“DEFUNDING THE POLICE” HAPPENS ALL THE TIME
By the Rev. Carmelo Mercado, DMin, ChFC®, Clergy Member of Central Florida Presbytery
In today’s tense climate, the phrase “defund the police” is controversial, misunderstood, and unfortunate. From the onset, I want to admit that I do not like the slogan, and I do not use it. But I do support its underlying meaning. Like most sound bites, the catchphrase obfuscates rather than clarifies, since it has little or nothing to do with abolishing or disbanding the police, and everything to do with reallocating police funding to other government sectors or community resources. Besides proper policing, there are other evidence-based factors that help reduce crime, such as district structural improvement, business involvement, nonprofit intervention, religious engagement, medical accessibility/affordability, employment availability, educational opportunity, security technology, and so on.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, “defunding the police” is not new; it happens all the time, particularly in suburbia America, with its historical characteristic on conformity or “sameness.” For example, a middle-class city in Seminole County may spend less money on police protection (or the surplus of militarized equipment) and thereby may allocate more funds for school funding, youth programs, social services, or community-focused enhancements. On the other hand, an urban, inner city in Orange County may experience the very opposite because of its long, traumatic history of clashing with injustice, inequity, and “redlining” (a negative term that banks and mortgage companies would use – and literally mark in “red” – to indicate that certain neighborhoods of color were considered “high risk” for investment). In a sense, Seminole County would be "defunding" its police by reallocating or redistributing its budget elsewhere, and by having robust resources, this contributes to crime reduction and produces little contact with the police (except for annual affairs or automobile tickets!). Hence, the "defund the police" movement wants to rightly change, confront, or combat old paradigms: If “defunding the police” works for suburban populations, why can’t urban communities have the same prospects to shift money (either aggressively or moderately) into specialized agencies that may complement or even do a better job than policing? Statistics show that pouring more money into, say, police gang units does not decrease gang activities. When a city or county is ill-equipped to handle a societal problem, it has become a common trend to simply rely on the cops to make up for the shortage. Although all law enforcement officers are heavily trained in the use of weapons, few are suitably qualified to do the work of clinicians. As we have seen, this has led to violence and calls for reforming, retraining, and reimagining police and public safety. (Sadly, even after George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, police-related deaths have not abated at all.)
Surveys indicate that people who suffer from mental illness or behavioral health issues encounter the police more often than they receive adequate medical, psychiatric, or psychological attention. In such police encounters, we know that 1 in 4 adults with chronic mental disorders have died in the hands of police (although they account for merely 3% to 5% of major violent crimes). Likewise, police brutality, crackdowns, and incarcerations are overwhelmingly prevalent in communities of color, even though they represent a minority of the overall population. When I was pastoring the Hispanic church in Oviedo, we had a special needs adult member with a low IQ and no English proficiency, who wandered from his mother’s house and got lost in the streets. The police were called to search for him and told of his condition. However, when they found him, they gave him stern instructions in English to remain still, and when he did not comply (because he did not understand them and panicked), they jumped and beat him to subdue him. Even though he was bloodied and disoriented, the police pressed charges, which were dismissed later – only after the family had to undergo a long legal ordeal, and physicians and I had to write letters to the Court to substantiate the claim of his physiological disability.
In Eugene, Oregon, medics and social workers successfully respond to many 911 calls in an unarmed fashion, rather than the police force, since 1989. The city, police, and community know and support wholeheartedly CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), which in turn saves millions of taxpayer dollars. As a mobile, 24/7, integrated intervention service, CAHOOTS does not attempt to replace the police, but remove them from non-criminal crisis situations. It distinguishes between what police do well from what they are not fittingly trained to carry out. Thus, police are not called or relied upon to be the first or only solution to a societal crisis. Monies may then be “defunded,” unbundled, redirected, reassigned, reduced, or reallocated for housing, homelessness, employment, education, substance abuse, mental health, violence prevention, and/or other community services.
It is regrettable that the phrase “defund the police” is misinterpreted. It is an imperfect slogan. A few have suggested a better catchphrase, like “re-envisioning the police” or (paraphrasing a cable company’s ad) “unbundling community services.” Naturally, in countercultural movements as well as traditional organizations, there are extreme or distorted views on both sides. In many circles, the phrase is so unpopular that elections will be impacted because of how others in the opposition will continue to define or demonize it (just like what has happened with the taken-out-of-context word for "socialism"). As we have witnessed, crowds do not think; they react.
Properly understood, "defunding the police" does not imply hating or dismantling the police. It also does not contradict or negate Central Florida Presbytery’s recent “Statement on Racial Injustice,” which doubly affirms "love and support of our brothers and sisters in law enforcement" and repudiation of “police brutality [as] never acceptable…[by] hold[ing] accountable those who commit such acts.” Most law enforcement officers are decent, hardworking individuals, who I need to risk their lives when I may be in trouble. Indeed, proper police presence, accountability, and reform are a matter of socio-economic justice that benefit everyone in the community; otherwise, only the affluent would be able to afford their own security protection. Undeniably, there are a few rotten apples and a system in place that has institutionally discriminated, denigrated, profiled, and traumatized people of color, particularly our Black brothers and sisters. As the former senior pastor of several police officers, I observed how these officers made a monumental difference in their work, church, and community by attempting to change the racist practices embedded in the history of policing.