Jordan: I’d be willing to bet that the phrase abolish the police gets a reaction from you. Whether it’s a sarcastic scoff or an enthusiastic cheer, I don’t know, but it’s provocative and that’s the point, it sounds total. What about defund the police? Maybe that’s a little more palatable. But do you know what it means?
Right now, polls say that a majority in both Canada and the United States oppose it, at least as a slogan. What about stuff like bias training and body cameras? Those things have lots of support. We also have lots of research that says they don’t actually reform much. So something’s got to give.
There is vast support and energy right now for real police reform. Nearly all of us agree that police brutality and racism is a huge problem that needs meaningful action. So what happens? What would abolishing or defunding police departments actually look like today, tomorrow, next year, five years from now? How can reform advocates get the proper message across to the general public who are spooked by these slogans?
And is there anything else, something in the middle between superficial measures and massive reform, that could help right now? What can we actually do, to start fixing this?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Monica Bell is an associate professor of law and sociology at Yale. And she’s going to help explain some of the concepts that are floating around right now. Hello, Monica.
Monica: Hello, Jordan. How are you?
Jordan: I’m very well. Thank you. And I’m hoping to wrap my mind around some of the proposals right now for reforming police forces in America, but also in Canada, too.
Why don’t we start just by talking a little bit about what is being proposed? How varied are some of the demands and requests and things being proposed even by mayors of cities?
Monica: Yeah, so the proposals are extremely varied. There are proposals ranging from, I think probably the one that’s gotten the most airtime, defunding and dismantling.
Then there are also proposals that sound a lot more like things we’ve heard in the past, like body cameras is one that is still being proposed anew by some mayors and police chiefs. There are also reforms being proposed, like additional training anti-bias training, and procedural justice training among certain police departments. So it’s really the full range of proposals both new and old, are being discussed in this current moment.
Jordan: Let’s start with the most aggressive one and we’ll get to defund the police in a minute. Cause I gather that’s really complicated, but we’ve also heard calls to outright abolish the police. And when people say that, what do they mean? And in a world like that, what would replace them?
Monica: Yeah. So I want to start by making really clear that I don’t think I can speak on behalf of the abolition movement for many reasons. I’ve been reading myself about the calls for prison and police abolition for about four years. But there are people who’ve been working on these topics for decades. So I just want to acknowledge that. So I think there is a range, there’s a very wide range of people who are calling themselves abolitionists right now. And so some of those people, for some of them, I would wager a very small minority, that means dismantling the police right now.
I think most people who identify as abolitionists would say something else, which is that we should be working toward a world in which we don’t need, or we don’t imagine ourselves needing police or prisons. The change we make right now could lead toward a world in which we use the police less, or it could lead toward a world in which we use the police more.
So it’s much more about what you imagine as the end point of reform and less about what we should do in this current moment. And there’s a lot of writing that underpins that particular perspective. And I think one of the reasons the conversation about abolition is really complicated is in the public discourse, people hear, ‘wow abolish the police. That sounds outrageous because of course, we’re not in a situation where we can actually get rid of the police right now, everywhere. In part, because we don’t have alternative institutions that do anything about the crime and safety concerns that people have.
And those are real, right. I mean, there are people subjected to violence every day and we need some sort of response to that. And so right now, the only response we can imagine, and the only response that has resources really, are the police, the prisons, and the entire kind of criminal legal complex.
Like that’s what we have everywhere, but actually, you know, a lot of the literature on abolition has much more of an embrace of incremental approaches to getting to an end point.
Jordan: And we’re going to talk about that in a minute, just the way you have a conversation about it, because it sounds like kind of a nonstarter to some people, as you mentioned. But let’s move to defunding the police. What are people actually proposing when they say that? I gather it’s a range.
Monica: Yes. Yeah, of course it’s a range. I think some people, when they say defund the police, they mean actually remove all funding from the police, but that is a very small minority.
I think most of the calls for defunding come from a context in which, if we look at municipal budgets that policing constantly increases. There is no walking back, even in places that have defunded every other institution, places that are defunding schools, places that have defunded social services that don’t contribute to community organizations, or municipalities that have gone bankrupt. They’ll always keep around the police department in some form. And so there’s a real question about why that would be the institution that sees the consistent increases in funding that never has its budget roll back.
And I think even more importantly in this conversation, there’s no desire to shed light on what the police are actually doing with all of this money. There’s a serious problem of a lack of transparency. And so these calls for defunding can really be understood, I think, as a call for not just defunding, but placing resources in the institutions that we should value the most. And also, for us to have a serious conversation about municipal budgets and how they relate to our capacity to reach broader goals of human flourishing and justice.
Jordan: Well, what about those budgets is in control of the municipality itself? So for instance, obviously the amount of money that goes to the police is controlled by city council, but do they get to dictate how the police spend that money or is it kind of, it’s out of their hands and then the police chief and everybody else sweeps in and allocates it as they wish?
Monica: Right. So it actually varies to some degree by municipality. In most cities, there’s certainly an ability to review the budget and basically review how police are spending money and to kind of reign in certain aspects of police funding. I mean it’s a little hard to speak in blanket terms about what there’s a capacity to do.
But I will say there have been some proposals to increase transparency and to give either community members or some sort of administrative, local body more control to review what police spend money on, and to dictate the amount of funding. Because it turns out that police can make decisions about their budgets and can kind of adopt a number or set of policies that are basically not subject to review by anyone.
And sometimes, so I’m thinking actually right now about the city of Seattle. There, technically the city council did have access to information about police budget and how it was spending, but people are subject to a lot of information, and basically there was no deep awareness, I guess I would say, of what police are spending your money on. But then I’ll actually want to make a broader point, which is that, so let’s say the city council has information about how police are spending their budgets, until very recently, and by recently, I mean in the past couple of weeks, has there been any large public appetite for the idea that police are not solely responsible for public safety?
So it’s really difficult politically, to do anything like tell the police how they should spend their money or tell them to spend less on their weapons or to spend less on any number of things. And so the lack of transparency, coupled with the real serious political problems surrounding police budgets are part of what has gotten us into this morass.
Jordan: Well, that’s an interesting point because there obviously is a huge demand for change right now, but if you look at the various polls that have been in the field since protests began about three weeks ago, defund the police doesn’t have a broad swath of support. And I guess, how could that proposal move forward in a way that could garner the support needed to actually make a change? Cause I do think, to your point when people hear that, they think, ‘get rid of the police department’, and a lot of people say, well, that’s too far for me.
Monica: Absolutely. I mean, I think a big part of the issue is that there’s a big divide between what motivates people to engage in protest and movement and what motivates people to make political change in kind of a cross cutting way. I think the most we’re likely to see coming out of a movement that is framed around defund, is you’ll see certain places, Minneapolis, New York city, where the defund movement has made actual political inroads, such that the city’s leadership is saying, okay, we are going to quote unquote defund the police, which in some cases might mean budget to zero, but actually most likely what that means is seriously review the budget and take funding away from the police and put it into all the other governmental agencies that we have been defunding.
So I think we’re likely to see that, we’ve seen some of that already. And I think depending on how that goes, we can then start having a conversation at a practical level that is informed by how that goes. Informed by, you know, not necessarily just the slogan, defund the police and the kind of theoretical arguments for that.
But more based on the evidence that shows that people are having different experiences. Are experiencing perhaps obviously less police violence, but maybe are experiencing positive sorts of outcomes with respect to housing or education, or et cetera, all the other institutions that are being funded.
So I think part of that is the thing one could expect from that sort of framing, but one thing I hope, I’m an academic, so I find the public discourse frustrating often.
Jordan: How so? Tell me about that.
Monica: Well because I mean, we can’t have this really serious conversation about police budgets.
It’s hard to achieve movement on that. And unless you have a movement who’s out there saying lets defund, in some places that starts a conversation about police budgets and some places that shuts down the conversation and moves us back to body cameras and training, which are not bad, but body cameras might be in some instances, but they’re not the types of reforms that I think are truly necessary.
So. I think what is going to be important, as I think we’ve started to see, is people from a wide array of perspectives, at least asking questions about what we should do. And there needs to be more structural options on the table. So this is something that I spent a lot of time thinking and writing about, what is it that you do that is more profound than, I keep picking on body cameras, but that is more profound than training and use of force policy, but is not the type of reform that’s going to make people shut down immediately. And I think we need to have a wide array of options on the table.
So I think there are real questions in terms of the movement and in terms of politics about theories of change. And I actually think having people out there saying defund, even without the nuance that I’ve talked about, can be helpful for educating certain local political leaders about things they should be reading and imagining. Options that heretofore seemed unnecessary. So it’s like you need something radical in order to get something closer to it. And so that might be the function that some of the defund language plays, even if it’s not actually popular with a very large percent of the public.
Jordan: Well tell me if you can, about some of those options that should be on the table, because I have been following the conversation about policy pretty closely, and it does seem to be either the kind of minimalist ones you mentioned, more training anti-biased recognition, stuff like that. And then abolish and defund. And so what are some of those things that, that we know really could help, and might actually have a chance of popular support?
Monica: I think there are a number of reforms that do engage in the project of making the police less central. So one thing I think we probably all agree on, maybe all is too strong, but a lot of people could agree on the fact that again, if you even just look at municipal budgets, even if you just go outside and I’m in a predominantly black neighbourhood, particularly in a city, you see a lot of police officers. There’s a way in which we’ve made the police the entire State. This is something I’ve written about in the past. I interviewed low income black mothers in Washington DC. And one of the things that I found in my research is that they called the police, sometimes, but the main reason they will call the police or one of the main reasons they will call the police is because they thought the police were a way to get certain types of resources.
And sometimes that was true. So for example, if you want to relocate in public housing, having a police report that shows that it’s necessary might be a reason that you would call the police about a dispute with your neighbour instead of just working it out without the police. That’s kind of a concrete way of thinking.
But then I think the even more concerning one to me is I talk to mothers who called the police when they’re having issues with their children in order to do things like get them a probation officer to make sure they would go to school. Why would you take that route, because if your child doesn’t go to school, your child becomes a truant and then you potentially get into trouble with child protective services.
So basically there’s this really complex web of punitive state and local government institutions, that structure people’s lives when you live under conditions of social marginality. So poverty, if you’re black, if you’re Brown in these countries at least, there’s just kind of this hyper policing and this hyper carcerality, one might call it. Basically that’s just too much policing.
So there’s a number of structural reforms that could come from that, which is disentangling police from all of these other institutions. So we’ve seen some movement on that in terms of the move to take police out of schools. There are lots of ways to increase the safety of schools that don’t require having an armed police officer there.
I’ve written about the role that police play in reproducing segregation. I’ll call it. I mean, residential segregation, basically police play a major role in how people decide where to live. And there are a number of things that could be done to help kind of disrupt that link.
One is that, I think we solved this in the central park case, the Amy Cooper, Chris Cooper incident. So there, Amy Cooper calls the police to make up a story about someone, an African American man threatening her, and there we saw the police eventually showed up.
But they were not quick to, they didn’t respond with much intensity because they could tell from the context of the call or the dispatcher, I guess could tell, that there was really nothing going on here. Course, there wasn’t an urgent need and we don’t have enough conversations about how police triage calls or how 911 dispatchers triage calls, how police respond to them, how many people, how many cars are sent, these really technical aspects of policing, they’re the kind of boring parts of policing, but they really help determine how policing is experienced by people who are marginalized. And so, those are just a couple of examples, but there are so many more things that could happen that sort of change what police can do.
One more I’ll mention, I think this is important to mention. There has been somewhat of a movement, over the past couple of years to get police departments to engage in reconciliation for the racial injustice they have perpetrated in the past, or in the present, actually. And so getting police officers to apologize for the routine racial injustice that comes from their work. So that could even mean things like, if you’re in a predominantly white area in a suburb, and there’s a suburban police department, how much profiling are they doing? I mean, there’s a lot of, research that suggests that, when black people are in predominantly white areas, they’re more likely to be stopped.
I mean, it’s kind of like a truism at this point. Everyone knows this. You know, those departments could actually try to stop doing that, and they could also even apologize for engaging in that type of behaviour. And then that could theoretically at least make the suburbs seem like a more appealing place to live for people of colour.
That all gets really complicated and one has to think a lot about theories of change, but the overarching message is that there are many ways in which the daily work of policing is racist. That doesn’t mean that all individual police officers are racist. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need someone engaging in work around public safety, but there is this tragic way that when people call the police to report quote unquote suspicious behaviour, it’s so often and so consistently about race, and the police department does nothing to interrupt that. And that is always going to mean that policing is institutionally racist.
Jordan: I’m glad that you went there because that’s kind of the last thing that I want to discuss with you is, assuming that we identify some reforms that can work and are achievable and we have politicians and people on board, what kind of fight is this going to be with the police departments and specifically police unions themselves?
I think the last couple of days, we’ve seen a few examples of police departments in the United States, but I saw a tweet from one here in Canada today, basically saying like, ‘well, if you start defunding the police, just so you know, the first thing that’s going to go is our outreach programs and our work with sexual assault survivors’.
And basically threatening that the parts that we want would be the first to go. So what’s the scale of the battle that’ll have to happen there?
Monica: This is a massive battle. This is a huge scale battle. So it’s interesting that police departments are saying that those programs of outreach would be the first to go.
That is not surprising, and I’ve been reading those reports too, because those are the things that police departments value the least about their work, which has to do with the culture of policing. The culture of policing is one in which weapons and kind of the violent response is what is actually seen as police work.
And then outreach is adjacent to police work. It’s profound actually that this is the response because, that is kind of what activists have been saying for a long time in response to calls for community policing. And that’s that community policing is sort of impossible as a way of transforming policing because police departments are culturally not interested and are not going to prioritize community police. And so there’s this kind of perverse way in which that response actually just proves the critique in the first place. But in terms of the political fight, this is where you have what we’ve talked about in terms of shoring up other institutions, and realizing that police reform is not going to be found in the police department.
I guess that’s the main point I’d like to make. We’re not going to tinker around or even defund the police and have real change in policing. What we have to do instead is recognize that we need robust social institutions that are not within the criminal justice or the criminal legal system. We need to focus on schools and education and education for racial injustice. People need to actually know more about the history of Canada and the history of the United States with respect to racial inequality. We need a real focus, and this is something I’ve talked about and written about, on robust social welfare services. We have this strange idea that one of the reasons people feel unsafe is because there are people who are just violent, but we have at this point really robust understanding of why certain areas have higher crime, and it has nothing to do with some sort of innate violence of people, and has a lot more to do with lack of economic opportunity with lack of housing resources, any number of deeper structural issues. And we focus on the police because they are visible, but there are a lot of really invisible forces that sociologists write about, structural violence. There are lots of aspects of the world that are driving all of this, that we’re not focusing on in this conversation enough I think. So that I think is where we have to go and I hope that we’ll eventually get there. One other thing I’ll say, I should mention is just even within the criminal legal system, we’re not having enough of a conversation about the underlying criminal laws and the role of prosecutors in all of this.
So one way that prosecutors have a major role in this issue, is that there’s a tendency not to prosecute police officers for engaging in violence, that I think is the smallest concern though. There’s a way in which prosecutors are the most powerful actor in the system.
And there has to be much more of an investment in what they’re doing. But then in addition to that, our legislators are passing criminal laws that authorize the police to behave in certain ways. So why in the Eric Garner case, was selling loose cigarettes substantive criminal law that is underlying all of this. When we think about what happened with George Floyd, I mean, this is horrendous. The underlying issue there, was an alleged counterfeit $20 bill, which he may or may not have known if it was even a counterfeit $20 bill, and Minnesota law required that the storekeeper notify the police that someone had used counterfeit money.
There are lots of questions as to why that was necessary. So we have to, again, dig more structurally, but not just say, ‘Oh, let’s take money from the police officers and give it to other institutions’. I think that’s an important part of the conversation, but there are even really minor seeming, but actually really important technical aspects of policing and all the other legal structures that surround it, that we have to investigate in order to make the type of change I think people want to see in the longterm.
Jordan: Well, I hope that we all have the energy, and will to commit to that conversation, rather than reaching for the nearest action that feels possible. Thank you so much, Monica, for talking to us today.
Monica: Happy to do so. Thank you.
Jordan: Monica Bell, associate professor of law and sociology at Yale. That was The Big Story. If you would like more head to the bigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter, tell us what you think, we are @thebigstoryfpn. If you need more than 280 characters, you can write us an email. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us in every podcast player that’s out there. If you find one and we’re not in it, that’s when you use the email address I just mentioned and tell us, we’ll be there. Thank you for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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