"Please help me. Please, please, please."
When calls to defund the police roared after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the country was outraged. Half supported the idea of reallocating police funding to public services like housing, education, and mental healthcare, which have been shown to reduce crime (and thereby reduce the need for officers to enforce the law). The other half responded with a pro-police campaign that vehemently condemned anyone who wanted accountability for officers who fail to protect the public or in some cases, actually cause harm.
Here’s a great way to visualize what the defund police movement is actually calling for, courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s. For decades, politicians have been funneling billions of taxpayer dollars and impossible responsibilities to police departments (big bowl) instead of using our money to address underlying public health issues (small bowls). It’s not fair to expect police to diagnose and treat mental illness, for example, and it is unethical to criminalize those suffering from undiagnosed mental illness who cannot afford diagnosis and treatment.
Even when we treat public health issues before they become threats to public safety, we’ll probably always need some police presence in our communities. But, recent events have raised serious doubts about how effective existing law enforcement institutions are at protecting us.
As I sit here writing my first draft of this post today, Sean Bickings of Tempe, Arizona has drowned in front of three police officers who were responding to a call about a dispute involving him and his companion. According to the city, the homeless couple cooperated fully while police looked up outstanding warrants against them. Bickings then told officers he was going for a swim and jumped into the lake. “He swam about 30 to 40 yards before repeatedly indicating he was in distress.” He said, “Please help me. Please, please, please,” to which an unnamed officer responded, “I’m not jumping in after you.” Bickings is dead.
Two months ago, a gunman shot and injured 23 people in a Brooklyn subway car. Despite an already robust police presence in New York subway stations (lawmakers added 500 officers in 2019 bringing today’s count to 3,500 officers in the subway alone) police did not prevent this attack. The officer stationed at the scene was unable to operate his radio and asked civilians to call 911 to report the incident. The suspect escaped. More officers were deployed and were unable to locate the gunman with a witness reporting that, “the cops looked relaxed.”
Finally, consider the latest school massacre in Uvalde, TX. Many of the details of exactly what happened on 5/24 are still being investigated but we know that 19 police officers did nothing for over an hour while a gunman fired over 100 shots and students frantically called 911. Great-grandfather of slain student Alexandria Rubio confronted officers at her memorial site, “Do you know why they called 911? Because their mothers, their fathers, and the teachers taught them, ‘call 911 and the police will be there to save you.’ Were you there? No! My granddaughter is dead because you were not there!”.
40% of Uvalde’s city budget goes to their local police department. We’ve learned that Uvalde police just recently completed an active shooter training in March 2022. The manual from that course reads, “A first responder unwilling to place the lives of the innocent above their own safety should consider another career field.” So, what happens when we have irrefutable evidence that “more training” did not work and/or that police did not act appropriately when civilians were in danger? What can we do when these malpractice incidents are occurring more frequently and in more cities?
Step one is admitting that public safety, as we know it, is seriously broken. Step two is firing politicians who are more committed to idolizing the system than serving the people. Step three is replacing them with lawmakers (from city council to Congress) who promise to fund evidenced based services and programs that (A) truly improve our lives and (B) have been shown to reduce criminal interactions with police– vote! We can fix this, and anyone who tells you we can’t is scared of our power.