An illustration of a Police Department badge falling apart.

criminal justice

Defund the Police or Disband Police Unions?

The modern police force was initiated as a slave patrol, to protect and serve only the wealthy, white class. If ever there were a case for starting over from scratch, this is it.

This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members.  We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?

Defund the police. It’s a loaded phrase. Depending on who you are, it is either terrifying, shocking, idiotic, a long-time coming, required, or brilliant. It definitely resonates on many levels for those who have called for racial and social justice across the country. However, what does it really mean and can it work? If there was a way for seemingly opposing viewpoints to be satisfied by the idea of defunding the police, could it actually be a good thing all the way around? The answer to that depends on who you are and where you live and is partially determined by whether you turn to police for protection, or find yourself wary of or victimized by them. As I thought about this issue, I realized that it was necessary to unpack the origins of the police force in the United States, and how that impacts how police relate to civilians, in particular Black Americans.

First, I should offer some context about myself. On a lazy Memorial Day in Los Angeles this year, while having breakfast in my backyard, I watched a video that my brother, Christian Cooper, took in Central Park of a woman with an unleashed dog. The woman infamously made a false 911 call claiming “an African American man is threatening me.” My posting of that video on Twitter in anger and in fear for my brother received more than 44 million views from around the world and opened people’s eyes to everyday racism. George Floyd’s horrific murder that very same day fueled a nationwide uprising, and the deaths of other unarmed Black people at the hands of police has once more raised the issue of racism within police departments. It became clear there might be an opportunity to finally make fundamental changes to the way police interact with the Black community.

While I disagree with my brother’s reluctance to press charges against Amy Cooper, I understand his wariness in helping a DA that traditionally works with police to prosecute people of color. In addition, my brother knew that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office could press charges itself. However, as false 911 calls continue across the U.S., I welcome the potential deterrence prosecution against Amy Cooper can bring. I understand the larger impact this situation has on Black men and women who are at risk of violence and are not as fortunate as me and my brother. The imperfections of the justice system which has been executed against Black people for generations is not a good enough reason to suddenly call for leniency. When the same imperfect justice is meted out regardless of race, there may be more hope of wresting some level of real and necessary change.

As the daughter of parents who were school teachers and activists, I grew up fighting the good fight. Justice was paramount in our family. There was no question but that we fight for it, whether for civil rights, rights for LGBTQ+, women, and immigrants, the planet, Flint, Ferguson, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, almost too many to name. The police have figured in our family history via that fight. My dad and brother were arrested peacefully protesting the shooting of Amadou Diallo. When on a march against the war in Iraq, my Dad and I were forced against a brick wall by mounted police in New York. When I protested against the murder of George Floyd in Los Angeles, I passed stone-faced police in riot gear flanked by the National Guard whose members looked embarrassed to be there and fist-bumped every protestor who reached out. Through all of it, I’ve seen a recurring pattern: police harassment and brutality unchecked, and officers rarely held accountable. There seems to be a widespread assumption by police that Black people — Black men in particular — are dangerous, even when unarmed or running away, or shopping, or driving with their families … or simply by existing.

My parents taught me to look to the root of a problem. So in trying to figure out why it has been so frustratingly difficult to eradicate the problem of racism and violence within police departments, it’s essential to understand the origins of the police in this country.

The police force as we know it, largely came into being in the 19th century to do one thing: protect the property of the wealthy and business class. That property included slaves, so a major aspect of American policing came under the form of slave patrol. These two functions of police have been inextricably woven into the fabric of how society utilizes police and how officers ultimately interact with Black people. There is a lingering and insidious perception that Black life is not as valuable as others, that looting property is worse than the death of a Black person, and that Black people need to be brought to heel.

The first police union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), was established in Philadelphia in 1915, and to this day, it is rare to find Black officers in the senior ranks of police unions. FOP’s help negotiate police contracts and have been described more like social clubs. Unions attack outspoken officers and government officials who call police and their departments to task for racism and unnecessary violence. When Mayor Bill de Blasio was tough on NYPD about the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City, they literally turned their backs on him. Police unions have perennially gotten in the way of true reforms. They encourage walk-outs, either openly or secretly. In June 2020, Atlanta police called in sick in a “Blu Flu.” An Atlanta police union spokesman claimed police were protesting the murder charge against the officer who fatally shot Rayshard Brooks . The entire Buffalo Emergency Response Team quit not long before that when members of their unit were caught shoving an older White Black Lives Matter protestor to the ground.

Police unions have promoted a false premise that using more deadly force and tougher policing reduces crime. It hasn’t. It has harmed and killed unarmed and innocent people. According to the Washington Post Fatal Force database, Black people are disproportionately killed by police, especially if they are unarmed. In fact, police union-supported policies like “Stop-and-Frisk” have been shown to be ineffective and racially motivated. According to the ACLU, at the height of the policy’s use in 2011 in New York, 685,724 NYPD stops were recorded, 88 percent were innocent; 53 percent were Black; 34 percent were Latinx; 9 percent were white. I marched in protest of this NYPD policy with my brother, my father, and my children. In 2013, a landmark class-action lawsuit found the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. And yet in 2014, instead of rooting out the racism in their divisions and improving training and patrol policy, all five New York City police unions tried to overturn the decision.

Police unions have engaged in fear-mongering, and tend to inflame division. They foster an atmosphere of Us vs. Them. I was appalled when I read that after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police for playing with a toy gun in a playground, the president of the Miami FOP callously tweeted, “Act like a thug and you’ll be treated like one.” I began to understand who was the true enemy of police reform progress. Recently, Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis police union, defended the officers who participated in George Floyd’s murder. Kroll fought against the officers being fired and called the civilian protests “a terrorist movement.”

In a culture that seemingly supports all officers, regardless of their abusive and criminal behavior, police unions protect officers who have multiple complaints against them. Officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until he died, had 18 complaints against him. To make matters even worse, police unions encourage the punishment of officers who step out of line to take a stand to fight police corruption. During a 2011 arrest, officer Joseph Crystal, the son of two NYPD officers, tried to speak up about the physical brutalization of a prisoner by a fellow officer. He was told, “If you snitch, your career is done. Nobody’s going to work with you.” He tried to do the right thing and testified against the abusive officer. Joseph was ostracized and attacked verbally. When he called for backup it never came. He was demoted. A dead rat was placed on his car. Even though the abusive officer was found guilty, the bullying attacks against Crystal continued and he ended up resigning. This is the kind of culture that police unions foster.

How are we supposed to believe that police departments will deal with “bad apples” if this is how they treat their own when they try to speak out against corruption? “Bad apples” can corrupt an entire police department, as we saw happen in the Chicago PD’s torture scandal in which white officers tortured hundreds of Black suspects. This went on unchecked for 20 years well into the 1990s. Internally organized attempts to address corruption that officers witness in their own departments are few and far between, but do exist in organizations like 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care and the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, Reform and Accountability.

Civilians in general, but in particular Black civilians, are treated as enemy combatants to be met with riot gear, batons, guns, LRAD, tanks, horses and tear gas, even when we’re unarmed and not looting, and even when women and children are present and protesting peacefully. I remember being terrified when I was on a peaceful candlelight march that was met by NYPD police on horses during Giuliani’s reign in New York. I was with my children, one of them in a stroller, and two kind gay men rushed to my aid and lifted the stroller into a doorway as panicking crowds ran from the line of horses.

These chilling words, accidentally caught on a dashcam recorder on June 4 this year inside a Wilmington, North Carolina police car demonstrate the attitudes of many police towards Black people: “We are just gonna go out and start slaughtering them fu— ni—. I can’t wait. God, I can’t wait.” That was said by police officer Kevin Piner, and harkens right back to the slave patrol days.

Even within their own ranks, Black officers are subjected to racism in their police departments and are forced to put up with it or feel compelled to quit after they complain. Even the chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers has said that, “The institution of policing has been inherently biased against people of color and low income [people], and it was designed to be that way.” Having Black officers in police departments was supposed to help towards reform, but they often see themselves as Blue first and internalized racism can be quite powerful. But every year there are fewer Black officers in LAPD (only 9 percent are currently Black). If police departments are unable or unwilling to recruit and retain Black officers in precincts with Black residents, it becomes even more imperative to radically change the model police are operating under.

Those in reform movements like 8CANTWAIT believe existing policies and strong-arm tactics can be modified to make our communities safer. By eliminating chokeholds, prohibiting shooting at moving vehicles, and insisting on body cams, lives could be saved. While I believe these kinds of stop-gap measures are well-intentioned to save lives, defunding police means a systemic change that doesn’t rely on police unions and police departments to comply with demands, all of which have been made before.

Trump’s Executive Order supposedly calls for reform, but allows for continued use of chokeholds by police, and only calls for tracking of convicted officers, allowing many exceptions and loopholes in the case of use-of-force complaints. It also keeps qualified immunity in place, which protects police from civil lawsuits. For decades, police have had a chance to reduce police brutality and murders, and to deal with their “bad apples,” but they continue to protect, support, and even reward them.

So, in this place we find ourselves now, where the world has witnessed the undeniable intersection of law enforcement, criminal intent to harm and racism, how do we move forward in ways that affect us every day to change the statistics, the violence, and the killing?

It might help if I ask a different question: If someone told you that more resources and money for social services, job training, childcare, education, mental health services, fair housing, and youth programs have been shown to reduce crime considerably, would you want that change?

An NYU research study showed that nonprofit community organizations lead to drops in the rates of homicides and other violent crimes. The fact that these kinds of resources are highly impactful in positive ways for men, women, and children, whether white, Black, Latinx, Native American, or Asian, might give you pause. You might wonder, why aren’t we doing that already? Part of the problem is that billions of dollars that could support these resources are allocated instead to militarized police departments.

In L.A. County, law enforcement accounts for 40 percent of the budget. In the city of Los Angeles, out of a $9.9 billion budget, $3.14 billion is allocated for police, including pension. The Housing and Community Investment Department are losing $1.2 million in funding this year. According to the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, 9 percent of L.A.’s population is Black, but make up 40 percent of the city’s homeless. While $653 million had been allocated to child welfare services in 2019, $20.6 million will be reduced from Children and Family Services in 2020. In New York City, their police budget had supported the recently disbanded anti-crime unit responsible for an inordinately high number of assaults and shootings by officers, including the innocent Amadou Diallo and the mentally ill Saheed Vassell.

Defund the Police is an often misunderstood phrase for a movement that wants to remove police from a violent and antagonistic role in our society, and instead move them into a truly protective and supportive role, with better training and with the allocation of funds to the civilian services and organizations that actually reduce crime.

To understand why people are calling for a major change in how we think about the role of police departments, it helps to go back to the origin of the police force as protectors of property and as slave patrols. We see this context resonate in the fact that many seemed more concerned with the destruction of property during riots that followed peaceful protests—things that could ostensibly eventually be rebuilt—than the systemic killing of Black people at the hands of police.

There will always be monsters like Derek Chauvin in this world. But the three other officers who stood by and did nothing were tasked to serve and protect. Their refusal to do the right and humane thing was indicative of a deeply systemic problem that should make us all call for change. Knowing Breonna Taylor was shot eight times while sleeping in her bed, we should all be angry. Even when a victim of a police shooting turns out to have a criminal record, the fact that police rush to shoot them when they are unarmed should make us all appalled. Whoever we are, we ignore the killing of Black civilians and the dysfunctional way police have been allowed to operate in our towns and cities at our own peril.

This is not to say every cop is bad, but when the very system that they work in is ineffectual or corrupt, it needs to be dismantled and rebuilt correctly. Even a child playing with blocks figures out that an unstable foundation will not serve what they’re trying to build. In the current system, reforms have not and will not do enough.

When you do not remove “bad apples,” the entire bushel rots.

There is a severe lack of a nationwide standard for police behavior and accountability. Chokeholds have been allowed in some cities and not others. Many women still find they are ignored or ridiculed for bringing rape charges. Backlogs remain for hundreds of thousands of rape kits. That problem isn’t solved with more money for bullets. Police have harassed and even sexually assaulted women in their charge, often with little or no repercussions. According to the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee, in New York alone, nearly 560 New Yorkers were killed in domestic violence incidents from 2010 to 2018. This situation won’t be helped by throwing money at expensive riot gear and armored tanks.

When police use force with impunity and little accountability, everyone’s life is at risk. But if you’re Black, you are in even greater danger because racism is inextricably linked with police’s abuse of power. Demilitarizing police and transforming their role in our neighborhoods to rebuild something that works better is the only answer. It has worked in cities like Camden, New Jersey, Dallas, and Milwaukee.

Resources could be put towards organizations like the Black and Missing Foundation that helps find missing men, women, and children whose cases are largely ignored by the media and law enforcement. I’d like to see children of all races benefit from an increase in the number and quality of social workers, so we don’t end up with continued shortages and inadequacies that result in horrible deaths like in the cases of Gabriel Fernandez, Leiliana Wright, Jacob Noe, and countless others. Too often the services that can make a difference, especially for BIPOC communities, are cut or simply not available. The notion behind defunding the police is really about funding services that reduce crime, something the police should ostensibly want.

Defunding the police does not necessarily mean the complete elimination of police officers. It doesn’t mean handing over towns and cities to criminals and gangs. It means radically changing the function, policies, training and number of police and integrating them into a co-operative set of professional and civilian services to truly serve and protect communities. The system is broken and we need to fix it by rebuilding something stronger, fairer, and better for all. Fewer victims of crime overall and reduction of Black citizens being subjected to racism and violence by police is a win-win. Who wouldn’t want these improvements? There are details and plans to be worked through, and those closest to the pain of police brutality are the ones closest to how best to solve it.

This is about the dignity to live life without harassment or violent attack from a system that has long been biased, unethical, and often incompetent in policing itself. Police violence in this country is seen as a human rights issue that disproportionately affects Black people. Most of the country’s youth are mad as hell about it and have led the cry to defund the police. We should all listen to them and join in the chorus. As Victor Hugo said, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.

Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.

But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.

Support Dame Today

Become a member!