In the wake of protests following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more unarmed Black Americans, the issues of police brutality and racial injustice are receiving more attention now than ever, and calls to defund and even abolish the police have gained momentum.
Yet when it comes to the matter of defunding the police, there is variance in opinion on what exactly that entails. Some people hold more radical views on the issue, arguing that society has no need for the police and that they should be disbanded altogether. This view is represented by the statement “disband the police” or “abolish the police.”
But the vast majority of Black Lives Matter supporters seem to support the more moderate take on this issue. To them, “defund the police” refers to divesting funds that would normally go toward police departments and reallocating those funds toward community resources and other forms of public safety. In other words, the idea calls for less emphasis to be placed on punishing crime and to instead focus more on what causes crime, such as homelessness, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues and a lack of education, just to name a few.
One major problem with American policing, as these supporters have pointed out, is that police officers are often called to deal with issues that they are not properly trained to handle. David Brown, former chief of the Dallas Police Department and current superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, is one officer that acknowledges this issue. “Every societal failure, we put it on the cops to solve,” Brown said in a 2016 press briefing. “Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops ... Schools fail, give it to the cops … that’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
True enough, America spends far more money on policing than it does on many other essential services. For example, approximately 14 million students are in school with police, but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker. Hence, some people are calling to remove police from places where they are not as needed, and to instead prioritize the need for other essential services.
While this idea may sound promising, especially to someone like me who is majoring in social work, it may come with some unintended consequences, which I feel are just as important to discuss. In the past few months, a number of police departments have already faced sizable budget cuts.
This includes Seattle, whose police chief, Carmen Best, announced her resignation from office amid news that her department would face salary cuts and an elimination of approximately 100 jobs."We have 800,000 calls for service every year,” she said, according to National Public Radio. “If you just lop off, even 100 officers, that's going to be highly detrimental to a department that wasn't staffed enough to deal with the calls we did have."
Although it is not exactly clear how Seattle will reform its police department, Best’s concerns are a prime example of what defunding the police should not look like. It should not entail unnecessary salary cuts, lay-offs or reducing police presence in places that need them (such as in areas with high rates of violent crimes). Personally, I envision a proper “defund the police” reform as one that benefits disadvantaged communities as well as police officers.
This means that police officers should not be tasked with handling mental health issues on top of violent crimes and other offenses, nor should they have their salaries and benefits cut when they are already risking their lives every day to do their job. Not to mention, defunding the police should involve the protection of other emergency responders as well. If a 911 call requires the presence of a social worker or mental health professional, for example, then they should be accompanied by a police officer in case their assistance is required.
This is because even when a situation does not seem like it could get violent, you never know when it can escalate to that point. When a violent situation does arise, social workers and mental health professionals need to be protected by someone who is properly equipped to handle it. Likewise, police officers should benefit from the knowledge and expertise of other service providers. In other words, we should not be replacing police officers, but be hired to work alongside them.
This would not only ensure that 911 callers receive the proper services that they need, but that also police officers would not be expected to deal with situations that are beyond their scope of training. Of course, there is the question of where exactly we are going to get the money to hire more social workers, mental health professionals and other types of first responders. Perhaps that can come from decreasing funding toward the militarization of police, or enacting policies that would require wealthier Americans to pay a more equitable share of their income to the government.
Whatever solution we choose, one thing is for certain: Funding toward mental health and other non-policing services need to be given more of a priority in this country, and it is absolutely crucial that we make that happen.
Maryam Imran is a School of Social Work junior majoring in social work. Her column, "A Brown Girl's Perspective," runs on alternate Mondays.
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