Proposals to “Defund the Police” are trending as I write this, spurred on by the deaths of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor, among others. But the defund movement has a much longer history in the United States, with serious arguments and discussions dating back to at least the 1930s. The noted sociologist W. E. B. DuBois called for “abolition-democracy” in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction. This concept advocated the removal of institutions rooted in racism and repression, including white police forces. Another wave of defunding advocacy grew during the civil rights era, especially during the 1960s and 1970s when many police forces became involved in a variety of unconstitutional and often violent anti-protest actions. In the wake of the Church Committee’s investigation of the COINTELPRO scandal, significant restrictions were placed on the FBI, but calls to reform local police forces were largely ignored, despite the fact that many were actively complicit in the repressive program.
The current defund movement encompasses a wide range of proposals, ranging from outright abolition to disband-and-replace to reduction of mission and assignments. Its popularity at this time is obviously strongly tied to the same societal characteristics found in the 1930s arguments; the existence of systemic racism and discrimination in society, its codification in law, and its acceptance and eager application by many of those assigned to enforce the law. The effects of these have been intensified by several waves of “war on crime” philosophies at all levels of government, and related increases in police funding, since the 1960s. But modern defunding analysis has also been adjusted to recognize (relatively) newer trends that accelerated in the late 1970s, trends that not only affected public policing but public education as well.
The newer problem is an indirect effect of the widespread tax revolt of the mid-to-late twentieth century, a revolt that still has many powerful adherents in the United States. Most notable is Grover Norquist, who is well known for his “drown government in a bathtub” quote, but the first major shot in the revolt was fired by Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann when they promoted California’s Proposition 13 in 1978. Brought to a vote by the California ballot initiative process, Prop 13 passed with 63 percent. Its popularity reflected the high inflation of the preceding decade, which included a rapid increase in property values and related taxes. Its primary provisions were that property taxes could not exceed one percent of the assessed value of any property and that those assessed values could not increase by more than two percent each year. It immediately reduced property tax revenue in California by about 60 percent statewide, a deficit that was gradually reduced, but by no means eliminated, by adding fees on other state and local services.
The success of Proposition 13, and the widespread media coverage that followed, inspired a spate of similar efforts in at least 30 other states. It was also in part responsible for the results of the 1980 election in which Ronald Reagan, California governor, became president of the United States. To the Republican Party the lesson seemed to be that “no new taxes” was a winning strategy, and they’ve adhered to it since, pledging to reduce the amount of money provided to, and spent by, governments at all levels. Wherever Republicans have been in control of the budget process, and where they have been joined by like-minded Democrats or Independents, they have made efforts to do just that, justifying their efforts by frequent references to governmental waste and to arguments that the amounts provided for government operations are excessive.
The trouble is that the conservative rumors of waste and excess funding are largely bogus. Admittedly, before 1978 K-12 schools and Universities in the state of California were recognized as excellent. The state also had a good reputation for the quality of its roads and other infrastructure. Was this too much, or is it what we should expect to be getting for our tax money? That seems to be a philosophical divide that has been answered in favor of the latter in most European social democracies, but in the United States citizens have tended to demand necessary public services without wanting to pay for them. So in the past seven decades we’ve fairly consistently voted in favor of lower taxes. That has inevitably led to fewer government benefits and more circumscribed public services. The result, in one important area, was summarized on June 30, 2020 by Doctor Robert Redfield, the Director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control, in testimony before congress. Speaking about the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he noted that “for decades there’s been consistent underinvestment in public health.” The continuation of that trend meant that in the most recent decade the number of state and local public health professionals declined by more than 5,000 per year even as the number and severity of public health threats have increased. The government response, in short, was so small it was drowned in the coronavirus.
But what has all of that meant for the public services included under the general categories of law enforcement and education? First, the downward pressure on tax collections and revenues has meant reduced funding for both, at all levels of government. Budgets for both facilities and salaries have not kept up with inflation. Personnel shortages are common as most police departments and school districts have been unable to compete in the job market to attract all of the qualified individuals they need. Shortages have meant that many of those hired to fill empty positions have not been fully vetted, and have not been adequately trained or competent. That has undoubtedly increased the frequency of unprofessional behavior in both professions, a result that could have been expected.
But that’s only the most direct effect of the revenue decline. With steady declines in government services and facilities to address such varied problems as health care, mental crises, housing and the homeless, families in distress, and poverty, a large proportion of the government responses to those problems have been shifted to the police and schools. Teachers are expected to deal with troubled, poor, and ill students with minimal or no assistance from school nurses or counselors. Police officers are sent to respond to 911 calls for minor public disturbances and welfare checks and domestic arguments even when there is no connection to a crime in progress. In effect, the constant pressure to reduce tax revenues has pushed social problems into the hands of people who are only minimally trained to deal with them and who would have had a full-time workload even without such demands. This not only delays or disrupts the provision of appropriate police and teaching functions, but also increases the likelihood that improper and potentially destructive methods will be applied. This is true even if our police officers and teachers have received supplemental training, because such preparation will inevitably be substandard or incomplete. Many of these public contacts could, and should, have been better handled by social workers, trained counselors, conflict-resolution specialists, and emergency medical technicians.
There are, certainly, other issues raised by Black Lives Matter and related protests, most notably the militarization of the police and the decline in community-oriented police programs during the past two decades, and the recalcitrant role of police unions in refusing any attempts at reform or at punishing bad actors. Then, of course, there’s the question of specific arrest procedures such as choke holds. These are in some cases being dealt with as separate limited reforms in a few cities and states, a response that is significantly inadequate. Thus far, any meaningful national solution has been blocked by the president and his followers in the U.S. Senate.
To return to the more general question of defunding the police, the only completed effort thus far has been the disbanding and restructuring of the force in Camden, New Jersey, and that occurred in 2013. It was apparently very effective and would serve as a positive example for other cities. But most of the newest proposals for defunding the police are less comprehensive, being calls to divert some of the funds now assigned to police departments and apply them to the types of social services that would be most appropriate for many of the problems that public agencies face. This would expand the numbers of specialized workers that could respond to specific social problems and thereby reduce the demands placed on both the police departments and school districts, actually freeing up the police and teachers to do more of what they were hired to do. In fact, “defunding” of this type could make both our police forces and our schools more effective. Ideally, though, we would not merely shift current expenditures, but would also expand taxation and funding to make up for the losses that have occurred as a result of the stinginess of the political austerity philosophies of the past. There is already growing pressure to do that, as shown by the passage of recent voter initiatives, for example in both Arizona and California, to raise taxes and improve services. We can only hope that this tpe of action will be a future trend across more of our country. Let’s call for “refunding” public services in general.