A little over one week before the United States presidential election, another Black man was murdered by police officers. Walter Wallace Jr.’s family had called 911 asking for help because Wallace was suffering a psychological episode. He was wielding a knife in his hand when the police officers arrived, and in alleged self-defense after instructing him to put it down over 10 times to no avail, Wallace was shot.
Wallace Jr.’s family has been working with prosecutors and police in order to make the trial a fair one. The incident, though, has once again sparked cries to “defund the police” in the wake of the excessive force used against another Black man to end his life. But what does “defunding the police” really mean? When it comes to a situation like Wallace Jr.’s, his family called 911 because it was the only resource they were aware of. But what if they had been able to contact instead of armed police officers, a mental health specialist, perhaps? Walter Wallace Jr. was from Philadelphia, where in June amid earlier protests a preliminary budget cut was passed that allocated millions of dollars to anti-poverty measures. In Dallas, a special mental health team made of a police officer, a paramedic, and a social worker responds to certain emergencies when the situation warrants. Kurtis Young, the director of social work at the local hospital, said this has resulted “not only in fiscal savings, but also better care.” If the purpose of the police is to keep us safe, then programs with results like these should be widely and enthusiastically embraced, but cries of defunding the police have fallen on deaf or ignorant ears across the country. The point of defunding the police is not to simply take money away from law enforcement. It is to reallocate that money to social services that are actually proven to protect the community. In New York City, the budget for policing is more than that of the combined budgets for the Departments of Health, Homeless Services, Housing Preservation and Development, and Youth and Community Development. What if instead of spending almost eleven billion dollars on law enforcement every year, we instead shifted some of that money towards mental health services, addiction recovery services, housing programs, and food banks, job training, and violence prevention?
People who are against taking a second look at these disproportionate budget ratios are usually those who are so quick to say that funding anything other than law enforcement is “socialism” or “government overreach.” But billions of tax dollars being spent on an overworked and overbearing police system that has for years been slowly and steadily failing the public doesn’t actually represent their ideals of “freedom” any better. When it comes to race and policing, many research groups over the years have found that “predominantly Black neighborhoods are simultaneously over-policed when it comes to surveillance and social control, and under-policed when it comes to emergency services.” The actual desires and needs of these communities are not being addressed; instead, we think that criminalizing their every move is going to somehow solve whatever social ill we have projected onto them. Organizations such as the Movement for Black Lives and the ACLU have spoken out about steps that cities and states could take when it comes to reducing police violence, such as ending stop-and-frisk measures and police presence in schools as well as implementing alternative crisis services such as those specifically for mental health issues.
The answer to the problems of violence and of protest is not simply more police; it is not simply locking people up and forgetting about them. It is to take a long look at the underlying issues that drive people to a life of crime, like poverty, discrimination, addiction, and other social issues, and solve these problems. We will always need some sort of law enforcement agency to call upon. No one is denying that. But that does not mean that the system we have now is perfect — or set in stone. It needs to evolve to fit the needs of the people as we learn more about social issues that are the roots of crime. This issue, like many others, simply serves to highlight the fundamental difference between the two sides of our divided America: in order to lower crime rates, conservatives want to reactively punish people for doing bad things. Progressives, on the other hand, want to proactively solve the problems that force people to do bad things in the first place; not just to lower crime rates, but also because everyone deserves equal access to fundamental human rights such as safety and security, as well as material rights like food, water, shelter, education, and healthcare. Only when we start to address these underlying inequalities that simmer below the surface of criminal activity instead of approaching every single problem with one blanket solution and a gun, then the public can perhaps begin to trust in our laws once more.