Rethink the Police

Friday, June 19th, 2020

In recent weeks, the phrase “defund the police” has entered the zeitgeist. It’s rather sub-optimal, as it’s often conflated with “disband the police”. Those advocating for reform are often falsely painted as wanting to simply leave everyone exposed to criminals. Of course, that’s not the case, even amongst those who seek an abolition of police departments. Given the explanation required, though, this slogan would best be replaced with something more effective.

Let’s look at that explanation though. By and large, what’s really being advocated for is a reformation of policing. Removing both responsibilities and expenditures from police departments, and allocating them toward more efficient social services, is one way to accomplish this. More money would be spent on social services like drug abuse prevention, homeless outreach, and mental health services, which would also hopefully lead to a reduction in crime. A more nuanced slogan might be “Rethink the police”, specifically their role within our society.

The city of Camden is an instructive example. In 2012, they disbanded their police department to root out corruption, replacing it with a new county police force. That force has focused much more on community-oriented policing, which shifts the focus away from punishment, and toward improved outcomes for all.

It starts from an officer’s first day: When a new recruit joins the force, they’re required to knock on the doors of homes in the neighborhood they’re assigned to patrol, he said. They introduce themselves and ask neighbors what needs improving.

Training emphasizes deescalation, he said, and the department’s use of force policy makes clear that deadly force is the last option.

While this sort of measured thinking is sadly uncommon in America, it’s hardly anything revolutionary for other parts of the world. The role of police in Europe is markedly different from what we see in the US. Here’s Megan O’Neill, an expert on community policing at the University of Dundee in Scotland:

[P]olicing isn’t viewed primarily from a top-down, law-enforcement perspective, but rather as part of a bigger solution to social problems. “It’s not: There’s a problem, send the police. It’s: There’s a problem, let’s work together to find a solution,” she said. “Policing is seen as a small part of a bigger set of actors in terms of addressing social issues.”

Intelligently reallocating resources to better serve society’s needs should be something everyone can agree on. One poorly worded slogan shouldn’t be able to undermine that.

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