As the pandemic spilled into its third month on American soil, our nation was facing a desperate moment ― millions were newly jobless, two-week lockdowns had stretched into months and tens of thousands of Americans had died from COVID-19.
It is fitting, then, that amid this chaos, America’s original sin reared its ugly head. An exhibition of pure racism, the murder of George Floyd was a disgusting and heinous crime against not just a man but a nation. During one of America’s most politically and economically desperate moments, the police openly failed to protect and serve.
The weeks and months that followed showcased more police failures. Police departments that have been radically overmilitarized were woefully underprepared for the protests that devolved into riots. While cities burned, police failed to protect businesses but somehow managed to spare enough men to terrorize peaceful protestors. Early this year, the nation even witnessed how $516 million could not yield a police department strong enough to protect the Capitol.
Evidently, today’s model of public safety ― with police on the frontline ― is backward. People are not driven to crime by a dearth of policing but by a complex web of economic and social stressors, so any public safety action should primarily respond to those stressors. Activists accurately recognize that policing victimless crimes, like drug-related ones, can inflict more harm than good. Even worse, when laws against victimless crimes are enforced, they are disproportionately enforced against marginalized communities.
But where some take it too far is when they suggest that this justifies the total abolition or defunding of the police. This notion is wholly wrong and is based on a flawed understanding of how public safety should be delivered. While policing should not be the frontline of public safety, it is an essential tool of public safety.
First, no functioning government can work without a police force. Influential sociologist Max Weber defined the modern state by its “monopoly on violence” ― in other words, a government that cannot enforce its laws or protect its citizens loses legitimacy and eventually collapses. Enforcing laws and protecting citizens may mean using force, so our government must be prepared to do so.
Second, there is no suitable replacement for some police functions. Some suggest that the scope of everyday policing could be scaled back and replaced with municipal processes geared toward mediating situations non-violently. That’s fine — non-escalatory peacemaking needs to play a larger role in our approach to public safety, especially during the regular day-to-day operations of our communities.
But some episodes, such as riots, terrorist attacks and organized crime, require armed intervention under government authority. Good luck finding white-collared city staff willing to apprehend suspects of violent crimes without arms. Call them police or call them something else, but armed public servants will always perform these functions. Even if expanded social services reduce violent crime, no intervention is perfect ― cases will slip through the cracks, and someone will have to respond to them.
In these cases, defund movements would leave a vacuum that could be filled by neighborhood militias. From every perspective, this is a terrible consequence. Untrained and under-equipped civilians would be infinitely less accountable, effective and willing to step in when called upon. Without a doubt, in the absence of public police, well-off neighborhoods would choose to subscribe to private policing, capitalizing the human right to safety. If the government will not provide safety, corporations will.
Considering this, there is simply no world where our cities do not operate police forces — public employees whose jobs are to deal with dangerous situations will always be necessary.
Reducing funding for police is a more palatable idea, but is still unripe. There are other ways to deliver public safety — like with social workers and mental health professionals — but many are underdeveloped and not yet scalable. Slashing police budgets prematurely could leave gaps in coverage before proven replacements are well-established. Smaller police budgets should come as a natural by-product of beefing up other public safety responses, not as the impetus for their creation.
When discussing police, Americans need to recognize that at their core, police are public servants tasked with engaging in dangerous situations — they should be respected as public servants, but not placed above political debate. Many struggle with this: some elevate police to hero status, making them politically untouchable, while others denigrate them unfairly, failing to recognize the legitimate episodes that require government intervention.
The future of public safety starts by taking police off their pedestal. Not every incident can be resolved by sending in a blue-uniformed deputy, so more policing is not necessarily the answer. On the other side, activists need to help turn down the temperature by acknowledging that our government cannot and will not ever go without a police force.
Police should be the robust last resort of public safety in times of crisis, not the frontline. Instead of defunding or abolishing the police, we should repurpose the institution. Our communities deal with diverse and complex safety issues every day, from homelessness to reckless driving to domestic violence. These situations demand an army of local staff willing and ready to reach out and provide guidance — an army that cities already have. Police should be dedicated to providing guidance rather than enforcing punitive ordinances. Instead of patrolling and policing endlessly, they would only emerge when called upon, leaving citizens to decide for themselves when officers are needed.
When needed, police departments would still be capable of responding to violent situations, but would not show up to each situation expecting and thereby manifesting violence. Officers would continue to respond to non-violent situations, but with pamphlets and advice, avoiding the escalatory practices that have traditionally plagued departments. If officers prove unwelcome in these settings, cities can utilize police for these tasks in the interim while they develop suitable municipal systems to replace officers’ daily duties.
This is the path forward: moving police off the frontlines and shifting some of their duties over time to trusted and proven professionals. Alongside repurposed police, preventative public safety can and should be delivered in new and innovative ways. Policymakers and activists must recognize that police are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive with public safety, and that police are just one essential tool of any public safety repertoire. When we come together on this key reality, we can and will build a system that will protect more effectively and serve more equitably.
Jackson McGough ’23 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.