Defunding the Police?

Dec 14, 2020

As the world is distracted by the Covid-19 Pandemic, the media have seemingly embraced and fueled a desire to run a faster paced parallel story, a movement to “defund the police.” Social injustice stoked the movement that gained momentum this past summer when videos of police actions went viral. Social media platforms flooded personal devices with clips of alleged police mistreatment of community members, causing immediate reaction and division. 

Although the spotlight was first upon American policing, there is an undeniable emulation of calls for defunding that has been rippling across other countries. 

Their message is that police are failing and that continued interactions are causing racial divide. Generally speaking, the demands are broad, but one statement comes through loud and clear: there has to be a re-imagining of public safety and the police role within it, because the current model is putting fear into certain communities and making people feel at risk. 

However, there are many concepts of what ‘defunding the police’ actually means – and perhaps this is the biggest issue that will prevent progress. 

Ideas range from a percentage redistribution of the police budget to other social service or agency professionals, to a call for resignations and in some cases disbanding of police officers, seemingly to free up wages or to create something untested and new. Some of the more extreme demands would see special units be disbanded and police hardware sold. 

In contrast to the loud voices to defund are the seemingly softer voices from a majority adamant to maintain or modify existing models and to assure the safety of first responders as a priority. 

The current stalemate could perhaps be deciphered as the good, the bad, and the damned ugly. 

Defunding – The Good

When understanding the discussions on defunding, the first word that should come to mind is “opportunity”. With any such decision, the term ‘opportunity cost’ is front and centre – choosing one path may have associated costs to another. In other words, a decision to defund the police will have impacts elsewhere, good and bad. 

Defunding may be easy to shout, and may seem like a brilliant idea, but it is definitely complex and has many layers. 
It is healthy to review policing models, question existing strategies, find redundancies or refine bad practices. 

Mission statements, visions, strategic policies and operational manuals should be subject to constant or periodic change, and some protesters clearly believe this is not being done, or is not being done frequently enough, or should be done by outside oversight observers. 

Hiring criteria, along with human resource reviews, and demographic analysis can quickly ascertain if our communities are represented adequately within the ranks. From my experience, police departments are already attuned and entrenched in such key indicators of serving the public. The question is, could more be done? 

Well-managed, healthy departments always look inwards at their own procedures even though internal reviews can be costly and often indicate shortages and a need to increase funding, 

Support for defunding peaked following highly publicized deaths and severe injuries to members of the black community; the cases broadcast on social media targeted the police officer’s conduct. 

These tragic incidents will be investigated and the results will be shared. For some, the formal investigations and subsequent judicial findings will be perceived as biased or unfair, furthering the cause for reform and defunding. For others, the results may vindicate or affirm police actions and confirm previously held beliefs, whatever they are. 

There are those who believe and trust police can do no wrong and others who believe police do no right, regardless. The truth, as in life, probably lies somewhere in the middle. Thankfully there are many more who are willing to take the entirety of an incident and logically work through the sequences, have patience for the full facts and background to be revealed, and do not jump onto the often-biased, sensationalized bandwagon. 

Status quo on one side, equality the another. Is it complicated?

Police Chiefs may openly welcome other agencies help in taking on roles that police officers have to deal with daily, if safely done so. Society has changed over many decades, and the reality is that other community support services have stepped away, lost funding or deferred responsibility to the police. 

The ‘good’ will be when these services are reintroduced, provide the answers and help to improve people’s lives so there are other options before calling the police. 

The ‘good’ is when the magical, well-strategized injection of funds for community support programs decreases the demands on our police. Such an investment must be adequate to provide safe housing, assisted living, medical support, mental health treatment, and continued monitoring. Add to this, drug and alcohol addiction treatments that meet demand, safe schooling, safety and crime prevention programs, gangs and guns prevention, and a clear road to immigration issues. 

The list of what needs fixing is long, so the ‘good’ is that perhaps the movement to defund will help to identify all of these societal issues, so that the police can reduce their role in the community and redirect back to the serious investigations where law enforcement is needed most. 

The ‘good’, if properly studied, is that people will start to understand the gravity of the issues and open their eyes to the actual upstream drivers of the police interactions. What an opportunity this could be, to educate the public and for governments and agency leaders to take ownership and support the issues. 

The ‘good’ will be when the police are able to speak out loudly about all of the missing supports that have massively attributed to the problems. 

The ‘good’ will be when the police, once respected as an essential service and appreciated during tragic events, return to that status and not that of a punching bag. Officers and their families are hurting from the current wave of negativity around their difficult profession, it would be ‘good’ to appreciate, once more, how important our police are to a civil society.

Defunding – The Bad 

The subjective understanding of defunding cannot be discussed openly without airing opposing, often emotional, perceptions and bias. Social media is known to target certain demographics and sensationalism can cause many to lose sight of what is fact and fiction. Our rational mind is overwhelmed and emotions are driven by the apparent injustices seen on our screens. Community protests and demonstrations have occurred in major cities and have targeted both buildings and individuals. These protests have taken many forms, from planned peaceful walks with police officers engaged, to disorders that have continued for months, placing further strain on existing city resources and ruining the lives of local residents and businesses. It’s hard to seriously contemplate defunding, when cities are burning and crime increasing. 

The ‘bad’ sees police officers in toe to toe battles with protestors, and protestors facing off with each other and anyone challenging them. Injuries and deaths have occurred, and officers and their families have been targeted. Many Chiefs of Police have resigned, as have an unprecedented number of rank and file. Some jurisdictions have reacted to calls of defunding and immediately made changes to funding and staffing models. 

In describing ‘the bad’, we include reactionary decisions made without fully understanding the implications of such justice reinvestment or defunding. If the solutions were obvious, they might have been done by now. 

It seems logical that such massive decisions should be wholesome, that we should complete our due diligence in understanding the problem, and fully appreciate what the reality of police work is, before making decisions that may put more people at risk.

Defunding demands are centred around money, resources, and of course the alleged systemic racism and violent actions of police officers in some community interactions. 

It would be ‘bad’ to make decisions without engaging in serious and unbiased dialogue. Ample time should be allowed to articulate what defunding means for each department and the knock-on effect for adjoining departments and the complex Federal, Provincial/State or local funding models that exist. 

It would be ‘bad’ to make decisions without anticipating their ripple effects. There are mutual aid agreements, combined forces, Local Agreements and working relationships that simply ‘make things work better’ for the communities. Officers themselves also ‘make things work’, they problem solve, and the results of preventative proactive patrols are not measured if incidents don’t occur. To take officers from one department may create the butterfly effect in another.

A large city will have its own particular state of normalcy, the police department adapts resources and funding to meet that demand. Many departments are already understaffed and challenged annually to make cuts while populations and calls for service increase. 

Urban demographics change over time, and officers are among the first to notice the issues caused by regentrification, homelessness, drug use and drug adaption, technology advancements and changes to court case file requirements. Fluctuation in those demands will occur with other influencers such as the seasons, tourism, sports and entertainment events and hubs with increasing capacity in bars and restaurants. Then there are unforeseen expenses such as months of protests or natural- or human-caused emergencies – including COVID-19 and the stressors of policing during a pandemic.

While discussing the ‘bad’ of defunding, we should take opportunity to give kudos to the existing policing models and how they have served well over time. It should be acknowledged that despite defunding calls, there are tens of thousands of officers working alongside emergency frontline workers, every hour of every day. No matter what is put in front of them, they do an outstanding job. Despite accusations, it is inconceivable to think any officer leaves their home to do harm. If they do, there are already robust reporting measures, outside agency investigations and expectations that they will be reported from within, and they are. 

The saying that nobody hates a corrupt cop more than a cop, is real. That being said, mistakes, errors in judgment and even unbecoming behaviour or actions should be calmly and carefully managed and not influenced by mob rule or celebrities. Without the good will and support for the vast majority of officers who carry the badge well and their families, defunding in whatever form will not be successful. 
The ‘bad’ comes when continued confusion discourages potential new recruits. Recruiting outstanding candidates to join departments is not easy; applications are trending down, making it tough for departments to replace those who leave. It takes time, money and continued training to get competent recruits onto the road to support their senior colleagues and serve communities, chasing the good ones away is not smart.

Defunding – The Ugly

Modern day policing was guided by Sir Robert Peels Principles of Policing (1829). These principles are underscored by the notion that policing is by consent of the people. In certain areas that consent has been somewhat lost, but does this mean widespread and national change is needed to police models? It does give cause for local concern and it is reasonable to expect a judicious and objective review. 
This brings us to the ‘ugly’. If we cannot agree or decide what defunding is, and when those who shout the loudest do not have an understanding of what the police actually do, or how they are trained, it doesn’t make for an effective process.

Over the last several months we have all heard celebrities, sports stars, politicians and community leaders supporting the call to defund. When the opinions and support for defunding are made by those without comprehension of police mandates, training and budgets, that’s when ‘ugly’ decisions are made. 

‘Ugly’ is when people assume that the gross budget is too expensive and instantly have a better plan without considering the consequences or why the funding got to be so high in the first place. ‘Ugly’ are those lightbulb bright ideas from people who do not understand the depth of what already exists. 

On the other hand, ‘ugly’ describes those who put a visor down and refuse to consider another way, clinging to what has always been, while the unwanted ownership of the worst parts of society continues.

The ‘ugly’ is the current trend for sweeping assumptions that the police are at fault for the bad interactions without regard for the life circumstances that led to the encounter. 

A big ‘ugly’ are the many assumptions that police are not trained to deal with mental health issues, or with people in crisis. While there is variance in training standards, they do gain experience daily. They are not doctors or psychologists but they are trained to recognize, understand, sympathize and communicate with those they encounter. The unfortunate truth is, they are left to deal with the consequences of someone who is at a low in their life, someone who is putting others at risk instead of in a hospital or with capable and able caregivers. 

The police are often left to interact with someone who is homeless, hungry, going through a personal crisis, or who has anger management issues, stress, PTSD. 

Police interact with a wide range of people in some level of crisis: people who are drug addicted, others who are intent on committing crime, or engaged in gang battles, who may be in the community with court-imposed conditions, and others who are wanted for serious crimes. 

Mastering skills to deal with these myriad issues is surplus to their high stress skills to drive safely to calls, and master complex reporting systems. They the need to get to know their cities as well as a cab driver would (in the pre-GPS days). But not only the roads – the alleys, fields and the desire lines made by the community. 

Police also have annual qualifications in use of force in every lethal and non-lethal item they carry. They make daily decisions in the use of each, and in my opinion, they overwhelmingly get it right.

As this situation continues, perhaps it’s time for everyone to take a breath, not to take sides, be less offended by each other’s viewpoint, and get into some meaningful and transparent discussion. 

For this to occur, we all need to listen. We need leadership, we need openness and reasonableness. We need less political interference, less side taking, and less division. We need the soft voices to be heard as much as the loud. 

We need media to be mindful of the power they hold in mass information and education, and be more thoughtful in their delivery. If there are statistics that show the need for change, publish them; if there are statistics that rebut it, publish them. If investigations need to be completed, complete them, and if there are corrections of facts to be made, correct them. 

Most of all, we need to accept that there will be officers who overstep a line, use too much force, make bad decisions. There will be officers who are found guilty by law, but this does not label everyone. 

It’s time to bring everything out into the open, for leaders to own problems and lead, reset what needs resetting, and to develop a strategy of trust to move forward. Unity on these issues is clearly distant, time for the bad and ugly to go away and for the good to be the winner. Let’s fix this. 

As a police officer in the UK, Lee Patterson specialized in public order, anti-terrorist and crime scene search. After immigrating to Canada in 2002, he has continued to serve the public as a police supervisor, and represented the Integrated Security Unit as the Chief Search Coordinator for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The views expressed here represent his personal opinions, not any agency or other individuals.