Sunday, June 14, 2020

De Fund Me

Catchphrases, it is generally understood, make for poor policy statements. Mainly because what makes many of them catchy is the fact that they're often appealing by virtue of being vague enough that people can read what they want into them or short enough to be easily remembered. This gets in the way of them being precise, detailed and comprehensive, which are helpful when it comes to policy.

"Defund the police" is a catchphrase, and one born of the idea that problems with police brutality, tribalism and opacity are not the result of rogue officers flouting the rules when they think they can get away with something, but a fundamental part of the way that policing, as an institution, is implemented in the United States. But for all of the genuine anger and concern that lies behind the sentiment, "defund the police" is, like many catchy phrases, vague and short. This allows people to read into it and it doesn't offer any hints of what it would actually look like in practice.

A recent radio story approached "defund the police" from what might be considered the "moderate" angle: the idea that the police are oversubscribed and that many of the things that we expect of them don't require (and my be exacerbated by) an armed responder with the remit to use lethal force. When the host asked if there had been pushback against the idea, the interviewee said "yes," but then went on to express surprise that anyone would disagree with the idea that police forces could do with some trimming. My first thought was that for people who believed that a police officer's primary activity on a day-to-day basis was running down and arresting criminals or otherwise dealing with dangerous scofflaws, any reduction in the police would be seen as a threat.

Cue Andrew Ferguson, staff writer for The Atlantic. His piece is ostensibly about the distinction between taking political speech literally versus taking it seriously, and how the failure of proponents of defunding the police to speak with one voice makes this an impossible question to answer (so Mr. Ferguson decides the answer is "neither"), but it also seems to dwell on the idea that policing, in its current form, is essential.

[Georgetown Law professor Christy E.] Lopez’s premise is one with which I’m sure lots of police officers agree: We ask cops to do too much. They’re expected, Lopez writes, to resolve “verbal squabbles between family members” (in another rhetorical mode a law professor might call such squabbles “domestic violence”), move the homeless “from corners and doorsteps” (to clear public rights of way), and solve “school disciplinary issues” (many of which schools can’t).
It's unclear if Mr. Ferguson is seriously suggesting that one needs an armed response to deal with domestic violence issues that are still in a purely verbal stage (remember, the term "domestic violence" can cover pretty much all forms of abusive behavior between members of a household; where the definition of "abusive" is also fairly expansive), clear public rights of way and tackle challenging disciplinary infractions in school. But I think that it's possible to make the case that he is. But other than the fact that this is currently part of policing, why should it continue to be?

But it's when Mr. Ferguson notes: "But … any cops in there? That is, the kind of public employees who arrest bad guys?" that I see the problem. Firstly, it's not the job of the police to "arrest bad guys." Mainly because the designation of "bad guy" comes when someone has been convicted, that is, after the finding of fact. The burden of proof for a police officer to make an arrest, or for a warrant to issued for an arrest, is not "they're a bad guy." And it's certainly not "they did it." People commonly appear to forget this, but a person who is arrested as a suspect in a crime is legally innocent of that crime. And some number of them will never be convicted of any crime. Unless an officer directly witnesses a crime, it's not their role to make the determination as to whether someone is a criminal. If "bad guy" is simply a shorthand for "people convicted in the court of public opinion," it shouldn't be the role of public employees to pursue them.

It's also worth noting that we don't need to call public employees who carry out warrants and detain individuals based on their own observations "police." The Federal Bureau of Investigation is the principal federal law enforcement agency in the United States. Its agents carry badges, and can arrest people for federal crimes. We don't call them "police." And we don't think of them in the same way that we do the typical beat officer. I am not aware of any given function that the police have that is unique to the role of police officer. This is to say that there is no one single function that defines an agency as a "police" agency. Thus, it stands to reason that one could defund the police, yet not lose any of the functions that police carry out, they would simply be doled out to other organizations. This is not to say that some places won't need agencies that don't currently exist there in order to transfer some of these functions, but the ideas and organization behind the agencies will not be novel; they can be copied from locales that already utilize them.

But the catchphrase of "defund the police" can't, in itself, carry any of this. It is, after all, only three words. The actual policies, and the rationale behind them, are going to be much longer.

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