“Defunding” versus “reprioritizing” the police: language matters by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The peaceful protests continue amidst emerging proposals for policy change, but will  they amount to anything? Longtime Boston leader and community activist Hubie Jones, in his unpublished book Black in Boston: A Lover’s Quarrel, came to understand the dynamics of race demonstrations in the confrontations and riots of 1967 and 1978. Usually, he says, they end “within a few weeks, four weeks tops, although the cruel consequences linger on.”  Pent up rage masks a kind of euphoria at having “the oppressors on the run.” There follows an awakening to the physical and emotional costs of the community. Then comes a “window of quasi-attention given by white elites, with the power to forge constructive economic and social changes.” But typically, despite “verbal pseudo commitments and some investments” that “make some people believe that the window is still open,” things go on as they were. Still, today, Jones takes heart from the fact that today’s outpourings are multi-racial. He is optimistic that we are at an inflection point.

So, too, is Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the powerful Between the World and Me, an open letter to his then-14-year-0ld son about the perils of growing up a black man. The book is an anguished exploration of how racial discrimination defines life’s experiences for blacks.  They face physical peril in urban streets and open hostility from those in comfortable suburbs who often have been oblivious to how their own white privilege oppresses their black neighbors.  Yet today, Coates sees hope in how the George Floyd murder and other police violence are resonating in communities like Des Moines, Iowa and Salt Lake City and other white communities around the world. He finds reason for optimism in multi-ethnic solidarity and an apparent newfound understanding by whites of the war that has been waged on African-Americans since slavery.

So how does this heightened awareness translate into meaningful societal change? From municipalities to the halls of Congress, consensus grows for serious police reform as a first step. Senator Cory Booker has filed a bill to outlaw choke holds, make it easier for victims to file civil suits against police officers, curb abuses of no-knock forced entry in drug cases, require body cameras, give subpoena power to the Justice Department to investigate patterns of police abuses of power and limit the transfer of heavy duty military equipment to local police departments. The bill also proposes making lynching a federal hate crime, a provision blocked last week by Senator Rand Paul. These may seem like no-brainers, but, in a world where you can’t even get Senate support for an anti-lynching bill, the Booker et al bill’s prospects in a Mitch McConnell-controlled Senate are dim at best.

Real reforms are also being proposed at the local level, where police unions have long ruled the day, too often allowing locally bargained contracts to limit municipalities’ ability to discipline out-of-control officers. There are many moves underway to reallocate funds from police budgets to human service and community agencies better trained to deal with mental health, drug addiction, homelessness and other human service problems. Diverting money from these challenges, all of which have been dumped on the police, could engage other specialized professionals using their competencies to stop crimes before they happen.

Reform advocates and the news media shouldn’t be sucked into using the inflammatory rhetoric of some calling for “defunding police” or “dismantling police,”  which inaccurately distorts the positions of those on the front lines actually dealing with these issues. They talk about public safety resource reallocation and reorganization. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, speaks of “rebalancing funding to address systemic disparities” and “working with the police” to make change happen.

Using nuanced verbiage does not mean selling out the goals of societal change. Using incendiary language will make effecting needed change that much more difficult. Recently, the news media shouted how the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to defund the police department. The headline read “dismantle the police force.”  This is not accurate. What the Council intends is to construct an alternative public safety system, which will entail reallocating some monies from the Minneapolis Police Department to services better provided by mental health, drug addiction and homelessness experts. The first steps were taken in a budget review well before the protests. The Council examined 911 calls to understand callers’ needs, and it shifted from some funds from armed police functions to mental health, EMT and fire services. Broader reform must also entail a comprehensive review and reshaping of the police use of deadly force.

The Mayor of Minneapolis was recently booed off a stage for refusing to support “disbanding” or “defunding” the police.  He and his audience fell into the language trap. Despite extreme headlines, Lisa Bender, head of the Minneapolis City Council speaks of a “new model of public safety that makes our community safe”  and dismantling the police system “as we know it.”  In recent interviews, she has made clear that it could take up to a year of community input to fashion an alternative approach to policing.

President Trump, meanwhile, wants to frame these issues to deepen our societal divide. Trying to distract and mislead, his tweets have started.  Lazy headlines about abolishing the police, defunding or dismantling the police, will play directly into his strategy of trying to frighten the suburban moms whose votes he will need to be reelected.

President Obama’s task force on 21st century policing was finished in 2015. It made recommendations for police training, oversight, crime reduction, building trust, police safety and well-being, and more. There are 18,000 police departments in the United States, and a year after the report’s release,  just nine states and cities had adopted its recommendations.  During the Trump administration, the effort has not been pushed. Given centuries of hardened attitudes and police opposition to change in Minnesota and elsewhere, the challenge is Herculean.  But just because it is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.  Now is the time to seize the moment and make the changes necessary to restore public trust in law enforcement agencies and enhance community safety at the same time.

One Response to “Defunding” versus “reprioritizing” the police: language matters by Marjorie Arons-Barron

  1. Dave Daniel says:

    Thanks for a reasoned and well-articulated look at a subject which is on many minds these days (certainly mine). The hope is we can work through the issues of criminal justice and policing reform in a way that brings constituencies together rather than drives them further apart.