Defunding the police is, at best, a baby’s first step

Update, June 20, 2020: Atlanta police have responded to a murder charge against the officer who killed Rayshard Brooks with various labor actions, including a sick-out and refusals to leave their precincts.[1] This underscores a point I have previously made that police refuse accountability and so cannot be trusted with weapons.[2] I would say now that they cannot be trusted with authority over others, period.

We can now identify four essential features of policing as currently practiced:

  1. A unique license to use even lethal force against other human beings;
  2. the use of this license to enforce laws passed by mostly wealthy white men against other human beings;[3]
  3. a nearly-unanimous refusal of accountability for the use of this force;[4]
  4. and that this license colors any other tactics police may use, effectively reducing them to the potential for even lethal force.

In sum, all this amounts to is a response to so-called ‘disorder’ (as understood by mostly wealthy white men[5]) with effectively unregulated violence in which the perpetrators, both at the legislative and enforcement levels, generally refuse to recognize there is a problem.

In addition, I have updated the text in this post to reflect Zak-Cheney Rice’s article in New York.[6]


On June 13, 2020, I praised[7] Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto’s support for a measure that would enable the police to back off from many social problems.[8] The proposal sounds like it falls, at a minimal level, under the rubric of the “defund the police” movement, which Amanda Arnold explains in The Cut[9] and Zak Cheney-Rice explains in New York.[10] And it’s a good idea within the realm of politics as the art of the possible.

That’s not to say, by any stretch, that it’s adequate: Arnold also cites statistics that show, and Cheney-Rice joins in arguing, that police are racist, for instance, a homicide clearance rate of 86 percent in New York City that drops to 45 percent when victims are Black. We see that the police actively resist reform and simply violate the rules, for instance, turning off body cameras, using banned choke holds, and having their unions offer “warrior” training even where banned. The evidence shows flatly that police “reform” has been anything but.[11] The truth is that, as a society, apart from the occasional and usually local outrage, we haven’t cared much that police don’t follow the rules, haven’t cared much that they kill people with impunity.

Indeed, surely it must say something that even as protests over police racism and the murder of George Floyd continue, police in Atlanta, Georgia, shot and killed yet another Black man, Rayshard Brooks, while attempting to arrest him for driving under the influence. Brooks had parked and fallen asleep in a Wendy’s drive through lane, then was fleeing following a nearly 30-minute interaction described as ‘cordial.’ The officer, Garrett Rolfe, shot Brooks three times, fatally in the back.[12] This incident illustrates an aspect of policing, that ultimately, police tactics reduce implicitly or explicitly to force, or the threat thereof, that is too often lethal, even in situations that shouldn’t require it. Atlanta’s police chief has resigned[13] but this doesn’t even begin to reach the scale of the problem.

Fundamentally, a problem lies both within police culture and outside it, which is why I agree with Maritza Perez and I think, only in part, we have to actually disband police departments and their unions, and to truly reinvent public safety.[14]

I have previously noted that police are unique in our society for their license to deploy even lethal force in service to laws passed by mostly wealthy white men against everyone else.[15] But the problem also reaches to what Elizabeth Minnich, rejecting the term dualism for failing to recognize the moral values attached to to each side, described as hierarchically invidious monism.[16] These are the old “cowboys and Indians” and “cops versus robbers” tropes, with cowboys and cops presumed to be ‘good,’ and Indians and robbers presumed to be ‘evil.’

Today we understand that cowboys weren’t so good and that American Indians weren’t so evil. We are beginning to understand that maybe cops have some problems too. But we have a long ways to go before we start understanding robbers, before we understand even that we have deprived the poor of socially acceptable means to socially acceptable ends.[17] We aren’t challenging the hierarchically invidious monism, in which as Arnold points out,[18] a lot of what police deal with has to do with poverty, indeed as part of a war on the poor.[19] Instead, the rich are ‘good’ and they pass laws against the poor, who are ‘evil.’ And the police act in service to the rich with the social divisions that divide us among ourselves and against ourselves, helping to protect the positions and privileges of the elite,[20] and thus reinforcing their own position as unaccountable and beyond challenge.

The police remain, even after all they have both done and failed to do,[21] politically popular.[22] But defunding the police is, at best, a baby’s first step toward truly restorative justice, in which we deemphasize a punitive approach in favor of truly examining the causes of deviant behavior, up to and including our system of social organization itself.[23]

  1. [1]Will Pavia, “Atlanta police stage sick leave protest over murder charge,” Times, June 19, 2020, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/world/angry-police-in-sick-leave-protest-over-murder-charge-trf6btshv
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Time to take the guns away,” Not Housebroken, January 6, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/2015/01/04/time-to-take-the-guns-away/
  3. [3]Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Time to take the guns away,” Not Housebroken, January 6, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/2015/01/04/time-to-take-the-guns-away/; Zak Cheney-Rice, “Why Police Abolition Is a Useful Framework — Even for Skeptics,” New York, June 15, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/police-abolitionist-lessons-for-america.html; Will Pavia, “Atlanta police stage sick leave protest over murder charge,” Times, June 19, 2020, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/world/angry-police-in-sick-leave-protest-over-murder-charge-trf6btshv
  5. [5]David Benfell, “A constitutional oligarchy: Deconstructing Federalist No. 10,” Not Housebroken, June 7, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/22/a-constitutional-oligarchy-deconstructing-federalist-no-10/
  6. [6]Zak Cheney-Rice, “Why Police Abolition Is a Useful Framework — Even for Skeptics,” New York, June 15, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/police-abolitionist-lessons-for-america.html
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Kente cloth was the wrong cloth to wear,” Irregular Bullshit, June 13, 2020, https://disunitedstates.com/2020/06/13/kente-cloth-was-the-wrong-cloth-to-wear/
  8. [8]Andy Sheehan, “Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto Proposes Creation Of New Office That Would ‘Allow Public Safety To Step Back’ And Get People Longer-Term Help,” KDKA, June 12, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/12/pittsburgh-office-of-community-health-and-safety/
  9. [9]Amanda Arnold, “What Exactly Does It Mean to Defund the Police?” Cut, June 12, 2020, https://www.thecut.com/2020/06/what-does-defund-the-police-mean-the-phrase-explained.html
  10. [10]Zak Cheney-Rice, “Why Police Abolition Is a Useful Framework — Even for Skeptics,” New York, June 15, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/police-abolitionist-lessons-for-america.html
  11. [11]Amanda Arnold, “What Exactly Does It Mean to Defund the Police?” Cut, June 12, 2020, https://www.thecut.com/2020/06/what-does-defund-the-police-mean-the-phrase-explained.html; Zak Cheney-Rice, “Why Police Abolition Is a Useful Framework — Even for Skeptics,” New York, June 15, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/police-abolitionist-lessons-for-america.html; Libor Jany, “Minneapolis police union offers free ‘warrior’ training, in defiance of mayor’s ban,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, April 24, 2019, https://www.startribune.com/minneapolis-police-union-offers-free-warrior-training-in-defiance-of-mayor-s-ban/509025622/
  12. [12]Felicia Sonmez et al., “Killing of black man in Atlanta puts spotlight anew on police, as prosecutors contemplate charges against officer,” Washington Post, June 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/killing-of-black-man-in-atlanta-puts-spotlight-anew-on-police-as-prosecutors-contemplate-charges-against-officer/2020/06/14/ad9cea20-ae60-11ea-856d-5054296735e5_story.html; Theresa Waldrop et al., “Autopsy report says Rayshard Brooks was shot twice in the back, lists manner of death as homicide,” CNN, June 14, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/14/us/atlanta-protests-rayshard-brooks-sunday/index.html
  13. [13]Theresa Waldrop et al., “Autopsy report says Rayshard Brooks was shot twice in the back, lists manner of death as homicide,” CNN, June 14, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/14/us/atlanta-protests-rayshard-brooks-sunday/index.html
  14. [14]Zak Cheney-Rice, “Why Police Abolition Is a Useful Framework — Even for Skeptics,” New York, June 15, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/police-abolitionist-lessons-for-america.html; Maritza Perez, “The Congressional Police Reform Bill Fails to Meet the Moment,” Common Dreams, June 12, 2020, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/06/12/congressional-police-reform-bill-fails-meet-moment
  15. [15]Most recently, David Benfell, “They should have ‘simply worn red,’” Not Housebroken, June 13, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/06/13/they-should-have-simply-worn-red/
  16. [16]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005).
  17. [17]Robert K. Merton, “Social Structure and Anomie,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 181-190.
  18. [18]Amanda Arnold, “What Exactly Does It Mean to Defund the Police?” Cut, June 12, 2020, https://www.thecut.com/2020/06/what-does-defund-the-police-mean-the-phrase-explained.html
  19. [19]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  20. [20]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” Not Housebroken, March 19, 2012, https://disunitedstates.org/2012/03/19/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/
  21. [21]Zak Cheney-Rice, “Why Police Abolition Is a Useful Framework — Even for Skeptics,” New York, June 15, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/police-abolitionist-lessons-for-america.html; Maritza Perez, “The Congressional Police Reform Bill Fails to Meet the Moment,” Common Dreams, June 12, 2020, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/06/12/congressional-police-reform-bill-fails-meet-moment; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “How Do We Change America?” New Yorker, June 8, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-do-we-change-america
  22. [22]Amanda Arnold, “What Exactly Does It Mean to Defund the Police?” Cut, June 12, 2020, https://www.thecut.com/2020/06/what-does-defund-the-police-mean-the-phrase-explained.html
  23. [23]Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, “Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers’ Cage,” in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 511-529.

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