For the past few weeks, it seems everyone has been talking about “defunding” the police. As thousands take to the streets every day to protest police brutality after the killing of George Floyd, what might have seemed a radical idea before is gaining traction in the mainstream.
Defunding solutions vary, but it seems one source of agreement for proponents of defunding is that tinkering around the edges with reforms, as we have been doing for decades, is not working, and that deeper transformation is needed.
Anita Khandelwal, the director of King County’s Department of Public Defense, is on the side of radical transformation. She said the police are just one part of a much larger ecosystem that includes the courts, prosecutors and public defense. She said it’s important to dismantle and divest from all of them. “These systems all work together and have long worked together to perpetuate mass incarceration,” she said. “And they are all systems that are incredibly racist.”
Racialized policing in Seattle leads to 32% of use-of-force incidents involving men used against Black men, though African Americans account for only 7% of the city’s population.
Once the gears of the legal system are in motion, Khandelwal said, it’s easy to become “ensnared” and then the system builds on itself. “Once you have criminal history, prosecutors are more likely to file charges against you and police are more likely to be familiar with you because they policed you previously,” Khandelwal said. “And so it becomes this recursive thing that just grows and grows.”
Adding to the problem is that police are currently the first response for a multitude of needs. If a person is dealing with substance use disorder? Call the police. If a person is having a mental health crisis? Call the police. If a person is unsheltered? Call the police.
In my column last week, scholar and organizer Edwin Guillermo Lindo challenged us to imagine a different reality. What could that look like? One idea is that if someone is experiencing homelessness or struggling with substance use disorder, instead of calling 911 and the police sending armed officers and squad cars, what if you could call 211 and an unarmed social worker or crisis responder, trained in de-escalation, could come quickly and provide support and services?
Defunding could also look like moving a significant chunk of the nearly one-quarter of the city’s general fund we currently use for the Seattle Police Department — $409 million — into resources we know have a protective effect on crime, such as housing and jobs. Currently, the amount we spend on policing is more than the general funds we spend on arts, culture, recreation, health and human services, neighborhoods and development combined. Three Seattle city council members recently joined activists who said they want to cut the police budget by 50% and reinvest those dollars.
Defunding the police could also look like expanding programs we know reach young people, like “credible messenger” programs such as Community Passageways, which I wrote about in February.
Christopher Poulos is an attorney and the executive director of the Washington Statewide Reentry Council. He knows from experience as well as occupation the inadequacies of the system as it’s currently structured. The first time he was arrested, he was 15 in Portland, Maine, and already deep in the grips of a substance use disorder. He was charged with a felony for trafficking cannabis. He said it was the first of about 10 missed opportunities for structured, community-centered intervention to occur in his life.
He was given a sheet of paper with the things he was not supposed to do, and that was about it. No effort to get at any of the underlying issues that were causing him to struggle, which in his case were addiction and instability at home. He said more than just being harmful to the person caught in the system, it’s ineffective.
“I’m 100% supportive of accountability. What I want to create is accountability that’s going to be effective in actually addressing the issues,” he said. “Unless we invest in truly addressing [root conditions], then we only have a Band-Aid at best when actually deep, deep surgery is what’s needed.”
Poulos believes support from a credible messenger program like Community Passageways or Choose 180 would have made a difference in his life.
He said if you look at the data, it’s clear major changes need to occur. He said a failure rate of 30% of people returned back to jail or prison within a few years would be considered unacceptable for any other type of enterprise. “If 30% of the cars got into an accident, each time they went out, we would overhaul — we would just close everything down and figure it out.”
Khandelwal said the system we currently use for all of our social ills and put 75% of our county general fund budget into — law enforcement and the criminal legal system — is not an evidence-based system. But she said, “There is evidence that says that housing and jobs and services do work. So what we’re really trying to envision is a world where we’re creating systems that are grounded in evidence and the reality of what we know will help meet people’s basic needs.”