crisis intervention and de-escalation training in all police agencies, empathetic police training in police academies, and commitment from law enforcement personnel and every community member to speak out against racism and police power that violates civil liberty.
Now is the time to test the accountability mechanisms implemented through years of police reform in Seattle. These reforms have made a difference and offer a framework for moving forward. Now is not the time to defund the police but to do the opposite — to invest in our police agencies to build on local and national police reforms. Every law enforcement officer who wears a badge, who takes their oath of service to uphold the law, who is trusted with extraordinary authoritative power to protect public safety, has the personal and professional responsibility to do their jobs in a way that values every single human life to ensure that there will not be another wrongful death at the hands of police.