Across this country, an uprising has been ignited by the murder of George Floyd — one in a long line of unarmed Black people killed by police officers. And yet the tinder for this fire comes from so many sources — the legal, educational, health, and financial systems that marginalize Black people in this country at every turn. Some of us, especially some white people, might disagree with this analysis, might argue that these systems are now color-blind and fair, but the data on each of the systems belies this claim. In every arena, the outcomes for Black Americans are worse than for white Americans, and we can draw a direct line between those outcomes and the conditions created by enslavement, continued by Jim Crow, and perpetuated until today by modern systems of discrimination. These systems might seem inevitable and unchangeable, but powerful movements led by Black Americans have changed them, and we can continue to change them through our incessant, incremental actions and demands.
In this moment, because of these police murders, many organizations and individuals are demanding that we defund the police. This slogan means different things to different people, as any slogan does. The national Black Lives Matter organization says, “We call for a national defunding of police. We demand investment in our communities and the resources to ensure Black people not only survive, but thrive.” Justin Brooks in the Appeal writes, “We do not need more police. We do not need more surveillance and more police on patrol. We do not need better police technology and more community-police partnerships. We do not need more reactive responses to Black death, like charges that rarely lead to convictions. Instead, we need to provide our communities with opportunities to flourish. We need more funding for economic programming and community development. We need more funding for educational programs. We need more funding for social services that help victims of poverty and violence.” Matthew Yglesias in Vox says that “defunding the police” means “less that policing budgets should be literally zeroed out than that there should be a massive restructuring of public spending priorities.” In all cases, the slogan makes clear that we must divert substantial funds from policing the community to social services and investment.
Here, in the village of Oak Park, Illinois, an organization called Freedom to Thrive released a report that emphasizes three major shifts needed in policing: creating more independent oversight, reviewing the use of force policy, and reducing the funds spent on police versus social services. The report states, “The impact of a large police force, in particular the trauma of increased policing on young people of color, is something that our elected officials must take into account when voting to increase the resources given to the police department. It is our hope that the publication of this and following reports will serve as a starting point for reimagining public safety in Oak Park.”
But what will happen if we reduce funding for the police? Will this village and other communities be endangered by crime? A recent study that examined how police officers actually spend their time addresses this issue. Across the country, police officers spend only 4% of their time responding to violent crimes, so we could dramatically cut police funding and the number of officers and ask the remaining officers to focus on those violent crimes. The money we save could be used to pay for other agencies and services — staffed by people who are not armed and are not primed to use force to solve problems — to deal with the other 96% of issues.
As part of this reduction in policing, we must also remove police officers from dedicated assignments in our schools. We must listen to young people of color in this village, like those participating in Revolutionary Oak Park Youth Action League (ROYAL), who are telling us that police officers in schools make them feel unsafe. Here, I draw on my own experience as a school principal, in which the presence of police officers turned student altercations into legal matters. Schools can call police officers when they are needed — we do not need officers stationed in or assigned to schools.
For me, it seems straightforward that we need to spend less on policing in this country, and specifically in this village, than we do on social services. We need fewer officers responding to the few number of violent incidents, and more services that respond to all other community concerns. It seems straightforward that we need strong community oversight of police actions when they do need to be called. It seems straightforward that we need stronger and more stringent guidelines for when police use force in the even smaller number of cases where that may be necessary. And it seems straightforward that we need to eliminate the assignment of police to schools.
If we could achieve these four goals, I believe that our community would in actuality advance the causes it claims to care about. If we dramatically reduced the amount we spend on policing, took police out of schools, restricted the occasions when police could use force, and reviewed that force on the rare occasions it might need to be used, we would begin creating a community that truly values the lives of the Black and Latinx young people who live here. We would create a community where police violence against Black and Brown youth would become less likely, and where regular police interactions with those communities would be reduced. And we could turn our attention to the interconnected range of other issues — educational, health, financial, and so on — that we must confront to truly address the causes of the current uprising and create the community all of our residents deserve.
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