In the wake of George Floyd’s death, calls to defund the police have been echoed by tens of thousands of passionate protestors worldwide. Outrage over civilian deaths at the hands of police has sparked a global movement against police killings, with Black Lives Matter at the helm. One of the movement’s most prominent initiatives is the defunding and dismantling of policing as we know it, to which the city of Minneapolis has already chosen to oblige.
Is Slashing the Police Budget the Best Way to Save Lives?
The push to defund the police is part of a greater plan to redirect funds towards helpful community investments. Healthcare, housing, education, and increased job opportunity are all high on the list of community improvements intended to nurture well-being, and decrease crime in the long run.
An aspect of this approach that has gained some traction is the notion of alternative first responder services. This would involve the replacement of police by civilian professionals in situations where violent behaviour is not a factor, thereby reducing the likelihood of confrontation and death.
It has become apparent that police have taken on responsibilities that could be more effectively handled by civilian professionals. There are certainly cases that would benefit from a social worker or psychologist as first response rather than police officer. However, these are importantly not the same cases in which we are seeing fatal police shootings.
Over the past year, the US saw 999 civilians die from police shootings. Of these, 83.2% were armed with a gun, knife, or other weapon, 6.4% were in control of a vehicle, 2.9% were carrying a toy/fake weapon, 5.5% were unarmed, and 2% were unknown in that it was not documented whether they were armed or not.
To use paramedics as a reference, the only situation in which the dispatch of a civilian first responder is appropriate is that in which there is no significant threat to the responder. The people involved must be unarmed and not exhibiting aggressive behaviour. Applying this to the data above, and assuming that every victim who was unarmed was also behaving in a non-threatening manner, it could be argued that civilian responders may have handled these unarmed cases (5.5% of all fatal arrests) more effectively than police.
However, the fact remains that 83.2% of these victims were armed with a gun, knife, or other weapon, at their time of death. As a matter of occupational safety, the dispatch of civilian first responders would not be suitable for such cases. And given that these high-risk cases constitute the vast majority of all fatal police shootings, it is clear that police cannot be merely replaced by civilian responders in an attempt to address the issue of fatal arrests. These cases demand police attention as they are simply too dangerous for civilian response. Thus the implementation of civilian first responders does not directly address the issue of fatal arrests in any significant way.
Since we require the police to handle dangerous situations with weapons in play, the most obvious way to reduce the number of fatal arrests is to increase police training. A higher level of expertise equates to less force required per arrest, which leads to fewer deaths. How many of these 999 fatal police shootings could have been prevented if not for the insufficient training provided to these officers?
The answer may lie with the Norwegian police force: In Norway, policing is considered an elite profession. In 2015, only 14% of all applicants were accepted into police schools. Once admitted, student officers must complete a three year bachelor’s degree, where one year is spent studying society and ethics, the second shadowing experienced officers, and the final working on investigations while completing a thesis. Compare this to the 21 week onsite training undertaken by officers in the US and then consider the fact that in the year of 2019, Norwegian police killed zero civilians. Admittedly, the US is not Norway. There are several key differences that make this a less than fair comparison. However, the fact that not a single person died at the hands of Norwegian police last year suggests a compelling case for extensive and thorough police training.
Overall, a total makeover of police training in the US will not come cheap. If it is to look anything like the Norwegian training regime, it will require a major redirection of funds, and likely further investment in the police budget. However this seems a small price to pay when considering the many lives that could surely be saved by an expertly trained police force.
Training is not the only obstacle standing in the way of US policing potential. In order to become an elite force, policing must attract elite candidates. Here lies another important reason why chanting “Defund the Police!” and slashing budgets is counterproductive: It shatters public trust in the police force, and stigmatises the role of police officer. How many capable candidates with other options would consider becoming an officer in today’s social climate? My guess is not many. Instead, police departments will likely be left with bottom of the barrel candidates, desperate for any kind of employment.
However the truly terrible consequence of police vilification is its immediate effect on the community. When the police are demonised, the crime rate skyrockets. This was clearly demonstrated by the increase in homicide rates following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown, an unarmed 18 year old black man, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department. The shooting immediately sparked what is now known as the Ferguson Unrest, involving protests and riots in Ferguson as well as wide spread heated debate on the issue of racism among the police. In the year following the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, FBI figures recorded a 10.8% increase in murders nationwide. This effect was even greater in certain big cities, averaging an increase in homicide of 16% over the 43 cities recorded.
The city of Chicago in 2016 appeared to suffer the most, experiencing a close to 60% increase in homicide in the wake of the Ferguson shooting. There is some disagreement around the exact cause of this increase in crime, but most put it down to two factors:
- A hesitation on the side of the police to perform their duties as thoroughly as they otherwise might.
- A hesitation on the side of the public to contact the police in the case of an emergency.
This increase in crime in response to police vilification is often referred to as The Ferguson Effect. I shudder to imagine the extent of the upcoming Ferguson Effect in response to recent events. In 2018 an estimated 1,206,836 violent crimes occurred nationwide. How high will this figure reach in the wake of recent police vilification? Community investment and other preventative measures can help reduce that number, but they should not come at the cost of other essential services. Community investment and police funding are not mutually exclusive. We need the police at their best. Lives depend on it.