Demonstrations against police brutality and mistreatment of minority communities is nudging Americans toward agreement that law enforcement needs to change. What change means, however, ranges from proposals for reform to calls to "defund" police agencies and advocacy of outright abolition of traditional policing. How that discussion will shake out is unclear, but in a country as diverse as the U.S., there's no reason why the same approach to protecting life, liberty, and property has to be adopted everywhere.
Minneapolis, where George Floyd died under the knee of former police officer Derek Chauvin, now has a city council majority that wants to "begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department." Except that what they mean by "ending" so far looks like banning a few controversial practices, such as chokeholds, and opposing the hiring of new officers.
At least for Minneapolis, "ending the police" looks more like "defunding the police," a vague slogan that generally shakes out as reduced police budgets, with resources reallocated to programs like education, social services, and housing. The assumption is that improved living conditions and greater availability of services, such as treatment for mental illness, will reduce crime. Advocates of the approach recognize that armed responders who default to the use of force just aren't good at resolving a lot of the situations they encounter—something many officers themselves concede.
"What do you think cops deal with on a daily basis? Drug addiction. Alcoholism. Mental illness. Crushing poverty. Family problems and dead bodies. Lots of poor judgement," writes Greg Ellifritz, a police officer in central Ohio who also trains law enforcement officers and the public. "In reality, arrests seldom really solve any problems. But it takes 15 or 20 years of arresting people before a cop realizes that fact."
"Defunding" police could mean unbundling some of what officers now do so that it can be taken on by others better suited to the role.
"Don't use a hammer if you don't need to pound a nail. Road safety does not require a hammer," economist Alex Tabarrok recommends. "The responsibility for handing out speeding tickets and citations should be handled by a unarmed agency… Similarly, the police have no expertise in dealing with the mentally ill or with the homeless—jobs like that should be farmed out to other agencies."
That's not to say that actual abolition of policing doesn't have fans.
"We have [millions of] low-level arrests in the United States every year and most of them are completely pointless," says Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale, the author of The End of Policing and an advocate of legalizing victimless activities and replacing much law enforcement with social services. Yes, there are real crimes against people and property, Vitale concedes, but "the reality is a lot of people just don't call the police as it is because they feel like it's just going to make their lives worse."
Calling the police can be frustrating even when it's not dangerous. After burglars climbed the fire escape to my New York City apartment and mugged my roommate at knife point many years ago, we called the cops. Officers took a report, advised us to put a gate on the window, and were never heard from again.
That's not unusual. For 2018, the FBI reports the percent of crimes cleared by arrest or "exceptional means," including the death of the offender, as 62.5 percent for murder and non-negligent manslaughter and 52.5 percent for aggravated assault. After that, rates fall off the cliff, with 33.4 percent for rape, 30.4 percent for robbery, 18.9 percent for larceny-theft, 13.9 percent for burglary, and 13.8 percent for motor-vehicle theft. Overall, says the FBI, "45.5 percent of violent crimes and 17.6 percent of property crimes were cleared."
Police may be deterring crimes that would otherwise occur, but the data raises questions about their effectiveness. Those questions are then amplified by serious concerns about brutality and disparate treatment of minority communities.
Still, not every advocate of change favors abolishing or defunding police.
"Protection of life, safety, and property is a legitimate function of government," writes David Bernstein, a professor of law at George Mason University. "There are plenty of police reforms that could be enacted from a libertarian perspective that would improve matters."
Bernstein favors stripping police of the qualified immunity that makes it so hard to hold them accountable for abuses, dis-empowering police unions that harbor misbehaving cops, and banning no-knock raids. Bernstein also wants to reduce encounters between police and civilians by ending the criminalization of victimless activities, such as drug use, and reducing the number of regulations and taxes that drive people to black markets.
Ilya Somin, also a law professor at George Mason University, agrees with Bernstein about curbing qualified immunity and drug prohibition, calls for reform of civil asset forfeiture, and adds, "we can also reduce police abuse and improve relations between law enforcement and minority communities by curbing the widespread practice of racial profiling. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that some 59% of black men and 31% of black women say they have been unfairly stopped by police because of their race."
Such moderate approaches are likely to be an easier sell than defunding or abolition in communities that have relatively good relations with police. They'll probably opt to retain traditional police departments, though (hopefully) with improved accountability and better protection for civil liberties.
But other communities have hostile relations with law enforcement agencies. For them, police departments are tools of social control that maintain government power, punish consensual behavior, impede economic advancement, and only occasionally protect people and property.
Police also infantilize people, acting as the go-to complaint department for every curtain-twitcher who objects to a neighbor's choice of music or fears the appearance of a stranger on the street. Their existence provides an often-dangerous alternative to conflict-resolution skills. It also enables a host of intrusive laws and taxes that would be unworkable in the absence of an army of enforcers.
Such concerns could spur deeper changes to policing that empower individuals and communities. That should mean greater respect for self-defense rights so individuals can better take responsibility for their own safety and protect their neighbors. It could mean neighborhood patrols such as those that took up the role of keeping the peace when Minneapolis police were overwhelmed by protests. It also points to private alternatives hired by individuals and businesses and fired if they fail to meet expectations.
Services for the mentally ill, the hungry, and the addicted are also necessary, but we need to remember that government schools and government medicine are as much tools for social control as are government cops. The school-to-prison pipeline resulting from harsh policies and lousy education is evidence that the state can't be trusted with jurisdiction over children. Expanding options so that families can choose education approaches that work for their kids and reject those that don't is a necessary part of reform.
Likewise, government officials prone to punishing people for seeking mental health or addiction treatment are dangerous stewards of such care. People need means of meeting those needs without subjecting themselves to government enforcers by another name.
Ultimately, real police reform means finding ways to protect life, liberty, and property in ways that respect people and protect individual rights. Just as communities and individuals vary, so may approaches to keeping the peace. We're going to need room to experiment to find what works for us.