The following article on Defunding the Police was originally published in USA Today.
Change is coming to American law enforcement. The protests across the country decrying police brutality, particularly in the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, have catalyzed a movement to address police use of force and systemic racism. In little more than a week, the House of Representatives has proposed a Justice in Policing Act, New York is poised to enact laws intended to reshape law enforcement, and Minnesota has launched a civil rights investigation into its police department’s actions. Across the country, city leaders and citizens are having conversations on what police reform looks like. This is clear evidence that peaceful protest can deliver real change.
Amid this progress, there are growing calls for defunding the police. While defunding the police is intended to force changes in police practices and redirect funds to community development, there is also an underlying element of retribution. The American public wants overdue adjudication for all the people killed, injured, abused and insulted by police, and seizing funding from departments has a certain appeal when we are as angry as we are today.
Nonetheless, removing federal, state and/or local funding from law enforcement will not achieve the change we want. In fact, it could make things worse.
Police can have strong positive impact
I am an African American. I grew up during the civil rights era, and I saw firsthand police abuses and brutality against people who looked like me. It is what motivated me to pursue a career in law enforcement, to be a part of the change I sought in the world. This career led me to city police forces in California, to the FBI and ultimately to serve as assistant chief at the Los Angeles World Airports police department. Across my years in law enforcement, I saw plenty of the bad qualities in the profession, but I saw something else as well — the positive impact police programs and outreach have in supporting safe, strong communities.
As to defunding the police, when police command staff are presented with a reduced budget, the decision-making is simple. They will not reduce expenses for personnel and equipment. They will cut the costs of the many programs police departments provide that are outside of day-to-day law enforcement. There are offerings like cadet and Explorer programs, which bring together young people and police in community service and personal development.
These are avenues for building the police department of tomorrow. I’ve had the honor of serving with and leading officers who came from the inner city in Los Angeles — Asian, Hispanic and African American men and women who, like me, wanted to give back by serving their communities with honor, dignity and respect. Those professionals sought to become police officers in part because of their participation in the programs offered by the department.
Other programs include things like the Police Athletic/Activities League, which engages young people and police officers through sports to give kids a positive outlet and create positive interactions between the community and police. I was a PAL kid growing up in New Jersey, and I helped create the current program in Santa Monica, California. PAL also includes programs for health and wellness for mothers or the elderly, for after-school activities, community block parties and much more.
If police departments see dramatic budget cuts, these are the kinds of programs that will end up on the chopping block. This means the public good law enforcement is delivering will go away. The communities that valued the programs will suffer, but an additional long-term consequence is that the demographics of the future American police force will not be representative of the public.
Preserve the good, root out the bad
If you are a black man and the only time you ever see police is when they are responding to a complaint or a crime, it cements a view of police as the outsiders, the heavy uncaring hand of the law. That does not encourage black people to explore careers in law enforcement, where their unique perspective, experiences and love of community would be so valuable to a peaceful, civil society — and change the departments in a way we would like.
To this end, budgetary changes that can impact the culture and actions of U.S. law enforcement should preserve and even expand programs and opportunities for police-community interactions that have nothing to do with arrest and prosecution. These initiatives do not require firearms, pepper spray or armored vehicles. They just require humanity and a commitment to public service.
As angry as we are at the systemic problems in American law enforcement, we must be careful to preserve what is good in the profession while rooting out all that is bad. Defunding the police will not help
Erroll G. Southers is a former FBI special agent, professor of the Practice in National & Homeland Security at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy, director of the USC Safe Communities Institute and director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies, and Team Member at TAL Global. Follow him on Twitter: @esouthersHVE
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