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POLICING THE USA

Why defunding police, upping social budgets alone won't work

Make police more transparent, invest in recruitment and salaries for a more educated force.

Thaddeus Johnson and Natasha Johnson
Opinion contributors

Nearly four months ago, the world watched as George Floyd died gasping for air beneath the knee of a white police officer. Three weeks later, Rayshard Brooks was killed by police who had questioned him for falling asleep in a fast-food restaurant's drive-thru. And more than two weeks ago, three Black children witnessed a white police officer riddle their unarmed father, Jacob Blake, with seven bullets.

Minneapolis, Atlanta and, most recently, Kenosha, Wisconsin, are not aberrations. Tales of similar modern-day lynchings by police have dominated conversations in Black households — including ours — for generations. The tragic events of 2020, especially Floyd’s killing, simply exposed our country’s ugliest racial truths and ushered America into her moment of clarity.

Our family’s lived experience straddles the divide separating our nation’s police and communities. For 10 years, Thaddeus served on the Memphis police force. Now we both teach and research criminology and criminal justice at Georgia State University. For us, this moment is both personal and professional.

Recent calls to defund or abolish the police force have gained traction.

Protesters hold a banner wanting to defund police and then fund people during the protest against ICE, Friday, July 10, 2020, in Sheboygan, Wis.

The Seattle City Council, for example, reallocated $3 million away from police services and voted to downsize its force. And amid an uptick in violent crime, big cities such as Los Angeles and New York have cut local police budgets by upwards of $1.1 billion to invest in jobs, health care, education, public housing and youth programs.

Unfortunately, making communities safer (and police less destructive) is not that simple. Larger systemic barriers and economic inequities foster conditions ripe for crime. And as long as there are victims and offenders, conventional law enforcement will remain a necessary evil. 

How do we move forward? 

Americans must reconceptualize the role of policing and invest to make it a success.

And we must answer tough questions: How do we want to be policed? Are our officers qualified to handle mental health crises? Is it really the job of police officers to deal with addiction-related issues? Should law enforcement and social workers partner on such calls? And if so, how do we ensure nonpolice personnel remain safe?

These are complex challenges that will take time to sort out, but the answers will help redefine policing and, if we do things right, restore confidence in its role in society.

Several key changes should be prioritized, including federal use of force standards, greater police transparency and accountability, and investments in recruitment and salaries to build a more diverse, educated and professional law enforcement force.

We also must overhaul law enforcement’s reward system. If officers’ success in stopping, citing and arresting citizens continues to figure prominently in performance evaluations, encounters between police and Black communities will remain strained.

Years ago, when Thaddeus was an officer in Memphis, he changed a flat tire for an elderly woman on a rainy day while on patrol. Later, a supervisor questioned why the call had taken 45 minutes. After explaining that he believed helping the motorist was part of the police role, he was told he wasn’t being paid to change tires but rather to be proactive and prevent crime.

Officers clearly can’t fix every flat tire. But what would policing look like if departments deemed acts of service as important as issuing traffic citations? We must incentivize and reward officers in a way that promotes a new style of policing.

Fiscal and policy investments also must be made in mental health care for officers. Police must step up, but those in uniform are our neighbors, our family members — people who long for the support of their community. Nothing is more isolating than feeling that despite your best efforts, family and friends consider you an oppressive enemy — a situation all too familiar for Black officers, in particular. With a record number of officers committing suicide last year, they clearly need our help.

Finally, procedural justice works both ways. If we are to hold our officers accountable, we must afford them due process. If not, police will push back. And if officers feel like they’re being used as political props, the blue flu could become a blue pandemic.

It is also vital that the voices of thoughtful public servants are not lost in this dialogue. Otherwise, we risk losing more law enforcement leaders like Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, who cited "the overarching lack of respect for the officers, the men and women who work so hard, day in and day out," as part of her decision to resign.

The path to reform is long — and it is not a one-way street. If the police are finally willing to change how they operate and embrace the Black community, Black Americans must be prepared to embrace our officers back. For many, this pill may be tough to swallow. Yet we have a moral responsibility to work with police to create real change.

Let’s be clear. Policing can only improve if racism is no longer considered acceptable in the United States. It could take a while, but as we witness America’s new awakening and picture a future where Black citizens and police no longer fear one another, we are hopeful.

We have to be.

Thaddeus Johnson, a former police officer, is a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and teaches criminology at Georgia State University. Natasha Johnson is a faculty member at Georgia State and director of the university’s M.I.S. program in Criminal Justice Administration.