In the last few weeks, Black Lives Matter protests have spread across the U.S. like wildfire. Americans everywhere have risen in defiance of police brutality that has long plagued our nation. Amid these protests, a movement seeking to defund police departments has arisen, and we must continue to amplify this movement.
While calls for reform within police departments are well-intentioned and could potentially be a strong first step in eliminating institutionalized racism, it is not enough. Reforms like racial bias training and body cameras may mitigate implicit bias but will never fully solve the racial inequities that lie within the institution of policing. In the case of Rayshard Brooks, body cameras and training failed to protect him from the officers’ violence. We must call upon our local governments to defund police departments and reinvest that funding into community initiatives, like schooling.
The institution of police was established in the U.S. largely as a means of population control — labor control in the North, and a means of slave catching in the South. The role of police in our society has since evolved to carry great power over our daily lives, and this power allows racism to go unchecked. Reports show that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Yet Black people are no more likely to commit crimes, and they are disproportionately stopped by police. Such racism and bias cannot be condoned and we must work toward dismantling institutions that allow them to prevail. We must eliminate the problem at its root.
Police exert nearly absolute power over citizens and continue to amass budgets at the expense of education and social services, comprising about 20% to 45% of discretionary funds nationwide. In the proposed 2021 budget for Atlanta, about 33% of the general fund would go toward the Atlanta Police Department (APD), about $217 million. The Department of City Planning is set to receive about $20 million, while other departments will most likely receive far less. Reallocating these funds to social services for mental health, rehabilitation and education could directly address significant issues such as homelessness and poverty, which may, in turn, lower the need for policing. Despite being poorly equipped to handle issues such as homelessness or mental illness, police are often tasked with responding to people facing these problems, whereas other officials, like mental health experts, would better solve these problems directly. We must tackle these societal problems at their root by reinvesting in our communities and decreasing the prominence of police forces nationwide.
Defunding police departments is not unprecedented. The Minneapolis City Council recently announced its intent to first defund and ultimately dismantle their city’s police department while creating a new model for public safety. Activists have taken to social media calling for similar measures across all states. Some favor addressing police violence by reforming the police department through bias training, but such measures have proven ineffective. In 2015, Minneapolis launched a project to address police violence through a series of reforms such as implicit bias training, body cameras and early-warning systems. These reforms, however, largely failed to curb police brutality. The police as an institution that upholds control, violence and racism must therefore fundamentally change. To sustainably alleviate racial inequities and police violence, we must drastically shrink their size and reduce their power.
Programs such as Dallas’ RIGHT Care require that an officer, a paramedic and a social worker respond to mental health emergency calls. The goal of RIGHT Care is to divert mental health patients from going to emergency rooms (ER) and jails by providing them with the appropriate services they need in a given moment. This ultimately lowers the risk of an arrest or potential police violence. This program diverted 31% of calls that went first to jails and hospital ERs to services within their community. Programs like this one exemplify why it’s necessary to defund the police. People experiencing mental health crises, for example, should be connected with mental health experts — they should not be criminalized or face confrontations with police. We must divert massive portions of police budgets to fund these paramount social services instead.
Whereas abolishing police departments altogether could be a long-term goal, the immediate step must be to drastically defund the police and decrease their role in society. By reducing police presence in our communities in favor of alternatives such as social workers, we can keep our communities safe while mitigating instances of police brutality. Re-imagining alternatives to policing can keep our communities safe without accepting inevitable dangers. As citizens and advocates, we must take action within our own communities. I urge you to email your local state representatives and demand they take action to defund the police.
In such a pivotal time, silence is the greatest threat to meaningful change. To those who regard this movement as too radical or too unrealistic, I implore you to remember: at one time, abolishing slavery, ending segregation and granting civil rights to Black, Indigenous and People of Color were all considered unfeasible. Our duty is not to make minute changes within the system, but to transform our nation into a truly equal society.
Brammhi Balarajan (23C) is from Las Vegas.