Defund-the-police calls aren't going away. But what do they mean practically?

The long-term goal is fundamentally to reimagine how the state serves its citizens in the project of public safety.
Image: Protests against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in New York
Police watch demonstrators protest against racial inequality in New York on June 11, 2020, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Idris Solomon / Reuters
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By Tracey Meares, Phillip Atiba Goff and Tom R. Tyler

Three years ago, one of us wrote in an essay that "policing must be abolished before it can be transformed." The issue of policing as a public good is central to the conversation about defunding policing as we know it and the new models of state support for communities that necessarily follow. George Floyd's death has galvanized the defund and abolish the police movements around the country. Earlier in June, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council resolved to "dismantle" the city's police department. But what does that mean practically? And what would take its place?

Each of us has been involved in research and tried to advance the public conversation around public safety reform.

Each of us has been involved in research and tried to advance the public conversation around public safety reform. We have served as members of presidential task forces, led national initiatives to build trust in the police, developed police training programs, created data analytic techniques for police accountability and studied the history of racism and incarceration in the United States. Many of our efforts have been directed at transforming the here and now — making policing interactions less harmful in the short term. That work acknowledged the reality that some places have a greater need for state help, particularly neighborhoods that experience high levels of violence.

What does it mean, then, to talk about getting rid of the police? Would it make some neighborhoods safer? Less safe? These are critical questions as we begin to tackle what it means to transform policing as we know it.

The long-term goal is fundamentally to reimagine how the state serves its citizens in the project of public safety — a project that acknowledges the importance of the state's obligation to protect citizens from violence from each other but also recognizes that no one feels safe when the state commits violence against the people it swore to protect.

This long-term plan emphasizes mending (or creating) a relationship in which state and community co-produce public safety, with an emphasis on transitioning power from the police to community-led organizations. We know from sociologist Patrick Sharkey's recent book, "Uneasy Peace," that such organizations have the capacity to address violence. We also know that these organizations, such as Life Camp, led by Erica Ford in New York, or Upswell, led by Eddie Bocanegra in Chicago, or Advance Peace, led by Devone Boggan in Oakland, California, have never been funded to scale nationally.

But simply pointing to these amazing examples may not be enough to get more of these projects off the ground, as people will not come together to engage in this critical conversation of where we go from here until they are both heard and seen.

So, what can we do today? There are at least four non-mutually exclusive approaches to organizational transformation of police, all of which are underway to varying degrees across the country. Adopting these approaches, any of which could take place right now, would result in smaller police budgets with very little compromise in the impact we believe policing has on violent crime.

Importantly, our argument that policing as we know it can occupy a much smaller footprint right now is not an argument that the state itself should leave the field. Whatever we ultimately decide with respect to how the state should ideally support public safety by investing in neighborhoods to make them stronger, we know that today there are a whole host of situations in which it is simply unnecessary to send armed first responders — noise complaints, permit violations, people experiencing homelessness or students sleeping in common areas of dorms. Second, and related, policing agencies could engage in much more collaboration with non-policing nonprofits that have expertise in relevant areas that have larger social work components. Third, within policing agencies themselves, there could be much greater emphasis on specialization.

Most police agencies train their members as generalists who are experts in deploying a small handful of tools mostly related to use of force, and the agency then sends those officers with guns as first responders to any and all situations. We can imagine much more specialization with officers who are not always armed but who have special training to deal with particular situations, like calls to assist people dealing with mental health challenges. That way, we would worry less about fitting a square peg into a round hole.

Fourth, and finally, we could have "civilians" — folks who are not "sworn police officers" doing a great deal of the work that armed first responders do. There is little reason for sworn police officers to occupy every position in an agency. Their training and expertise make them particularly important when it is necessary to use force to compel compliance. Sworn police officers are recruited, hired and trained to do a job that is in many cases imaginary, as opposed to the one they are actually called upon to do. Replacing officers with civilians who would not receive the specialized training necessary for a small slice of what police actually do day to day would necessarily reduce policing budgets.

A critical worry is that some narrow conversations about “defunding” assume the other parts of the system are operating the way they should be.

Between the here and now and our ultimate goal of transforming the state's role in producing real safety for everyone — including security from potential violence of policing as we know it — it is essential to recall that the crisis of policing is not simply about policing. It is about the state. A critical worry is that some narrow conversations about "defunding" assume that the other parts of the system are operating the way they should be, and we know they are not. States must commit to supporting all aspects of community vitality.

It has become common in recent days to refer to the work of the Kerner Commission 50 years ago. That report made it clear that poverty and racism were intimately connected to violence in cities, and the same underlying dynamics have been exposed as states and cities attempt to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic consuming this country. COVID-19 has shown us how fragile and connected all of our systems are.

Criminal legal system exposure is fundamentally linked to underlying inequalities in distributions of wealth and power. System exposure — including police contact — burdens the same neighborhoods that have been weighed down by inadequate housing, failing schools, food insecurity, lead poisoning and so on, often for generations. Communities, not individuals, are the most meaningful unit of analysis. True community- or neighborhood-level interventions are unusual and frequently unevaluated, and they suffer from a lack of conceptual clarity. Moreover, the absence of community voice from past conversations and reforms must be acknowledged and remedied thoughtfully.

Ultimately, transformative police reform, like the response to the coronavirus, requires unprecedented state support. To really "defund" police, we need the same thing we needed after the last great "abolition" in this country: Reconstruction. And that means an investment in the public goods that all citizens are entitled to (good schools, adequate health care and affordable housing) and a recommitment to give all citizens the resources to determine their fates separate from state interference.