“Defund the police” has become a popular slogan, but what does it actually mean, and how might we be able to improve the criminal justice system?
Black Lives Matter protests around the world have seen the promotion of the phrase “defund the police”. Though there is some disagreement about what it really means, this piece will use the same definition as Black Lives Matter: reallocating funds for the police to “invest in programmes that actually keep us safe like youth services, mental health and social care, education, jobs and housing”. There are many entrenched societal problems that lead to crime, or that are dealt with by criminal prosecution, which would be better solved through services that directly target those issues. There is also the unavoidable historic role of the police as an institution used to discriminate against and oppress minorities, whether through institutional racism, specific laws, or other factors.
Institutional racism and the disproportionate targeting of young black men by the police is an issue that exists in the UK as well as the US. The mutual distrust between the police and particular communities is not conducive to effective or fair reduction of crime. Moving funds from policing to, for example, community services, or mental health services would redistribute funds both more equally in terms of minority communities generally being more underfunded, and more equally in the sense of practice areas. Policing and prosecution aspects of the criminal justice system tackle the symptoms, but not the disease. Where the disease may be societal inequality, education, domestic violence, or mental health, providing money for better services in these areas allows for better chances of actually dealing with the root causes of some crimes. The overuse of police to deal with societal problems exacerbates them, as policing and imprisonment has been suggested to lead to more violence in some cases. Whilst police officers do protect public order in some cases, in other cases they have the opposite effect. There is also a question of perspective: what is threatening to one group may not be threatening to another. We have seen this with instances of police brutality, and the disproportionate number of BAMER individuals arrested or subject to stop and search.
It is unrealistic and dangerous to rely on the police to solve all problems. Police officers see the final results in crimes, but they do not see anything that happened before that. Imprisonment is also a poor choice for dealing with societal issues in many cases. For example, someone who has overdosed on drugs would benefit more from immediate medical attention and long-term treatment than a police officer or prosecution. The same applies to mental health. Imprisonment is particularly dangerous to more vulnerable individuals, but with overreliance on policing and prosecution, these people are most likely to face sanctions. Moving funding from policing to services that directly deal with personal problems like drug addiction or mental health helps to eradicate these issues, remove stigma, and also remove the burden from the police, so that officers have more resources to deal with cases where they are truly required.
In reality, a more accurate word than just “defund” may be “redistribution” or “reallocation” of funds, but “defund the police” makes for a better campaign slogan. The police force would still exist, just with a more specific role, restricted to dangerous cases, or cases that would not be better served by other services. As important as it may be for the central government to be able to protect public security, the importance of local services cannot be underestimated. Community resilience means that community-based services are most likely to be tailored towards specific needs. Specialised public services are also likelier to be successful in tackling societal issues, both in terms of efficacy and trust, than just imposing criminal sanctions. In increasing funding to these services and organisations who deliver similar projects, we can get to the real causes of crime and societal threats.
At JAN Trust, we know the importance of services targeted to specific communities because this is what we do. We provide educational courses for marginalised individuals to improve their skillset to better reintegrate into society. We empower people to play active roles in their communities, and protect their loved ones from harms such as online extremism. Our Web Guardians™ programme educates women on online dangers and how they can protect their families, because we need to go beyond the final symptoms to cure a disease. We need to tackle the causes and problems as they appear. If you want to help us continue our work, please donate on our website.