As I write, the current demonstrations against police violence have produced one good slogan: Defund the Police. Is this something we really want to do? About 64% of Americans own houses. When we need police help and call them, do we want them to not come because of a lack of personnel, equipment, or communications? Slogans don’t make good public policy, and are rarely efficacious. They can rile people up in call and response.
The alternative to policing is anarchy and chaos. As a people, we are not good at self-regulation. Do we want to surrender to vigilantes, private security forces, bodyguards, high walls, high noon, “stand your ground,” and Second Amendment advocates who claim to be standing between us and tyranny but who are advocates for their liberty and freedom only? I can imagine classic strategic planning for police, with substantial community input, to decide what to prioritize, what to stop doing, and what to do more of. And classic organizational development, to deal with the organizational culture problem obviously present in too many police departments of the supervisory chain of command losing control of the blue suits, or never establishing control over them in the first place. And classic human resources efforts, to hire the right people—ones without authoritarian traits, high control needs, or racism, and with cultural competency and thoughtful, Constitutionally based responses.
Defunding police also opens the door to problems like those experienced in Indian Country—too much land patrolled by too few police, with resulting horrors of domestic violence, women disappearing, etc. But no one when crafting a slogan says, “Improve the Police,” or “Get Rid of the Bad Apples” or “More Community Policing.” Some slogans from past demonstrations made sense and may have had some good effect, like “I Am A Man” and “End the Bombing,” and “Bring the Boys Home Now.” When we’re faced with a totally evil enemy and have overwhelming force, a slogan like “Unconditional Surrender” from World War II can be useful as a statement of public policy. But defund the police? An essential service? Like defunding the water department, the electric utility, or the trash collectors? Heck, we get the whim whams when our Internet connection goes down.
“Defund the Police” is as bad a slogan as the “War on Drugs” or the “War on Poverty.” It’s an invitation to failure. And that failure can be very big, like the way the War on Drugs led to mass incarceration of African-American men. I can imagine that the role of police can be constricted, for example if many more community mental health services were provided, if social workers dealt with the homeless, if the police were not wasted on parking and left turn violations, and if much stronger gun control laws were in effect. But to defund the police before such social supports are in place?
We may not like the idea that the police are in the social control business, but until we can control ourselves as a society, a people, and a community, the alternatives are lacking. We live in fear today, afraid to point out violations of the social contract, in part because we’re afraid that the person who needs to be confronted will pull out a gun and shoot us. If we don’t want to carry our own guns and face down malefactors, we need the police to go in harm’s way for us. So let’s defund bad police, bad polices, and bad practices, but not become vigilantes and posses. We don’t want Judge Roy Bean, the Hanging Judge West of the Pecos. We want rule of law, due process, fairness of procedure, equity and nondiscrimination.