Cities Like Camden, New Jersey Show The Dangers of Defunding Police
More than three centuries ago, British writer Jonathan Swift observed, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late.” Well, a new movement to defund the police is well on its way. And in a remarkably short time, it has quickly outpaced the logic and common sense questions that could slow it down.
The goal of the “defund the police” movement is obviously to punish police officers for bad behavior. So let’s start there.
What bad behavior are we punishing all police officers in an entire city for? They certainly didn’t all place their knees on George Floyd’s neck, and the punishment for that officer began within hours of the incident, with his termination and then his arrest within days.
But the movement seems intent on putting all Minneapolis Police officers out of a job. That objective has been extended to all Los Angeles police officers now as well. As it gains traction in the national media, the movement is spreading coast-to-coast.
This should be the first sign of a really bad policy. Punishing everyone regardless of their culpability in an action is the best way to breed feelings of distrust and retribution. This is precisely the argument that many in the black community make—that its members are unfairly targeted by agents of the government, mostly (but not only) the police, without regard to individual guilt or innocence.
The fact that the left’s solution to this unfair treatment would be to target a different population for unfair treatment is typical of the hypocrisy of their policy proposals. But the screams and emotions and nonstop news coverage have given the idea legs that are not easily countered without thoughtful debate.
The discussion should, of course, start with what the policy aims to achieve.
We already covered the punishment aspect, but what about the other goals? What might those be? Better policing should be an obvious one. Better relations between the police and their communities should be another. Accountability for bad actions by police officers could be added to that list. So what does defunding the police gain in these areas?
Better policing through defunding is illogical on its face. Budget cuts decrease the ability of a police agency to train its officers and hamper its ability to attract quality recruits. Furthermore, it will reduce its ability to use innovative programs to improve public safety and public relations.
This of course assumes that defunding is meant to decrease the police department budget instead of just getting rid of the department completely, which in at least some circles is actually the goal.
Taking away training and resources and reducing available officers through attrition or even layoffs will not improve the relationship between the community and the police. How could it? Accountability for bad actions by the police would not be achieved through defunding either. When the termination and prosecution of bad actors within the ranks is simply not enough to satisfy the mob, the only achievement that the policy of defunding seems to accomplish is punishing the police. It’s the kind of overreaction we’re seeing in the riots that mar legitimate protests.
Of course, defunding a department isn’t enough for some; they’re calling for a full abolition of police agencies. What might this accomplish in terms of the goals of the police abolitionists? Probably not what they expect. Any city that abolishes their police would not become a “police-free zone.” Instead, the vacuum created would be filled by county sheriff’s deputies, state police officers, or even (in their absence) federal law enforcement.
This would begin just as soon as civil order begins to break down (and with it, the inevitable civil rights deprivations). Those advocating for police abolition police would neither wish nor claim this unintended consequence, but it would be theirs to own. All of these law enforcement levels maintain jurisdiction within the cities. And, as states are sovereign, not cities, cities only exist at the will of the state. Ultimately, even the most ardent city councils would be helpless to oppose it.
In reality, the police abolition movement will result in the police being replaced with other agents of order. Camden, NJ did experiment with this idea by getting rid of their entire police force and switching to the county police force, who then hired most of those same officers at a lower rate. Many brand new officers were also hired by the county to patrol Camden without the training, experience, or knowledge of the community that the former police force had. In a city that is 95 percent minority, Camden went from a 2/3 minority department to an agency that is made up of only 43 percent minority officers. A larger, less diverse police presence is probably not what the police abolitionists of today have in mind.
More disturbingly, cities will have less say in who does the policing. Will they draw their officers from the communities they will serve? Not if the cities cede that control to other levels of government. Instead, they will find themselves being policed by sheriff’s deputies and state police officers who answer to someone outside of their communities, using policies the cities are helpless to influence.
Alternatively, cities will get a bunch of the same officers they just got rid of, now wearing county or state uniforms, when the displaced officers get hired for the extra patrols those agencies are now picking up.
There are better solutions that achieve the goals of the defunding movement. One of the best is community engagement. This goes beyond the decades-old, nearly indefinable “community policing” concepts of the past.
Community engagement is not about “coffee with the chief” or ice cream socials, though these interactions are all well and good. It is about engaging community members and stakeholders with the police department and developing relationships that can shape what policing looks like in that community. It localizes policing, which is exactly what policing should be all about—gaining voluntary compliance with the laws, not making as many arrests as possible.
Public safety is to be measured by the absence of crime, not the number of arrests a police department makes. Engaging the community fosters these relationships and this more effective style of policing.
Conservatives are not new to the table in policing reform, but there is difficulty in partnering with those who are calling for defunding or police abolition. Both sides need to step out of the elevator and have a real discussion on what the goals are and the best way to get there. Alienating all of our police officers is not a good way to start.
Randy Petersen is a senior researcher at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Petersen spent twenty-one years in law enforcement in Bloomingdale, Illinois, working in patrol, investigations, administration, and management.