Defunding the Police: The Big Picture

Recent protests against racism and police brutality have included calls for “defunding” police departments. I think few people, if any, want to completely abolish a critical social good such as public safety. So, calls for defunding are likely not literal and absolute. If that’s the case, then what are protesters demanding?

How We Fund Public Safety Today

The US as a whole spends more on public safety than most other developed countries, according to a recent article from The Atlantic. One sobering statistic from that article:

If the state with the lowest incarceration rate, Massachusetts, were its own country, it would imprison more people than all but nine other nations, among them Turkmenistan

A Deadline article says that Los Angeles spends 17.6 percent of its budget on policing and that doesn’t include pensions or health care benefits for police employees. The city of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed while in police custody, spends 12 percent of its budget on police.

How Do We Price Safe Communities?

Defunding doesn’t mean eliminating law enforcement. A city like Camden, New Jersey might completely disband it’s police department–in the process of building a new police department.

Even if crime rates dropped significantly, I think that nearly everyone would agree that some amount of policing is a social good that should continue. Defunding does mean giving police a smaller portion of city budgets and using the money instead to invest in underserved residents and areas.

As described in a recent article from City Lab, an alternate funding model for Los Angeles dubbed “The People’s Budget” allocates just 6 percent of the city budget to law enforcement. It prioritizes affordable housing, homelessness services, and public health and emergency responders.

The argument goes that investing in people and communities is a better path to civic harmony than beefing up policing. It’s an economic representation of “No Justice, No Peace.” The hope is that economic justice, partly in the form of increased social spending, will lead to more peace.

The Parallel Between Policing and Healthcare

There’s a parallel from the healthcare debate. In a previous post, I wrote about how the U.S. and other developed nations spend roughly the same percentage of their budgets on the combination of healthcare and social programs. The difference lies in how that money is apportioned. European countries spend the majority of that money on social programs and less on healthcare. And they get better results overall. Why? Because your health status depends heavily on your social status and conditions.

It shouldn’t be an either / or decision on supporting health care and social programs. A city’s peace status could be seen as the combination of spending on social programs and policing. We need a bigger picture of the system-of-systems that influences our social nature.

A Model for Defunding The Police

How can we better apportion city funds between supporting better communities and enforcing laws to create the type of peaceful, supportive community we all want to live in, regardless of race or economic status?

One potential model for making this shift is California’s Proposition 47. According to a KQED report, the proposition changed many nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. That change stops many people from being sent to state prison. Fewer prison inmates means lower prison costs.

The state’s prison savings have been growing for the past five years. The genius of Prop 47 was in requiring those savings in prison costs to be invested in community programs that improve life and reduce the need for police. Those programs include K-12 education programs, mental health services, and substance abuse programs.

This has set up a virtuous cycle of where prison savings fund more social funding which then generates more prison savings. Prop 47 has proves in a quantifiable way the link between social programs and law enforcement.

Cities could look to Prop 47 for ways to shift their law enforcement costs in ways that build up safe communities.

(Image courtesy of Pixabay)

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