There has been a call to defund the police, which has triggered various responses. Some take issue with the choice of “defund” since it allows the folks on the right to create a plausible seeming straw person. A straw person is a fallacy in which a distorted or exaggerated version is put in place of the actual claim, argument, or position. The straw version is attacked, thus “refuting” the real version. This straw person is that everyone who calls for defunding the police is calling for the complete abolition of law enforcement. This is not true—while there is disagreement over the exact meaning of the term, the general view is that the police should have their funding reduced to fund chronically underfunded community services, such as mental health care. There are some who believe that this should eventually lead to abolishing the police as they now exist with the intention of addressing systematic problems in the current system of policing, such as excessive use of force, policing used as a means of revenue and other problems.
On the right the straw person often leads, as one would expect, to a slippery slope fallacy. This is a fallacy in which it is claimed that something (usually terrible) will inevitably follow from something else. The fallacy occurs when the connection between the two is not adequately supported. Slippery slope fallacies often involve hyperbole—extravagant exaggeration of the alleged consequences. In the case of defunding the police, the straw person slippery slope used by some on the right is that defunding the police will lead to utter chaos. This also involves the use of scare tactics—a fallacy in which the “support” offered for the claim is something intended to frighten the target. As would also be expected, there are often racist dog-whistles (or open racism) employed to craft these nightmare scenarios.
It could, of course, be argued that that there are radical anarchists who want to get rid of the state and there are people who do desire a world free of police so they can commit violence, assault and theft. It is certainly true that there are such people but to take them as defining what it means to defund the police would be like using the Westboro Baptist Church to define Christians or Neo-Nazis to define the Republican party. Consistency requires not using the most extreme members of the group to define the entire group—be they on the left or the right. While there are many excellent moral arguments for defunding the police, I will focus on a very practical moral argument involving effective use of community resources.
For a variety of reasons, the United States has seen a marked militarization of the police. Police training has also shifted, with a very lucrative industry arising that trains police to be warriors. This would make sense if the United States had been experiencing a significant rise in violent crime and criminals were commonly up-arming to military grade weapons. However, violent crime has been consistently decreasing over time. While criminals sometimes use assault rifles and there have been a few cases of them using body armor, most crimes are not committed with guns and the most common guns used are handguns. I do recognize the value of weapon superiority but the militarization of the police vastly exceeds the threat to a degree that is almost ludicrous. Also, SWAT teams exist for a reason—to handle those rare cases in which they are needed.
One problem with the combination of militarization and warrior training is that it creates a bias towards the use of force. One aspect of defunding the police involve demilitarizing them—making them less threatening to the public and, some hope, reducing the bias towards violence. There is also the obvious image problem: militarized police marching the streets of America, violently attacking protestors makes us look like a repressive authoritarian state. Or, as some would day, makes us a repressive authoritarian state. Another problem with a militarized warrior police is that they are equipped and trained for violence but dealing with violent crime is but a fraction of their job.
While cities in the United States vary in the time officers spend on various activities, addressing violent crime takes up about 4% of a typical shift. Over 30% of an officer’s time is spent responding to noncriminal calls. The rest of the time is spent on traffic, other crimes, property crime and proactive activity. Between 6 and 9% are medical calls. Even it is incorrectly assumed that the violent crimes call for a militarized warrior response, that means that only 4% of police activity is responsible for the huge cost of militarizing the police and maintaining a warrior force. As various incidents involving people with mental health issues, autism, and other medical matters the warrior police are generally poorly equipped and trained to address these matters—even if they have the best intentions.
From a utilitarian standpoint, the right thing to do is to use the community resources in a way that produces the best results. From a practical standpoint, the right thing to do is to use the community resources in a way that matches the need and to use the most effective methods, equipment, and training to address community problems. Since violent crime makes up such a tiny fraction of police work, it makes moral and practical sense to shift funding and change the way policing works in the United States to make it both more ethical and more rational in terms of resource use.
While this might seem like a crazy socialist notion to some or a utopian dream, some American communities have implemented such changes. An excellent example is the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon. The gist of this program is that medics and mental health counselors are sent to respond to appropriate 911 calls. Because the United States has an ever-growing problem with homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness there is a corresponding need for professional response. Starting with Reagan, the United States decided to dump many social and health issues onto the police; programs like CAHOOTS aim at reversing this. This program has proven successful and other cities are adopting similar programs. Defunding the police has been going on for 30 years in Oregon and is spreading. This is a good thing.
While having medical professionals respond to relevant calls would be a major improvement, this does not address the underlying problems. In many ways, it is rather like policing: controlling the symptoms of social ills while leaving the causes in place. Ethically and effectively defunding the police would require using resources to fix the social ills that require policing in all its forms. It would also, obviously, require radical political and economic changes to address poverty, homelessness, and such ills as the opioid epidemic that was inflicted by the pharmaceutical companies with governments as their accomplices. Defunding the police in an ethical and rational manner would make for a better America for most people—so it is the right thing to do.