The idea of defunding the police is roiling Democratic Party politics — but it’s not about that. It’s about the horrors of policing.
In recent weeks, mainstream political discussions around the notion of “defunding the police” have taken a pernicious, if predictable turn. The so-called debate is no longer focused on the violent facts of U.S. policing. Instead, this ongoing news story has become, first and foremost, a narrative about the Democratic Party and its divisions. Such is the nature of the media-politics machine: A demand situated in a fight for life and liberation has been transmogrified into a realpolitik hot button — replete with polls, right-wing fearmongering, questions of electability, and calls for less “divisive” rhetoric.
Pushed to the background, meanwhile, is the unending flood of reports and revelations that again and again show policing to be an institution worthy of abolition. Just this month, two such stories came from Louisville, Kentucky, where 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed by police in March during a botched raid. Louisville Metro Police, the same department to which Taylor’s killers belonged, was found to have hidden from the public a staggering 738,000 records documenting sexual abuse of minors by two officers — concealment that was aided by the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office. The records related to the abuse of youths in the “Explorer Scouts” program, created for young people interested in law enforcement careers.
The Louisville examples might not make for an airtight case for abolition, but they makes a case nonetheless.
And just two weeks ago, a woman filed a sexual assault lawsuit against former Louisville detective Brett Hankison, one of the cops directly involved in Taylor’s death. The lawsuit claims that Hankison has a history of using his authority as a police officer to prey on women.
The wanton killing of a young Black woman involving a cop with an alleged history of predation, alongside the coverup of a major case of child sexual abuse — all recent events from just one department in one U.S. city. As is typical, funding for the policing operations will constitute the largest expenditure of Louisville’s 2020 city budget: $190.6 million out of $613 million.
Highlighting recent abuses committed by this one police department, which takes nearly a third of a city’s budget, does not dispositively prove the need for police abolition, let alone defunding. Reformists could well respond that oversight and training, or more drastic reforms, are the appropriate solutions. Following Taylor’s killing, and the potent anti-racist uprisings it helped catalyze, a number of such reforms were instituted, including an end to no-knock warrants. And news of the sexual abuse records coverup has brought reliable calls for accountability from local politicians.
Yet the Louisville cases highlight the problems of a violent and unaccountable law enforcement apparatus; problems which are so widespread and historic that they point to an unreformable institution. As abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba put it, “When you see a police officer pressing his knee into a black man’s neck until he dies, that’s the logical result of policing in America. When a police officer brutalizes a black person, he is doing what he sees as his job.” The Louisville examples might not make for an airtight case for abolition, but they makes a case nonetheless — a case that can be made almost anywhere police are found across the country.
Incident after incident might not convince a skittish liberal of the need to go beyond reform and toward abolition, but it should be sufficient to show that police defunding is a reasonable demand. The argument that police presence in communities is a source of harm should not be considered controversial.
Sexual assault committed by cops is not rare. A 2015 data investigation by the Buffalo News found that a police officer in the U.S. is accused of an act of sexual misconduct on average every five days. It’s an insult to survivors to suggest that police are a protection from rape and sexual violence.
Meanwhile, police lying in official reports and in court — perjury, that is — is so common that it has earned its own neologism: “testilying.”
It is an affront to Black and Indigenous lives, as well as the lives of other communities of color, to treat police racism as anomalous, or even endemic but curable within the existing justice system. A fantastical failure of empirical thinking is involved in claiming that an institution, which has always operated to uphold the hierarchies and brutalities of racial capitalism, can somehow be maintained while disentangled from that role.
There’s every reason for skepticism over claims that reform and oversight are ways to end the harm of policing; a century of attempted reforms have had no such effect. In another recent news story, newly released reports show that the New York Police Department consistently ignored and rejected recommendations from the Civilian Complaint Review Board on punishments for police misconduct. The board is an independent oversight agency, established in 1993 to address complaints about police impunity — which has continued apace regardless. “In about 71 percent of 6,900 serious misconduct charges, the Police Department reduced or rejected recommendations for stiff discipline of officers,” the New York Times reported, based on data from the last two decades.
In a related, and also recently reported, incident, four senior officials were fired from the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Fellow employees claimed that the officials were known for pushing a more aggressive stance toward the police.
Police abuses could only emerge within certain conditions: an impunity-drenched culture and history of dehumanizing Black life.
The risk in drawing attention to cases of extreme police violence and duplicity is that police apologists can dismiss these brutalities as anomalous in the grand scheme of police work, even when they number in the thousands per year. But such abuses could only emerge within certain conditions: an impunity-drenched culture and history of dehumanizing Black life. These anti-abolitionist arguments tacitly treat as acceptable the normal activities of policing that have little to do with catching “bad guys” and everything to do with protecting capital while criminalizing poverty and Blackness.
It may be the case that campaigns to reduce or remove police funding do better with voters when “defund the police” rhetoric is avoided, in favor of calls to invest instead in other social services. Ballot Measure J in Los Angeles County, which requires 10 percent of the city’s unrestricted general funds be invested in social services and alternatives to incarceration, not prisons and policing, was successful on the election ballot, and commentators have credited the success in part to campaigners avoiding the word “defund.”
It is also the case that only a vanishingly small number of politicians, on both the local and national level, are seriously pushing for defunding within an abolitionist framework.
Yet these dynamics need not determine the terms of the debate. Indeed, calls to abolish the entire policing and carceral system should not be reduced to a Democratic Party “debate” at all. With new, vile chapters, like the latest from Louisville, added every week to policing’s unbroken history of racist, patriarchal violence, those calling for abolition should no longer have to demonstrate the basic grounds for this fight.