Unbundle the Police

American policing is a gnarl of overlapping services that should be demilitarized and disentangled.

A police officer walking past people lying on the street.
Leonard Freed / Magnum

As anti-police protests sweep across the country and the world, many people seeing signs, Instagram posts, and articles proclaiming Defund the Police have the same reaction: Yes! Followed swiftly by: So, how exactly does that work?

Fair question. The U.S. is an unusually violent country with more guns than citizens. Entirely defunding, or abolishing, police departments tomorrow would not abolish that violence or vaporize the guns that accompany so much of it.

But here’s one way to frame the challenge before the #Defund movement: Unbundle the police.

The #Unbundle concept, first coined by the music entrepreneur Trevor McFedries, is best thought of not as an alternative to defunding but as a kind of framework to see how bloated modern police work has become—and how a bit of disentangling could make cities safer places for everyone.

When people think about the police, they might imagine a group of law-enforcement officers whose only job is to do the sort of stuff you see in cop shows, such as investigate murders and chase down meanies who steal Grandma’s purse on the street. But police work is a bundle of services, and much of it has little to do with the violent crime that shows up on television.

Every year, 50 million Americans come into contact with the police at least once, according to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. About half of them are pulled over in a car that they're driving (19 million), or in which they are a passenger (6 million). Another 8 million are involved in a car accident. Nine million more said that they called the police about a non-crime. Among the most common reasons for those calls? More traffic accidents.

Statistically speaking, then, most police interaction with civilians involves driving around in cars talking to other people driving around in cars. Such a job has no obvious requirement that officers bedeck themselves in cutting-edge weaponry, which inevitably leads to gratuitous violence.

Many local governments make the situation even worse by forcing cops to double as tax agents. A Police Executive Research Forum report on St. Louis law enforcement found that local governments within the county were using police to “plug revenue gaps” by running up the number of traffic citations, which coincided with many low-level arrests. As one St. Louis County resident told the report’s authors: “It’s no secret that a lot of these municipal police officers are only supposed to be revenue drivers for their cities.”

The roles of warrior cop, traffic patroller, and tax collector are bound up in a way that practically guarantees a large number of violent encounters between armed police and civilians. The United States has about 40 percent more police officers per capita than England or Australia, but adjusted for population, U.S. law enforcement kills 20 to 100 times more people.

The obvious solution: Unbundle this unholy mess. Local governments should make themselves less dependent on traffic citations, which would automatically reduce the number of potentially dangerous interactions between scared civilians and heavily armed officers. Next, carve out a separate job category for pure traffic patrollers. The economist Alex Tabarrok (a police-unbundling advocate) points to Highways England, which employs British traffic officers—distinct from law enforcement—who drive around in black and yellow livery, surveilling the streets.

Police are also forced to be ersatz social workers. Several studies indicate that 10 to 20 percent of all U.S. police encounters with the public involve people showing signs of mental illness or alcoholism, and one in four people with mental disorders has reportedly been arrested. Crisis-intervention training for cops is more common than it once was, but stories abound of the police shooting and killing schizophrenic or mentally disabled people.

Finally, police serve as “frontline workers for urban homelessness,” says Michael Lens, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA. “A person who is unhoused interacts constantly with the police. But officers aren’t adequately trained to deal with the issues that those people are dealing with.” Cash-strapped cities should spend money on homelessness directly, rather than funding a police unit whose seventh job is homelessness intervention.

The roles of cop and counselor are hopelessly intertwined. Once again: Unbundle it. Some cities are already doing so. In Austin, Texas, 911 operators redirect callers to one of several departments, including police, fire, and a mental-health service that recently saw its budget increase by millions of dollars. The celebrated CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, dispatches medics and mental-health counselors to homeless people or others in distress. Both of these services solve a paradox of modern policing, which is that police are highly trained to be warriors at a time of historically low crime but undertrained to be mental-health interventionists at a time when our streets need just that.

“Two questions that could guide the reform movement are ‘What is it that police actually do?’ and ‘Why do we need armed police to do it?’” says Patrick Sharkey, a Princeton sociologist. Sharkey is no police-hating radical. He has worked with commissioners across the country, and his research has shown that targeted policing can be effective in reducing crime, especially in the most violent neighborhoods. But he thinks communities ought to experiment with alternative models to policing. “Police presence can reduce violence, but there are lots of other things that reduce violence, too. Business improvement districts reduce violence. University security organizations reduce violence. It’s possible that relying on police isn’t as necessary as we once thought, and that we might even have safer communities without many of them.”

Disentangling police services alone will not suffice to end police brutality. We also need behavioral reform such as de-escalation training; and legal reforms such as an end to qualified-immunity laws, which shield departments’ “bad apples” from appropriate punishment. The criminalization of drugs drives too many bloody encounters between police officers and citizens, like the tragic shooting of Breonna Taylor. But legal overkill goes beyond drug laws. From 2006 to 2016, bans on sitting, lying down, and camping on city property increased by 52 percent; prohibitions on “loitering” and “loafing” rose by 88 percent; and laws against living in vehicles rose 143 percent. We have too many laws for civilians, and too few laws for police.

That said, if cities move forward with unbundling their police forces, they might realize that some entanglement makes sense. They might discover, for instance, that it still makes sense to have a standing fleet of cops on the road for efficient dispatching, and that such a fleet might as well be used to intervene during major traffic violations. What’s more, state and local governments may be entering a period of austerity that precludes shifting spending toward the sort of community investments that make cities safer and less violent. In a cash-strapped environment, a bit of social-service bundling is simply inevitable.

The #Unbundle frame has already drawn both ridicule and praise from the reform community online. To some, it is just obfuscating tech-bro sloganeering. But the proposal forces law-enforcement critics to be literal and exact about the disentanglements to come. It focuses the conversation on the right questions: What is it that police should actually do? and Why do we need armed police to do it? Modern law enforcement has become a gnarl of unnecessary violence and heavily armed street counseling. We may discover a better world in its unwinding.