As peaceful, impassioned protests show no signs of receding and polls show high levels of approval for police reform, the moment feels ripe to overhaul police departments and procedures. On Monday, congressional Democrats unveiled a major police reform bill, and several state and local bills are being considered throughout the country. Advocates and political leaders are right to focus on concrete reforms — especially those that don’t require massive spending increases, such as updating standards on use of force and increasing transparency around police misconduct.
But while pursuing such reforms, we also should take on the more fundamental questions posed by the “defund” movement. Police reformists and defunding advocates agree on plenty, but where the former ask how police can most effectively be improved, the latter ask: Are there non-policing solutions to society’s problems? Is this the safest America we could have?
The pandemic is prompting reimagining on many fronts, from education to health care to support for the unemployed. In this context, it makes sense to reconsider our goals for public safety and the kinds of institutions we think would best achieve them. It makes sense to consider changes to ways of doing things that were never optimal but have seemed, until now, so baked-in as to be beyond questioning.
Are we really safer in a world where armed police respond to mental health emergencies, or can we imagine communities in which those struggling with mental illness are met with expert and reliable services? Are we safer when homelessness is met with criminalization, not compassion and housing? Are there ways to fund local governments so that they are less financially dependent on extracting fees from citizens? Asking these fundamental questions — and not being anchored in existing institutions for answers — is what the moment requires.
This conversation, in other words, is not just about budgets. It is true that, as the pandemic-inflicted economic crisis forces painful cuts in state and local spending, onlookers are rightly alarmed at plans to slash social services while sparing police budgets. Outrage over such priorities led the mayors of Los Angeles and New York City to pledge to shift some funding from police departments to social services. But it would make sense in many cases to invest in constructive alternatives at the same time or before existing institutions are downsized. The process should be led at the community level, because every community’s strengths and needs are unique, but a broader national conversation can expand our ideas of what is possible and what we deserve.
Ultimately, the call to defund the police should be understood as a call to reinvest in communities and explore new solutions. It asks us to draw on our resources and creativity and to be clear-eyed about the most problematic and painful parts of our policing history. At its core, it is an expression of relentless optimism — in response to the suggestion that things could be a little less bad, it says: We can do so much better.