Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
The vague and easily misinterpreted call to Defund the Police has been spreading quickly across the USA. Some may have a knee-jerk reaction to “just say no” to this call, but polls show a vast majority of Americans are concerned about improving the lives of people of color across the country. Reforms such as teaching police to de-escalate conflicts and enforcement of body camera use have support of about 90% of Americans. So, what could solutions to the current situation look like, how could they be paid for, and should relative costs realistically be coming out of police budgets?
Local politicians must rethink what win-win solutions could look like
My experience sharing oversight of a police budget as a City Councillor and Vice Mayor for four years gave me valuable insights to be able to propose concrete solutions. When I decided to run for a seat on the Council in the City of Arcata, California, the City was in the midst of a very expensive (and failing) effort to crack down on a group of people serving food to homeless people on the town square. The effort over just a few months cost the small City of 17,000 people around $35,000 in legal costs, not to mention policing costs.
I was incensed at this waste of public money, especially since the liberal City Council had kept saying they cared about the homeless, but was providing inadequate services, and no warm meals to local people in need. Running on a campaign calling for collectively solving the problem of feeding hungry people, I was elected in a landslide. My election began a communication process whereby the City officials and the volunteer group, Food Not Bombs, sat down and figured out a way where food could be legally cooked in a clean permitted kitchen at the City Community Center, and people could be fed.
Instead of wasting public money on lawyers and police, the same City money was now being spent on reusable plates, cutlery, and a bike trailer to successfully meet the needs our City had a responsibility to provide. Looking back, I wish I had cut the wasted legal and policing expenditures in future years’ budgets, but clearly there was a savings landing in the City legal, courts, policing and jail budgets as a result of this win-win cooperative solution.
Courage to confront costly backward laws and systems
In 1996 I was elected Vice Mayor, and Arcata voters massively supported a California initiative to legalise medical marijuana. Although California voters statewide also supported the initiative, California leaders were afraid to oppose federal laws banning marijuana. Our Arcata City Council saw the issue differently, and voted 5-0 to become the first City in the USA to legalise medical marijuana, which we saw as a common sense solution, which would also save money for our police budget.
We directed our City Attorney and Police Chief to draw up a plan so people could get a note from a doctor, and go get a medical marijuana card from our local Police Station. This allowed them to legally grow and consume small quantities of medical marijuana. Many people had already been doing this non-harmful activity illegally before, leading to wasted expenditures of police, court and jail times if they got caught.
At first our Attorney and Police Chief were hesitant to take action since our local laws now opposed State and Federal law, but when they made national news, and our Chief was interviewed in Rolling Stone magazine, they started to become more supportive. On the economic end, medical marijuana businesses opened up (which opened large tax revenue opportunities for the City), and policing staff time could be reduced as no longer did they need to ticket or jail ill people for partaking of medicine prescribed by doctors.
Strictly from an economic perspective, this small example of benefits of decriminalisation of a non-violent activity calls into question the entire issue of all failed public policy related to public budgets. It’s time to discontinue with failed public policies whose time should have been up decades ago.
US Cities now looking at concrete figures for reallocating police funds
As of this writing the Los Angeles Mayor has promised to reduce $150 million from the LAPD $3.14 billion annual budget, and multiple groups are already making concrete proposals how to better provide security in areas that would reduce the need for police, such as investments in housing, youth jobs, health initiatives, and will allow those who have suffered discrimination to collect damages.
Seattle has been having a hotly discussed dialogue on the topic of Defunding the Police, especially since angry community reaction to police brutality recently led to the creation of the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone, and occupation of a SPD police station. Locals now insist the police station should be turned into a community center, and police funding should be cut by 50%. Even SPD Police Chief Carmen Best stated “we had 16,000 bonafide crisis” emergency calls which were actually about issues of mental health, and not police related. So simple logic follows, that such mental health needs should be fully funded, with money coming out of police budgets, since police would no longer be called to provide a service for which they actually have no training or useful capacity.
Savings galore if we rethink the war on drugs and rehabilitation
Any police officer will agree that since Nixon started this failed effort in the late 1960s, illegalized drug consumption levels have largely remained the same. The main outcomes of this war have only been to create massive profits for gangs across the USA (with even worse effects in places like Mexico , El Salvador or Columbia).
Massive public costs from enforcing laws against low level and non-violent crime, like drug use, consume budgets of not only police, but courts, jails, and much more. The Center for American Progress says, “The number of Americans arrested for possession has tripled since 1980, reaching 1.3 million arrests per year in 2015.” Black people are four times as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana charges, which no longer exist in many states, resulting in billions of dollars in increased revenues for state coffers. Almost 2.3 million Americans are now in prison, at a cost to taxpayers of roughly $75,000 per year, more than sending them to a year at Harvard. Almost half a million are serving time for a drug charge, and another 1.15 million people are on probation and parole for drug-related offences.
The USA needs to learn lessons from places that treat drug consumption as a health problem, and not a legal problem, such as Portugal. Since decriminalizing, depenalizing, and legalizing drugs, Portugal’s heroin addiction rates fell to only 5% of what they had been before new legislation came in. There was a massive reduction in crime and drug related deaths, since users no longer took illegally made drugs smuggled from gangs and mafia’s, but were often taking over the counter properly regulated drugs, with supervision from medical experts. Portugal now has one of the lowest drug related death rates in the world, and estimates say that if the USA followed suit, it would save millions of dollars.
The idea that sending people to prison will somehow cure them and make them productive members of society is one of the most harmful false myths out there, and the “tough on crime” empty rhetoric of many politicians leads only to a financial horror show for public (and policing) budgets. Over a 10 year cycle after release from state prisons, the US Dept. of Justice estimates that over 80% of prisoners will return to prison. Prisons are more like a university of crime maintained by the state, where as one prisoner stated, “crime, corruption and cold-blooded murder is often encouraged, praised and applauded.” One study using US Government data proved that “spending time in prison leads to increased criminal earnings; a person can make roughly $11,000 more [illegally] from spending time in prison versus a person who does not spend time in prison.”
My four years of responsibility for a City and Police Budget, and subsequent time studying public policy in USA and across Europe, have convinced me beyond a doubt that we can do better. Over time, police and related budgets have continued to grow, while services that lead to a healthy society where less police are needed have been slashed. Moreover, the growth in police budgets has only made problems worse, as masses of evidence prove that politicians have not acted in the interests of solving problems for either people of color, or the American taxpayer on the whole.
If people in the USA want to support people of color, to create a more just and peaceful country, or just to save wasted taxpayer dollars, they need to actively be backing growing calls to Defund the Police, and to explain to public fund managers what can mean.
How do we make this happen?
There has never been a better time to spend one’s energy on these topics. Here are some steps you can take to make a difference:
educate yourself about public budgets, and how they can be improved
find out where and when relevant decisions are made, go there and be vocal
influence the media by writing to the press, being active on social media
mobilize your family and friends to take action with you
ensure that alternative solutions are created, proposed, and heard
Lastly, I submit a suggestion I was given long ago before becoming a City Council candidate. If elected officials are not doing the right thing, and your community has better solutions, then take action yourself to remove those people from office. Find ways to replace those abusing their power by taking back the power yourself for your community. The time to do this has arrived.