A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis city council Sunday voted to defund its police department. It will instead spend the money on a new system to address public safety. What is to be done in Minneapolis is also on the minds of activists nationally and is a core social media response to the death of Minneapolis’s George Floyd. New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would move funding from the city’s police budget, giving it to youth initiatives and social services. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to cut $150 million from the city’s police budget, pledging it to the city’s African American community.

It’s easy to understand why the “defund the police” sentiment is so prevalent. African American lives are being lost at levels highly disproportionate to their numbers. The police who are suppose to protect them are the ones killing them. It’s an age-old story and attempts to reform have failed. Hence the protests that have swept our streets and filled our public parks.

No one knows how Minneapolis will fare if its police department no longer exists. We don’t know how New York City or Los Angeles will do if police forces are cut back and social programs are more fully funded.

What we do know is fear is an easy thing to incite. What we do know is we have a president skilled at doing just that. We also know we have an election in November with a president behind in the polls and a president desperate for his “law and order” advantage.

As problematic as police departments across the nation may be, they still enjoy support from a majority of Americans and defunding them without a proven alternative, and without the public’s support creates a vacuum easily filled by doubt. [Would the money to non-policing efforts really happen, and how much is really enough, and who should get the cash? What happens to the bad guys?]

This is not an argument to maintain what we see. What we have doesn’t work, which is painfully obvious. To address the need requires addressing the society’s inequalities which means a massive increase in the funding and support needed to move the oppressed out of poverty. As long as the inequality remains, racism, which is the system that allows those in power to keep their power, will remain as well.

Short of defunding police departments, there are ways to improve the system and questions that need answering. It’s been shown, for example, that police force unions make it doubly difficult to take action against officers charged with abuse. They protect their own. Laws need to be passed that will curb those legal protections. Restrictions can be imposed to forbid police officers from using lethal force, unless it’s a last resort. Training can be put in place to address the implicit bias in police departments. There is the need to strengthen the ties inherent in community-oriented policing. Information needs to be shared so that cops fired from one department aren’t picked up by another. Educational standards — college degrees for example — could be required.

As with almost any profession there are always ways to improve things without dismantling them. That said, there is every hope that Minneapolis succeeds, that it finds a better way and that it becomes a defensible model for the rest of us. The exercise is valuable. But it will also take time, and resources, and public support. In the meantime, great care will need to be exercised to avoid the issue playing into the hands of the president.

It was wise of Joe Biden to say on Monday that he was opposed to the defunding of police departments. His party’s left wing needs to be on board as well.

by Emerson Lynn

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