Defunding the Police and Changing Focus


There is a post going around at the moment that is supposedly meant to paint the police in a positive light during the recent global protests again police violence towards native peoples and people of colour. Honestly, it really sounds like the author (unknown, at least I’ve not seen a name with it) is telling the population to submit to power because… it’s power.

Here is the whole post in full:

“It’s not the police who need to be retrained, it’s the public. We have grown into a mouthy, mobile phone wielding, vulgar, uncivil society with no personal responsibility and the attitude of ‘it’s the other person’s fault’, ‘you owe me’. A society where children grow up with no boundaries or knowledge or concern for civil society and personal responsibility.

When an officer says “Put your hands up,” then put your hands up! Don’t reach for something in your pocket, your lap, your seat. There’s plenty of reason for a police officer to feel threatened, there have been multiple assaults and ambushes on police officers lately. Comply with requests from the officer, have your day in court. Don’t mouth off, or fight, or refuse to comply… that escalates the situation.

Police officers are our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. They’re black, white, brown, all colours, all ethnicities, all faiths, male and female, they are us. They see the worst side of humanity… the raped children, the bloody mangled bodies of traffic victims, the bruised and battered victims of domestic violence, homicide victims, body parts… day after day.

They work holidays while we have festive meals with our families. They miss school events with their kids, birthdays, anniversaries, all those special occasions that we take for granted. They work in all types of weather, under dangerous conditions, for relatively low pay.

They have extensive training, but they are human. When there are numerous attacks on them, they become hyper vigilant for a reason, they have become targets. When a police officer encounters any person… any person, whether at a traffic stop, a street confrontation, an arrest, whatever… that situation has the potential to become life threatening. You, Mr & Mrs/Miss Civilian, also have the responsibility of keeping the situation from getting out of control.

Many law enforcement officers are Veterans. They’ve been in service to this nation most of their lives, whether on the battlefield or protecting us here at home. They are the only thing that stands between us and anarchy in the streets.

If you want to protect your child, teach them respect.”

First sentence and you can already see the concern here. It’s not the police, who in the US (where I imagine this post originated from) are quite militarised and rapidly escalate violent situations, particularly with people of colour, that needs to change. It’s the population that needs to be “retrained”. When it’s China with “re-education camps” or Russia with their gulags it’s evil, but here, nah, retraining people regarding how they interact with power needs to be drilled into us. It’s the people that are out of line.

That followed by a generalisation about young people that is simply not true in the majority of cases, which also implies that children need to be taught how to behave “correctly”. The problem with framing this as a “lack of discipline” is that it erases pretty much every factor that influences how these children are brought up. It also raises questions about the authority in question. Rather than ridicule people for disobedience, is it not more prudent to analyse the situation and see whether the complaints have merit? In most cases, they probably do, and it’s worth recalling the maxim that power is not self-justifying.

Second paragraph consolidates that message of submitting to authority, while also bringing in the first of the justification for police violence. It basically says just comply and do as you are commanded to do, which evidence has shown does not mean anything because people have still died at the hands of police or in custody regardless of their compliance. It is also problematic when, given how institutionally racist many law enforcement agencies are, the people – again, mostly people of colour – are viewed as suspects and not people.

I’ve not read anything specifically on this topic, but The Muslims Are Coming! by Arun Kundnani explains this concept well in relation to Muslims being targeted by law enforcement, government and intelligence community programs, and hate groups solely because of their religion. This most definitely applies to black people on the basis of their skin colour, even so far as to the technology used to “fight crime”.

With facial recognition AI and technology designed – intentionally or not is irrelevant, it’s inherent in the system – in such a way that fails to distinguish people of darker skin tones, whole demographics are disproportionately targeted. Databases that show hotspots for crime have similar issues, because yes, it might be true that black communities can have more criminal activity, but the data is misused. The data implies that black people are more likely to commit crime without actually acknowledging the underlying factors that result in crime taking place.

As a result, more police resources are allocated to these “high risk” areas, rather than, say, an increase in community focussed growth, like boosts to education, healthcare, and social welfare. People are seen as potential suspects as opposed to human beings in need of better services and living standards, which only worsens the prospects for those stuck in those areas.

As for civilians escalating situations with the police, I think history, especially the last month, has shown this to be blatantly misleading. Not entirely false – of course there are those who, for whatever reason, react negatively. But there is ample video, image, and spoken/written testimony and commentary out there to highlight police being the instigators of violence. Even here in Australia, the NSW police during the Black Lives Matter rally had crammed protesters into Central Station and reacted violently, using pepper spray and, in one story I saw circulated on Twitter, blocked them from entering the bathrooms to wash their faces and eyes.

George Floyd, the man who was murdered and set off the recent spark in the movement, was pinned down by multiple officers – how was he escalating the situation?

Third and fourth paragraphs, tugging at heartstrings – but they’re human too, of all sorts! Yes, and also a part of an institutionally racist, sexist, and violent profession. Some of them, certainly not all, and certainly not every day, may see and undergo some traumatic events. That does not somehow excuse other officers from inflicting that same trauma upon others, nor their covering up or silent complicity in these acts. In some States of the US, it is not “illegal” for police to have sex with people in their custody, for example, but there is not a single case of that happening where there was not an abuse of power involved, whether it’s called rape or assault or not. Police can be perpetrators too.

As for their working times, conditions, and pay – tough luck. I doubt they’re underpaid – their budgets are usually massive in the US, and I don’t know the figures in Australia but they’re not lacking in funding. And there are numerous professions that require people to work in various conditions, during holidays, with abusive people, etc. that are paid abysmal wages. Retail and hospitality, teachers, healthcare workers, a few that spring to mind instantly. Obviously (perhaps with the exception of healthcare workers and some teachers), a lot of jobs may not have the same level of “risk” as law enforcement, but funny enough, those workers don’t end up in violent scenarios.

Because those workers are taught how to de-escalate situations and deal with conflict. I’ve been in situations where there were tense encounters, one in particular that could have turned physically violent. None of them ever resulted in injury or violence because things were de-escalated. Cops should absolutely be taught how to do this, and I’m sure some probably are to whatever extent. Over and over, history has shown they do not carry out this simple task. This idea that law enforcement are always filled with fear – ignoring the fear of their targets – and have to be vigilant and react quickly – despite their apparent training – is laughable.

If cops, with all of their training as it is, are scared and cannot de-escalate a situation appropriately – and yes, that includes acting in self-defence proportionate to the situation at hand if absolutely necessary – then perhaps they should not be cops. People with such short fuses or fragile nerves should not be in a position of power that comes with lethal force. The image of the police force being constantly paranoid is not reassuring in the slightest. Viewing every encounter as “life-threatening” is not how things should be.

The claim that they are the “only thing that stands between us and anarchy in the streets” is also absurd. Firstly, using anarchy in this context is extremely politically motivated. Second, see above. Police are the instigators of most police violence. The only violence in Australia during the Black Lives Matter protests was started by police action, and it has been quoted fairly often that when the NYPD went on strike in the US, crime actually went down (which had people urging police to strike more often).

My response to the last line is this: if you want to protect your children, teach them critical thinking. Allow them to express themselves in a creative and open environment. Encourage them to question everything, especially authority. When the post says teach respect, it implies respecting authority, which is not always correct or safe. Power is something we should all be wary of, and when that power is abused then it should not come as a surprise when there is a reaction.

That is what the Black Lives Matter movement is about. It’s more than opposition to police violence against black people, although that is a major motivator for it. Defund the police is not some empty slogan that invites crime – if that is your understanding of it then you clearly have not listened to the voices of those behind these calls. I do not pretend to have the answers to how this process will work, even here in Australia, let alone the US, and as usual I will defer others who have experienced this oppression. But I can offer some thoughts and repeat some of the common suggestions.

I mentioned a few of them above – focussing not on crime, but the origins of it. There are countless factors that go into this, but it’s not a coincidence that people in lower socioeconomic situations, with lower levels of education, access to healthcare, etc. are more likely to end up in interactions with law enforcement. The easiest example would be seeing drug use – particularly marijuana – as a health issue, not a criminal one. That’s reasonably large percentage of the prison population in the US, so those funds could go towards drug education, rehabilitation, and healthcare.

Another is the private prison system – when the incentive is profit, there are going to be more unjust interactions with law enforcement and more dangerous and broken conditions within prisons themselves. When incarceration is a business, there is no interest in the public good, and so long as the money flows in, what happens inside does not concern those making profits off of suffering and injustice. Tear down this barbaric practice, and more focus can be placed on genuine rehabilitation and community-based justice.

Young people out on the streets are demonised as delinquents, thugs who do nothing but cause trouble and get themselves into situations where police are then dragged in. Perhaps these young people may not be on the streets if they had access to a proper education? Properly funding and resourcing public education, along with outreach to children from struggling backgrounds, would greatly improve the prospects of these children. At the moment, if they end up on the wrong end of the law, it can become a vicious cycle that keeps them subdued and unable to escape it, or worse, potentially dead. Rather than spending money keeping the youth in line with force, they would be better served in a classroom or with meaningful work.

The list could go on, but the point should be clear. Defunding the police is not about giving free reign to crime, it is about reallocating resources and attention to endeavours that will prevent crime, not simply struggling to combat it endlessly.

Another side to this is the police themselves. They are trained as law enforcement, so when they enter a situation, they approach it from a law enforcement perspective. But not every scenario requires law enforcement, or at least not solely law enforcement. The drug example is prescient here. Unless the police are to be trained how to handle health related matters, what use are they exactly when dealing with, say, an addict? The police can arrest them, but in what way can they or a stint in prison help them? How can we expect them to handle a situation that is the domain of medical and social workers?

Similarly, another one I’ve heard a lot online is domestic violence, particularly against women. Stories of domestic violence and/or sexual assault going unreported are quite common. Alongside that are the stories of those that are reported, but the police have not taken any action – so the one job they do have, law enforcement, goes ignored. Then there is the mental and emotional health of the victims, which the police are probably not trained to deal with. Those people need support networks and professionals trained to handle people dealing with the fallout of these events, be it PTSD, depression, etc.

So not only should we be defunding the police to focus on fields that would be better suited to deal with certain situations, what law enforcement could be justified should be complemented with individuals and organisations involved in those areas. What this would look like exactly, again, I don’t have a clear answer, although there are intelligent voices out there with clear goals and pathways to achieving them that I would implore anyone reading to explore. Black voices in particular are important, seeing as they are disproportionately affected by these oppressive institutions.

Change is needed, more urgently in the US, but Australia could benefit greatly from a fresh approach to law enforcement and other aspects of community engagement. The post I pasted above irks me, because it is primarily shared by white people – mostly men – who jump at any chance to delegitimise the Black Lives Matter movement, or the feminist movement, etc. And I say that as a white man. It is disheartening to see so many get defensive and, in turn, offensive simply because they refuse to acknowledge the reality of the current system.

This isn’t about making men or white people apologise or put women and minorities on a pedestal – it’s about recognising the pedestal we have been on for centuries and acknowledging that we need to make changes to create a more equitable society for everyone. That is not exactly a difficult task, and ignoring or denying the existence of this divide evidently shows you have not been of the receiving end of this oppression.

Black Lives Matter.

Defund the Police.

Here’s to a better society.


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