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Why protestors demand, ‘Defund the Police’

On Reflection

The demand by protesters across America to “defund the police” is bold, and probably intended to sound serious, if not scary. Though I’m sure some protesters want our 911 calls to ring to no response, most are asking for two things: an end to the violence that has plagued interactions between local police and African-Americans; and the shifting of some police department funds that currently pay for functions police handle poorly to social service and health agencies that may handle them more effectively and peaceably. 

The tragic enmity between the police and private citizens we find ourselves in is not limited to black communities, though it has been exacerbated by race in ways that until recently whites could often ignore.  Moreover, it is the result of a 50-year process in which police have increasingly used military equipment and imitated military maneuvers. In his book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” investigative journalist Radley Balko details this process that began in the early ‘70s with Nixon’s hyping of a national drug crisis. Amidst civil rights demonstrations and riots, as well as a developing counter culture, Nixon worked to create the perception that crime was rampant and drugs were the main cause. To circumvent states’ resistance to federal intervention, the Nixon administration focused its initial legislation on Washington, D.C. (a recipe Trump recently followed by using DC as a test for his ordering of soldiers and prison guards to control demonstrations.) After pushing through no-knock, preventative detention and extensive wire-tapping laws for the largely black residents of the nation’s capital, Nixon then successfully got Congress to turn these into nationwide laws. 

Nixon’s idea was to project the aggression that TV viewers had seen in Vietnam in local drug arrests, and he therefore offered local police the cooperation of federal agents and military equipment. As this equipment was dispersed with little discussion or public oversight, SWAT teams in black ski masks and armor at once exaggerated the dangers posed by civilians and affirmed the power of the authorities. Though this strategy waned under President Carter, Ronald Reagan gave the war on drugs a new moral authority. Pitching it as a battle of good against the evil, he argued that drug users and addicts were evil, and that only liberals who believed that people were basically good, thought money should be wasted on addiction services and other health care. For Balko, it was Reagan who “set in motion an animosity between police offers and the public that was probably beyond repair.” 

Yet with successive presidents, Republican and Democratic alike, domestic tactics that had earlier been reserved for rare violence have been used regularly by police departments. Provoked by the attacks on 9/11, Homeland Security brought a lucrative new source of funding and equipment in the name of fighting terrorism. As police departments across the country built up their arsenals, no-knock entries and other sources of intended and unintended violence grew exponentially.

Increased militarization has also been accompanied by a fortress mentality in police departments. Officers who embarrass departments are treated more harshly than those who lie, steal or go rogue. Although body cameras and cell phones have given citizens new possibilities to hold police accountable, police still resist truthfulness in accident reports. Moreover, though four police officers have been charged in the death of George Floyd, we still await conviction. So far, the general rule holds that strong police unions and police-friendly laws block black communities from prosecuting police who commit violence or bear false witness in court. Even a national “registry” of police misconduct, which would enable communities looking to hire police to discover whether they have a record of violence, lies in the future. 

Spike Lee and other allies of the protesters have criticized the “defund the police” slogan, which, they believe, is too easily used by President Trump and other opponents to strengthen a “law and order” agenda. Whether a better slogan can be found, the cry to “defund the police” raises important questions about the equipment and technology used by police departments. Also in question are the roles that should be reserved for the police, and whether a 911 caller would better served if the person at the other end were a teacher, social worker or mental health professional.


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.  She is trained as a spiritual director.

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