Listen: Would Defunding the Police Make Us Safer?

Police departments have enormous budgets. Are we getting what we pay for?

City and state balance sheets are in serious trouble after the pandemic-induced economic slowdown. As local governments are making decisions about budget cuts, some protesters have a suggestion: defund the police.

The sociologist Alex Vitale, the author of The End of Policing, joins Atlantic staff writer James Hamblin and executive producer Katherine Wells to explain the research and nuance behind the idea, on the podcast Social Distance.

Listen to the episode here:

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: I’m just going to lay the groundwork for our conversation: About half of state revenues come from sales tax. And we know that, because of the pandemic and all of these closures, state revenues are way down. State and city governments typically have to have balanced budgets. They’re going to have to find a lot of stuff to cut. The thing that almost never gets cut in moments like these is police budgets. Police budgets are massive. A lot of these are proposed budgets, so just keep that in mind: The Oakland Police Department receives nearly half of the city’s discretionary spending. That is more than human services, parks and recreation, and transportation combined. Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, passed its budget in December, and it increased its budget for police by $10 million to a total of $193 million. Here’s what they’re spending on other things: $31 million for affordable housing; $250,000 for community organizations working with at-risk youth; $400,000 for the Office of Crime Prevention.

James Hamblin: I did not realize the disparities were that drastic.

Wells: In New York City, where we live, we have the biggest police budget in the country, and they are cutting the police department by 0.39 percent. The NYPD budget is $6 billion. Anyway, they’re cutting it by a tiny sliver, whereas the Department of Youth and Community Development, which funds after-school programs, literacy services, and summer youth-work programs, is losing 32 percent of its budget. This is all to say: Police get a ton of money, and their budgets aren’t really being cut very much across the country. So this is something I want to understand. I think Alex Vitale can help us do that.

Hamblin: How did you get into this work?

Alex Vitale: Well, 30 years ago, I was working at the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, doing primarily housing and economic-development policy. At that time, the city of San Francisco was ramping up its criminalization of homeless folks. What became clear to me pretty quickly was that the city had given up on the idea that they were going to actually house people and instead decided to turn the problem over to the police to manage. This was a real wake-up call to me about the relationship between policing and broader social-policy questions. Ever since then, I’ve been deeply skeptical about any situation where we come to rely on policing when there might be a better alternative.

Wells: You talk about how, over the decades, we’ve just put more and more issues on police to solve that used to be taken care of by other agencies or organizations. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Vitale: Over the last 40 years, we’ve seen policing extend into more and more areas of daily life, especially the lives of the poorest folks in our society. We’ve got this massive opioid crisis, and there’s still no real place in the United States that has medicalized drug treatment on demand. But every part of the country has policing on demand.

Hamblin: I think there is some analogy here of what’s happening in just the last couple of days with protesting and how much different places are trying to just kind of clamp down and impose extreme curfews and put more and more police out there and arrest more and more people. Ten thousand people have been arrested now in response to these protests versus more of a harm-reduction approach, which would be to help make protests as safe as possible.

Vitale: That’s right. In San Francisco, there was a zero-tolerance attitude about the curfew, and folks who were resisting it were immediately subjected to arrest and use of force. But in Oakland, across the Bay, the police took a very different attitude. Their view was, as long as the protests remain peaceful, we’re happy to just facilitate it. It’s not really a threat to public order if people are not breaking into things and committing acts of violence. So let’s try to preserve the peaceful character of this, rather than having it devolve into tear gas and street fighting.

Wells: Your book is called The End of Policing. What is its central argument, would you say?

Vitale: The central argument is that policing is an inherently problematic tool for the state. Policing is a tool of violence that has historically been used to facilitate gross inequalities and systems of exploitation like slavery, colonialism, the breaking of unions, and the suppression of workers’ rights movements. And so then to say that that tool is best suited to solve a broad range of community problems is misguided. And further, [the idea] that we can fix that problem with a series of superficial procedural reforms really misunderstands the nature of that institution and the missions that our elected officials have given to it.

Wells: What are these superficial procedural reforms that you’re talking about that haven’t worked?

Vitale: Minneapolis was really kind of a shining star. They adopted this whole set of recommendations that were included in President Obama’s task force on 21st-century policing. Things like implicit-bias training that assumes that the problems of race and policing in the United States are about unconscious, unintentional, individual, discretionary decision making by officers. I mean, this is just ludicrous. First of all, we have a problem of explicit racism in American policing. And also the decision to turn the problems of poor communities of color over to the police to manage inherently reproduces racially disparate outcomes and reproduces racial inequality in the United States.

Racism is baked into the institutional mission set by our political leaders, including President Obama. So this reform cannot possibly give us any relief. Neither can having police-community encounter sessions, which they did in Minneapolis. Or instituting accountability mechanisms that were largely procedural in nature: body cameras, new use-of-force policies, de-escalation training. There’s absolutely no empirical evidence that this makes any more than a superficial difference in the way policing is conducted.

Wells: So we’re in this time when the state and local budgets across the country are in trouble, and they’re having to cut things left and right. It seems like one thing that is not getting cut, in general, is police departments.

Vitale: That is true. So, in New York, they want to cut the Education Department by over $600 million. But the proposal for the police department is a cut of $23 million.

Wells: The police department’s [overall] budget is $6 billion?

Vitale: That’s correct. More than the Department of Health, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Youth Services, and the Department of Employment Services combined.

Hamblin: It’s larger than the World Health Organization.

Vitale: It’s larger than the GDP of 50 countries around the world.

Hamblin: There are demands about defunding police. That seems like a far cry from where we are. Are there concrete things that people are asking for?

Vitale: There’s kind of a continuum for understanding what “defund the police” means, and it doesn’t really mean that tomorrow the police budget is zero. There are actually dozens of campaigns that were underway before the events in Minneapolis that were calling for defunding policing, but [they] took the form of things like we want to halt new hiring, we want to get a handle on overtime, and we want to close down certain problematic programs, like the gang unit, and shift those resources into community needs.

So this is not about: Tomorrow, there are no police. There are folks, though, for whom defund the police is also about thinking about a bigger vision of a kind of world where we don’t rely so heavily on policing and prisons, and that comes out of the prison- and police-abolition movement that’s emerged over the last 20 or so years.

Hamblin: You describe trivial reforms like inherent-bias training where maybe people have to watch a YouTube video for 90 minutes and then they’re no longer racist. Would a department foreseeably be like, Well, we lost some money, so we’re gonna cut our implicit-bias training, and we’re gonna cut some other things, which you made us do before, and it actually doesn’t solve the problem?

Vitale: Cutting some of these training things would be a great place to start. And unfortunately, one of the things we’re going to see is, they’re going to ask for more training. They’re going to trot out the same idea that the problem is we don’t have enough money for training. We need more resources for policing, more professionalization. They’re going to want to increase police budgets.

The American Public Health Association about two years ago voted on a position that said that the way policing is conducted in the United States is a public-health problem—that police violence is a public-health problem, that 8 percent of all [male] homicides in the United States are committed by police and that the solution to this is not more training. It is reducing our reliance on policing.

Hamblin: So you think that there is no role for this sort of educational training program?

Vitale: Some of the research shows that officer behavior gets worse after these anti-bias trainings.

Hamblin: Like they resent it?

Vitale: Exactly. They resent it. And not unreasonably, because it’s ludicrous. They have absolutely no results to point to that say that, whether in a workplace or for police, the behavior gets better.

Wells: I’m going to ask you about counterarguments. There are examples of places that have made cuts to their police departments. For example, several cities after the 2008 recession. It doesn’t necessarily seem like public safety was all of a sudden fixed. Minneapolis, you’re saying, has done a lot of these programs that you’re saying are ineffective, but it also funds public works more than it does police. It seems like even their budget might be in the direction of the distribution you’re talking about. So we know that funding [police] doesn’t work. But how do we know that defunding them would work?

Vitale: First of all, Minneapolis does spend a huge amount of its budget [on policing]. When you combine policing and jail services, it’s over half the municipal budget. So it is a huge expenditure. The other thing is that just defunding the police by itself is almost never what people are calling for. What they’re calling for is a redistribution of resources, because communities do have problems. They have problems of violence. They have problems of disorder. They need help, but they don’t need help from the police in many of these cases. So it’s got to be about redistribution, not just defunding. It needs to be targeted and specific.

Wells: Are there any examples where defunding the police works? How do we imagine what a less policed country looks like?

Vitale: Portugal has decriminalized all drugs, largely removing police from the drug business, and it has been a success. Even the Portuguese police travel around the world trying to convince other people to do this. They’ve turned it over to public-health services. HIV-infection rates have fallen, overdoses have fallen, and civilization has not collapsed.

Hamblin: You’re talking about a reconceptualization of how we operate as a society. How, in this moment, do we use some of the principles that you have studied and argued for to break out of that escalation of ramping up more and more force to handle more and more protests?

Vitale: That decision to turn it into a policing problem is a kind of political failure. We have to call that out. We have to say that these curfews, these zero-tolerance policing postures, are about politicians trying to avoid responsibility for fixing this problem. That means that we have to shift some of the discourse from a conversation about police accountability to a conversation about political accountability. I often say actually about [The End Of Police] that in many ways, I think it’s a book that’s more about political accountability than it is [about] police accountability.