I’ve held my tongue regarding this catchy slogan over the past six months or so, largely out of respect for the dozens of people, most of them innocent, most of them people of color, most of them black, murdered–and in many cases executed by police officers, and the hundreds, even thousands, who have been shot, beaten, strangled, kicked, tortured, and, yes, in cases like citizens like Sandra Bland, literally lynched within the very walls of a jail cell (which is, apparently, the accepted punishment for black folks in Texas who forget to use their turn signal.)
After the very public murder of George Floyd at the hands of a pyschopathic veteran “peace officer,” in which he alternately glowered and stared mirthfully–his pleasure seeming to verge on eroticism–at the witnesses held back by his willing compatriots, I dared to think “finally, this will lead to some sort of change, some reckoning and accountability). Surely, those nearly-nine minutes of lascivious violence, abetted by fellow officers who formed a barrier against and menaced the burgeoning crowd, would strike into the heart of a nation we like to imagine as free and fair? But no. Less than three weeks later, Rayshard Brooks was executed for falling asleep in a fast food drive-thru lane and, after over half an hour in custody, grabbing an already-discharged taser and running away. He was shot twice in the back.
In between Floyd and Brooks, thirteen other black human beings were shot dead by law enforcement–and I don’t mean to imply in any way that all of them were innocent. Many of them were not. The issue–the atrocity–is that there is a clear disparity in the way our public servants initiate these confrontations, not to mention how they conclude them. For every black suspect shot in a quickly-escalated incident, there are a dozen instances in which officers go to great lengths to keep from killing white perpetrators. The optics: a black person is going to be beaten and often killed, while a white person, at worst, is going to be issued a citation.
Sadly, the predominant narrative generated from protests during the weeks of national grief and outrage that followed Mr. Floyd’s murder has been “defund the police.” As slogans go, it has a lot going for it: it is brief, catchy, and radical. The best way to control the center of a dialogue is to lean towards extemism, and thus pull the middle towards your side, thus making an outlying position seem more moderate. The problem here is that the middle is made up of human lives, and rhetorical victories don’t stop the bloodshed, even if they make us feel good about ourselves. Forget that this slogan–or rallying cry, if you must–succeeded mostly by alienating moderates who otherwise be inclined to join, or at least support, the fight for reform, while simultaneously galvanizing the “Blue Lives Matter” authoritarian crowd. It is safe to say that numerous left-leaning public officials lost seats to conservative “law and order” candidates in the recent election, thereby acting like a quay against the expected “blue tide” that was supposed to bring reform-minded leaders into positions where they could enable positive change.
I was encouraged to read President Barack O’Bama speak up on the “snappy slogan,” as he called it, recently, explaining “You lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done,” Obama said. “The key is deciding, do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?”
My friends on the hard left, many of whom I respect deeply and support, lost their collective minds. “We lose people in the hands of police,” Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. whom I also respect, quickly retorted. “It’s not a slogan but a policy demand. And centering the demand for equitable investments and budgets for communities across the country gets us progress and safety.”
But what is the policy? “Defund,” as defined by Websters, is a transitive verb meaning “to withdraw funding from.” When I read that word, “defund” I must presume that it is being used appropriately–removing the funding from police, putting them out of work, and then–what? I’ve seen some pie in the sky alternatives suggested to replace the police. Unarmed teams of sociologists designated as mediators? Maybe. Self-policing? Interesting, but are you fully prepared to submit to the whims of all your neighbors, let alone the guy who refuses to wear a mask in grocery store, or (gods help us) the evangelical minister who rants in front of the women’s health clinic three afternoons a week? There’s a lot of people in my rural, republican community whom I have no interest in “self-policing” me.
I’m much more comfortable with the idea of re-training law enforcement officers, providing them with suitable pay–a lot of the sheriff’s deputies and part time officers hired by small towns around our parts earn $10/hour of less and have to stitch together gigs in two of three jurisdictions to make a living wage–and that still doesn’t get them insurance. We get what we pay for.
More importantly, we need to create an environment where police misbehavior is noted and acted upon, where officers who act egregiously and held accountable, and where their peers feel obligated to cull the bad seeds from their ranks–if not for honor’s sake, then for self-preservation. Cops get out of line because they know they can. In most cases, an officer need only say “I feared for my safety” to justify even the most heinous and barbarous acts of violence, including murder. Successful prosecution–on those rare instances where District Attorneys choose to follow up charges against the officers who, by and large, are their co-workers–requires prooving that the “state of mind” of the officer was malicious. That is the problem. Cops have no boundaries, and good cops exist in a system that actively discourages them from speaking out against their fellow officers, even when they know–and you know that they know–that those officers are destroying the reputations of all cops, everywhere. That’s why, despite all the media coverage and the preponderance of home video, cops keep doing bad stuff for all the world to see. They know that nothing will happen to them. They won’t be sent to jail. They won’t lose their jobs (indeed, the most common punishment is “administrative duty” or paid time off–a literal vacation.) Solving that problem is the key–not removing protection from our communities.
I live in a rural Pennsylvania county where Trump carried 73%, guns are more sacred than crucifixes, and confederate flags are a daily sight (because our economy is so beat down that certain elements relate closely to the confederacy, that perfect, epic example of losing?) Within this county, in our town is a large university that accounts for nearly all our diversity. Our 22-person police department is scrupulously trained for for sensitivity to diversity, conflict resolution, and and de-escalation via programs implemented by a highly competent young Police Chief and a relatively progressive town government. For me, and many of my neighbors, they are our first responders, arriving before ambulances or the volunteer fire department, and the first line of defense for the anger-soaked racists and rednecks who surround us. When I spiked a high fever this spring and became disoriented by a nasty case of pneumonia it was a cop who arrived on my doorstep within two minutes, helped me down the steps, and calmly reassured me while I waited for the ambulance. Less than six weeks ago, when a drunk stood outside my house, ranting and shouting threats at us from the shadows beyond our porch light, as well as threats against himself, the cops were there in moments. When they ask for a description I was reluctant to guess the drunk’s race, not wanting to be one of those white people who wield the cops as a weapon. The officer understood, replying. “Don’t worry. I get it, but we don’t play that game here. We only ask to make him easier to find, and trust me, it sounds like the big worry here is making sure he doesn’t harm himself.”
That’s my reality. The kicker is that I am well aware of being a marginally articulate, white, working class guy. Cops too often behave differently at the homes of black folks, but when I hear “defund the police” I understand it as the intent is to remove the officers and administration who have worked so hard to build trust and do it right. It needn’t be a draconian act like that. I understand that full removal of law enforcement isn’t what is meant by that word, “defund,” but we don’t get to pretend that a word means something that it doesn’t, then condemn those who don’t jump on board with the confused message. And let’s be straight: plenty of activists mean exactly what they’re saying: all police are bad, anarchy is better.
I disagree. I don’t want to get rid of the police, but to give them more tools to deal with the issues they face–and that doesn’t mean surplus military equipment, but training to teach them how to deal with people who, when they meet them, are often having the worst day of their lives. Psychologists? Yes. Mediators? Absolutely. But what I want most of all is for officers who are prepared for what they face in the street, who also know they’ll be held accountable, who are trained not only to handle difficult encounters but also to recognize when they are out of their depth, and who truly want to serve–not to bully and dominate.
I think that is an agenda that a majority of us can be on board with, unlike the vague but trendy “defund police.” At the same time, reforming, re-imagining, and retraining as a methodolgy defangs those who defend even most corrupt officers and the worst derelictions of duty. Still want to get rid of the cops–look up and down your street, think of your last trip on public transportation, and put weapons in the hands of just the people you remember. If you can do that and still sleep soundly at night, you’re a lot more optimistic than I am.