The Question of Defunding Police

Readers weigh in.

a black and white photo of police officers in checkered hats
Scott Olson / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked readers for their thoughts on Joe Biden’s plan to hire 100,000 additional police officers and his explicit rejection of defunding the police.

Jack likes what he heard:

“Defunding the police” would be foolhardy and dangerous. Having a well-funded police force is, in many large cities in America, the bulwark against crime, violence, and mayhem. In addition, the police serve many valuable societal functions besides stemming crime. When I was a paramedic in a former life, it was the police who responded to and were responsible for securing every scene I was on. They performed welfare checks on citizens whose relatives were worried, maintained traffic safety and a whole host of other beneficial things. If someone is breaking into your house or menacing your family, who are you going to call—a social worker? A psychologist?

All that said, I am as appalled as anyone by the many instances of police violence against Black people and other minorities under the guise of enforcing the law or keeping the peace. A much larger share of their funding should go toward education, training and psychological testing and treatment. The police are a microcosm of our society both good and bad, and we all see the rage, hatred, and prejudice playing out every day across America and the world. Don’t defund the police—just fund the right parts of policing.

Pat explained her dislike of the cops:

I am no fan of the police. I do not recall a single time a police officer served me or protected me. My Black husband and I have been harassed and treated poorly by police more times than we can recall, so these are incidents that stand out in my memory:

We were driving in Chicago one snowy night when the sign “No Right Turn on Red Light 1–3 a.m.” was covered by snow. We made a right turn and then heard the siren and saw the lights behind us. We pulled over; a policeman told my husband he was under arrest. He asked what for. The cop replied that he had made an illegal turn. The two of them walked back to the intersection and saw that the sign was snow-covered. My husband protested, and the cop called for a paddy wagon. My husband was taken to jail.  

I followed in our car. When I entered the police station, I was greeted with, “Here’s your whore.” I asked what the charges were. They said, “None. He can go.” Another time we had gone to Cleveland for a football game. We were staying at a fine hotel. When we went downstairs to go to dinner, my husband realized he had forgotten his car keys. He told me to wait in the bar until he got back. A man at the bar told me to suck his dick like I did that n-——-. I told my husband when he returned, and he took a step toward the bar. The man twirled on his stool and punched my husband in the face. He didn’t stop there; he kept pummeling him. The bartender called the police and reported a “race riot in progress.” When the police arrived, the fight had moved to the lobby. The police told us we had to leave the hotel. Observers told the police the other guy had started the whole thing. The police left, telling the man to keep his fists to himself, but not that he needed to leave.

In Reno, we lived in a house across the street from a state policeman. His daughter and ours were the same age and played together until he came home one day and saw our daughter and his playing in his front yard. He had fits and forbade his daughter to have anything to do with ours. Several months later, police knocked on our door and said they received a notice that my husband was burglarizing the neighborhood. It was about 1 a.m. My husband had gone to the door in his bathrobe, followed by our dog. Our Porsche was in the driveway. He told the police that unless they could show him a warrant for a Black man in a bathrobe with a dog, driving a Porsche and burglarizing in Reno, he was going to file a complaint with the community-relations bureau. They left.

Finally, here in California my car was hit by another car being driven in an adjoining lane. I was driving. When the sheriff arrived at my window, his first question was, “Who was really driving?”

I once taught at a college which had a police academy. Until 3 years before I retired, there were no nonwhite male cadets, and I had some of those cadets in my classes. I have no hope that any of them are working to eradicate the racism that pervades many police departments. I say don’t fund the police: Fund mandatory personality profiles as a condition of hiring and intense diversity training after hiring until the racists are weeded out.

Josh would rather spend the money elsewhere:

My dad was a police officer from the late 1980s to 2019. My thoughts on policing have always been through the eyes of a son who worried about his dad when he left for work. On September 10, 2001, he was on his police motorbike when he was hit by a drunk driver and almost lost a leg. He later moved on to work in an affluent suburb. He ended his career a K9 officer.

The first few years of his career he spent walking a public-housing beat in an urban police department so strapped for cash that he had to purchase his own firearm. His fondest memories of policing came from that beat, where he knew the folks who sat on the stoop and hung out. If they were drinking alcohol, he would tell them to put it in a paper bag. He says that, once, a member of the community talked back to him, but before my dad could say anything, the person’s group told him to be nice to my dad because they knew him; they trusted him. Nowadays, I walk around D.C., where I live, or in Michigan, where I grew up, and if I see police, they are likely scrolling on their phones, sitting in their air-conditioned cars.

My dad had a degree in criminal science from Kent State. Nowadays, he believes departments lower employment standards to keep a full force, but that has negative consequences. He also constantly denied promotions offered to him, not wanting to be involved with the politics of police leadership and city government. Police spend so much time on conflict resolution and things that Americans can’t seem to do themselves. Cities without mental-health services rely on police to solve them. We have injected police into schools, leading to more arrests and detentions of juveniles, because schools are incapable of meeting students’ emotional needs. When someone steals food because they cannot afford to eat, we toss them in jail instead of getting them help. We ask the police to do so much. When I hear “defund” the police, I think about moving that money into the city services that could address the problems that police are unequipped (and I’d argue, unwilling) to handle.

My biggest issue with policing today is the cost of police misconduct. A FiveThirtyEight analysis shows that in the past 10 years, 3 billion dollars have been spent settling misconduct civil cases. Where does that money come from? Most often the city budget. Not the police budget, the city budget. If their expensive misconduct is subsidized by the very community they “protect and serve,” then what is the point of policing? We can hire all the cops we want, but will it really solve the most pressing issues? I say no, and a deeper investment in other civil projects would be of better use.

Jay thinks that the left undervalues the police:

I’m a liberal through and through, and something that I’m old enough to remember most liberal and nonliberals agreeing on was the primary need for incarceration, punishment, and removal from the streets of those who broke not just our laws but the public trust. The tremendous reduction in U.S. violent crime in the ’90s and ’00s provided the “luxury,” I would say, to tinker with this model—but rather than tinker, my fellow liberals and our progressive fellow travelers ridiculously overcorrected to the point where, especially in our larger cities, it’s now exceptionally easy to break a law and not get caught, or to get caught and not be punished in any way. We can see where this is leading, and the desirability of police work is plummeting as a result, with our safety alongside it.

“Root-cause analysis” is important, and should be left to those who know what they’re doing—not to activists. More important, the job of America’s district attorneys, police, and politicians is to catch and prosecute those who break the law—that’s it; end of story.

Alex defends the “defund the police” wing of the Black Lives Matter movement:

BLM doesn’t want a world with gang violence, crime, death, shootings, extortions, etc. They want a world where their fathers, their sons get to stay alive, get to stay as part of their family, get to live and thrive. They can’t do that in prison. BLM supporters view the actions of the police as the most targetable source of the murder and suffering they face on a daily basis. They see the “cure” as worse than the “condition” of the daily violence they live with, as so much overkill, the way white people might imagine the idea of calling in SWAT to break up a playground dispute between elementary schoolers.

Saul defends 1990s policing:

As a 75-year-old lifelong New Yorker who has seen this city in numerous permutations, at its nadir and best, I can say unequivocally that ’90s zero-tolerance policing was the best thing that ever happened here. Bill Bratton, Ray Kelly, and their ilk are needed, and the city would do its best to keep them cloned indefinitely. One felt safe mostly everywhere.

David shares conclusions that he came to while working in the legal system:

There are many situations that escalate due to citizens not understanding, or caring, how police are trained. In general, they are trained to escalate force quickly to gain control over potentially volatile situations. They are not trained to engage in negotiations with recalcitrant suspects to secure compliance. Thus, verbal commands give way to control holds; which give way to chemical agents, batons, Tasers; which give way to deadly force—and officers need not try every step along the way. They are legally entitled to use force that an objectively reasonable officer could have deemed necessary, if placed in the same position and judging from the position of the officer at the scene, not with 20/20 hindsight. The upshot is that the failure of a person with the physical capacity to threaten an officer’s safety to follow police commands can quickly lead to serious injury from a takedown, baton strikes, or worse. Police are trained to be very wary of potential threats, and the Second Amendment justifies their caution, given the prevalence of firearms in the citizenry. If a reasonable officer could have felt the need to use the same level of force as an officer who injured someone, then the injured person will have no legal recourse for their injuries and the officer will not face internal discipline.

It can be extremely difficult to hold police accountable for alleged misconduct in conservative jurisdictions where jurors (and judges) are more likely to side with police than injured suspects. Cellphones and body cameras may be leveling the playing field, but not all encounters are recorded. It is not always easy to find competent legal counsel willing and able to take on public entities on behalf of flawed clients. Most officers have civil-service protection and skilled legal representation in civil-service proceedings over proposed discipline, so departments cannot always discipline wayward officers.

But defunding the police is a terrible idea. Since when does paying people less improve their performance? While police reform is a slow process, most successful changes are incremental, not radical. Demoralizing the police is not a great way to motivate them to “protect and serve.” While they should do their jobs, if they are understaffed (lots of retirements) and resentful, they probably won’t do it effectively, as Portland and Seattle are finding out. To sum up, officers do need to be held more accountable for actual misconduct, and steps should be taken to try to eliminate officers covering for each other. However, the public (and the press) need to better understand what constitutes actionable police misconduct before sensationalizing every act of police violence, especially before all evidence is known. Fast coverage is rarely good coverage. Vilifying officers for lawful conduct creates a siege mentality, justifying their impulse to cover for each other.

Ben tried to reform the police in Seattle:

In 2018 I got involved with my local legislative district’s Democratic Party. Seattle was a community in upheaval. As our resident tech employers began to really grow, our economy and population was overwhelmed. Everything became ludicrously expensive, and the city, built for a simpler and less populous time, was in no position to absorb the shock.

Along with the boom came spikes in our homeless population, and our middle class got squeezed harder and harder. People working service jobs couldn’t afford to live near where they worked. Developers began putting in “communal living” buildings where impoverished young workers and students could eke out a life in tiny studios with shared kitchens and bathrooms. The chemical composition of meth changed during that time too, and those who struggled with drugs became more addled, faster. Crime spiked. Homelessness exploded. Our city was great, and it was suffering, all at the same time.

Against this backdrop, consider the Seattle Police Department. Despite Seattle’s reputation as a “liberal bastion,” its police department was a far cry from the “light on crime” reputation cities like ours carried. The department has had a long history of abusive practices and poor accountability. Eventually (well before George Floyd died), they entered a consent decree with the Justice Department. I got to see how that played out firsthand when a bank I worked at was subpoenaed by the department. The detective informed me that he needed the bank’s footage of an arrest because the consent decree required them to provide oversight over rough arrests. It was an illuminating conversation.

So the police had issues. But by the time I got into local politics, things were hitting a nadir. Policing was our city’s solution for seemingly every problem. With a budget of $400 million per year, police were asked to address every call related to homelessness (including loitering, and moving people who were just incredibly high and angry) and every domestic call; to record every vehicle break-in; and of course, to investigate every major crime.

Police morale was horrible. Their retention rate was (and continues to be) abysmal. Their reputation, and their relationship, with our community was extremely tense. Petty crime and major crimes were (and are) all up. Essentially, every possible stakeholder—the community, the police, and the government—were all miserable, and by every possible metric.

My congressional district was one of the most liberal and democratic in the country. Our representative in Congress is Pramila Jayapal, for reference. So after George Floyd died, I had thought that the time was ripe for us to finally make some changes. I argued that we ought to dissolve the SPD and create a new public-safety agency, which would report to the county executive instead of the city. We would not only leverage the larger resources of King County, but we would also invest way more in public safety—my initial estimate was in the ballpark of $200 million (the city’s budget was $6 billion at the time).

The new Public Safety Service would have multiple departments—one of which would be armed officers, whose job would be to respond to and investigate major crimes and unsafe situations. Other departments would include a mental-health-crisis response, a civil-service department (cleanup, homelessness issues, taking police reports for petty crimes), and a few others. Only the armed police would carry weapons, and they would be reserved for situations both that required an armed response and that they were trained for.

The idea didn’t come out of whole cloth. I grew up in New Jersey, and I was inspired by how Camden helped improve their public safety. By dissolving their police department and merging safety with the county, they got more resources (more police, not fewer) and they eliminated the excessive protections their local police union gave to misbehaving officers. Given where we lived, I thought that this idea would be received very enthusiastically, but as you can probably guess, my organization declined to start pushing the proposals. It never got in front of our elected representatives. The city’s leadership continued to argue about the issue along the margins. Very little had changed.

The partisan story we often tell about policing and crime doesn’t do us any service. Making things better will require a more holistic approach. Just as it is insufficient to be “tough on crime,” it is also not a fix if we “defund the police.” We need better, more proactive, and more accountable policing. We need more resources in the areas where our communities have the greatest need. And to do this, we will have to summon courage. A real fix will mean tough decisions, money spent, and constituencies angered. It’s hard, complicated, and risky. But the problem won’t go away if we ignore it. It’s time for us to start doing the hard work to help repair the communities we hold so dear.

Chadd wrote about racism in the criminal-justice system:

As a returned citizen felon, I have more than just some thoughts on crime and policing. I’m also a straight, cis, white male. And the reason I state that is just to put it out there that yes, 100 percent, without question, from what I’ve seen and my experience with the justice system, it is irrevocably broken, unfair, unjust, and absolutely without a doubt systemically racist in its application and outcomes. Throughout my late teens and early 20s, I developed quite an advanced addiction habit (I’m now seven years clean and grateful to talk about this stuff with a clear head). Without getting too detailed, I’ll just say it culminated in my arrest for multiple high-class felonies. If I’d taken it to trial, I would have been facing 28 years.

Obviously that isn’t what happened, and I’m thankful I was given an opportunity to prove I could function in society (and thanks to voters in Florida, now I can vote). But, after educating myself while I was in (I did two years), reading, learning more about government, drug policy, policing, and the war on drugs, I started to see wild ideas as not so wild anymore. My outcome was the result of absolute privilege, and I am willing to acknowledge how unfair and unjust the system is to so many people. It’s humbling to know that I could’ve effectively ended my young adult life had it not been for the color of my skin, the family and support system I have, where I was born, and how I look. It’s flat-out unfair, it perpetuates the same system that we have, and there’s no end in sight.

Melanie favors a different response to rising crime:

Crime is so high now because we didn’t institute some of the lessons learned in the 1990s. Boston pioneered youth-violence-prevention initiatives that focused on teaching conflict-resolution skills and minimizing social determinants of violence such as poverty, child abuse, unemployment, and mental-health and substance-abuse issues.

In the late 1990s, what has been called “the largest public health study you’ve never heard of” was published, giving researchers, public-health officials and everyone interested in fixing social problems a huge windfall—the Adverse Childhood Experiences study demonstrated that addiction, mental illness, poverty, employment struggles, suicide, and other problems all were directly related to child abuse, neglect, and trauma. And researchers had known how to prevent much child abuse and trauma for 20 years.

But we weren’t prepared to drop our focus on crime being fixed by policing. Preventing social problems by protecting children didn”t fit any partisan worldview, so it was easily neglected.

Now we have had another generation come of age without our society’s investment in preventing adverse childhood experiences. And they’re hurt and angry and had to live two years with the very few sources of stability and support in their lives interrupted by the pandemic. Now we even have clear proof that ACEs are directly tied to involvement in the criminal-justice system. And we’re still not talking about prevention. We”re not talking about preventing children from experiencing abuse, neglect, and trauma. We’re limiting our options to discussions of “Do we lock up the hurting? Or do we invest in expensive treatments to minimize the amount of damage they do to our society?” But we’re not talking about investing in prevention, the only humane choice. And in doing so, we’re setting the stage to have this same conversation in 20 more years.

Julie describes a negative change in policing:

For over 40 years, I was a social worker who specialized in the assessment and treatment of child abuse. This required me to work closely with law enforcement throughout the intermountain states.

In the past two decades, I saw a change in the attitudes, manners, and personalities of officers—not all of them, but many. This played out with displays of machismo, refusal to follow patient safety rules in the hospital, and unreasonable demands of personnel. When thwarted, they threatened. Some of the changes in attitude solidified after the Bush administration pushed military equipment to law enforcement, essentially militarizing police officers. I also think that the free-for-all gun ownership in this country has made it impossible for police officers to feel safe without military-grade protection and weapons. We need more police officers, but we need fewer of the macho type, using the job to prove their manhood. They need training in psychology and human behavior. They need to know how and when to de-escalate rather than exacerbate. And we need to get rid of all the guns out there that contribute daily to making all of us much less safe.

As always, thanks for all of your emails. I read each and every one. See you tomorrow.