By Mark Obbie, Solutions Specialist
Protests erupted nationwide after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May 2020. Within days, pent-up anger over the persistence of police misconduct (despite many like-minded protests over the years) and the heavy-handed police presence at the protests introduced a new phrase to the public: “defund the police.”
The concept of defunding is not new. For years, policing policy has coalesced around three camps: “back the blue” law enforcement supporters; reform advocates lobbying for better systems of policing to win back the trust of vulnerable communities; and critics of incremental progress, often known as police abolitionists. Both “abolition” and “defunding” over-simplify the actual goals of the movement: rethinking the fundamental role of police by shrinking their footprint, strengthening democratic controls over police accountability, and granting communities the power to oversee changes in safety and justice within their own borders.
Camden, New Jersey remains the most notable example of a city that dismantled and reinvented a deeply troubled police force. But as detractors pointed out, replacing one police force with another failed to solve the underlying problems; police budget cuts have also foundered when detached from deeper reforms, as The Marshall Project found in Memphis and Chicago.
So, what have journalists found that works? This collection spotlights responses that illustrate defunding-style ideas through alternatives to policing and police accountability measures.
Student experience and critical analysis level: intermediate/advanced
- What factors consistently contribute to the erosion of trust between communities and police forces?
- Explain the typical difference in outcome between nonviolent/mental health cases handled by police and cases handled by community workers such as CAHOOTS or 414Life.
- Why are many law enforcement officials still resistant to data-based accountability measures?
- The United States is not the only nation grappling with police reform. Use the Solutions Story Tracker to find articles describing reform efforts from another country and discuss how those victories and/or challenges impact your understanding of American policing.
- A short SJN podcast about community monitoring of bicycle theft is linked in the External Links section below. Listen to the clip, and based on your understanding of policing interventions from the other articles in this collection, assess this response based on the SJN Success Factors.
- Journalism is a collaborative practice: reporters are writing for their community, but they also depend on community members as sources for information. Indeed, the very purpose of journalism, according to the American Press Institute, is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments. With that in mind, SJN wants to help connect news readers and journalists. Beside the name of the journalist on any of our story pages or the results page of the Solutions Story Tracker, you’ll find a Twitter icon that will link you directly to the journalists profile. Tweet at them with questions or compliments about their piece - you might be surprised by how much writers want to engage with their audiences! Don’t forget to tag us too (@soljourno) and use the hashtag #journalistintheclassroom if you are reading as part of an academic assignment.
ARTICLE SUMMARIES AND THEMES:
In Milwaukee, Ashley Luthern reported on 414LIFE, which uses an increasingly common violence-prevention strategy modeled on the Cure Violence, or public health, approach that says gun violence spreads like a virus and can be interrupted through outreach – counseling, conflict mediation, providing social services – by interventionists who have street credibility. Similarly, a program like Eugene, Oregon’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) responds to mental health crises not with an armed police response but with counselors and medics, as LJ Dawson reported. In programs like those in Milwaukee and Eugene, helping people who are experiencing a crisis by pulling them back from the brink has worked to lessen the police role in what is essentially social work – solving problems before police truly are needed.
Cellphone videos aren’t the only technological solution to police impunity in instances of excessive force, as Molly Fosco reported. In the wake of the Ferguson protests, a number of tech entrepreneurs and researchers have created platforms and created organizations to track police behavior, filling in the vast gaps in official data that often hamper effective responses to problems. To create further transparency, Adeshina Emmanuel showed how a New York system designed to reduce the costs of official misconduct was providing the public with a glimpse into the city's then-opaque records of complaints against police.
Finally, Michael Friedrich’s report shows how Stockton, California, sought to repair the damaged relations between police and their community. It’s a goal almost every police department pays lip service to. But Stockton went far beyond the traditional tools of community policing to candidly atone for the racist history of police generally and in Stockton specifically. And, based in large part on what the city learned through an ambitious exercise in listening to residents, it’s putting the words into action.
- LJ Dawson explained that community members often feel robbed of dignity and individuality by a police system historically rooted in racism and violence; police training methods encourage officers to view any aberrant behavior as defiance, which results in increased numbers of police shootings (particularly when responding to calls about individuals struggling with mental illness). Molly Fosco reported that police shootings disproportionately impact Black communities, and attempts to identify and solve racial biases are hindered by a lack of transparency about disciplinary actions and complaints against police officers.
- Organizations like 414Life focus on violence through a disease or illness lens, examining how communities can be inoculated against uncontrolled spread. By looking for ways to solve root problems of violence without blame or guilt, community interrupters can stop the escalation of violence before serious injury occurs, as opposed to calling police once an act like a shooting has already occurred. Similarly, CAHOOTS places mental health professionals in a position to respond to nonviolent emergency calls; removing police from situations they are not trained to handle. Interacting with a mental health professional instead of a unified officer generally engenders less fear in citizens, making it easier to comply with demands and reducing unnecessary police shootings.
- Local police departments often prefer to place blame for violence on external forces like tourism rather than closely examine their own practices. Police officers and police unions are also concerned about the implications of releasing data to the public before departments ahve the opportunity to conduct an internal review.
- This Solutions Story Tracker search link contains police-related articles from locations around the globe.
- The bicycle theft Facebook groups illustrate the Success Factor categories of "empowering people" and "embracing the power of relationships." Police are often overtaxed and do not have the resources to devote to low-level crime; crowd-sourcing this issue leverages the sheer size of the community to combat theft.