Since the BLM protests began, there is a phrase being used that many activists have been familiar with for some time, but for most of the world seems a shocking and unfathomable statement.
Defund the police.
At first it was something scrawled in paint on walls as fires burned, or passionately shouted through megaphones by protestors. When I’ve used this phrase myself I have barely got to the end of the sentence before being interrupted by someone eager to tell me that I’m a dangerous radical and that we don’t live in a world of rainbows and unicorns.
But then this week, a headline I thought I would never see in my lifetime cast across my eyes: Minneapolis council voted to defund its police department. LA too is said to be considering it, and it has caused absolute hell on as you would expect.
I need to start off by saying this is not as revolutionary as you may think. There is a misconception that defunding the police will look like a morning where you wake up and can’t call the police if you are in danger, leading to a world that is suddenly plunged into something out of The Purge. This is not the case. No model I have seen believes that doing so would be the safe or responsible course of action.
We overuse our police force entirely. Go ask your cop friend or family member, they can tell you more about this than I ever could and they are more fed up with it than we are. When they signed up, chances were it wasn’t to spend time writing mountains of paperwork over a bit of lost property or being forced to listen to both sides of completely minor yet utterly ludicrous and prolonged neighbour disputes about one side’s tree dropping conkers into another one’s garden. White middle class people in particular often think of them as some sort of customer service, perhaps to complain about a rude shop assistant or because someone parked in ‘their’ spot, or because they saw a black person walking into their own house. Most of us here in the UK also remember that time a bunch of people called the cops because KFC ran out of chicken, to the point where the police had to make a public appeal to beg them not to do it because it wasn’t a policing matter.
Covid-19 brought out a horrible side to a frightened general public who were encouraged to assess the actions of their neighbours with little evidence whatsoever and pick up the phone to police, fresh with new powers in wake of the virus, or report anonymously online. Which caused particular chaos given the government civil guidelines appeared to have been written by The Riddler, leaving people to try and decipher them like shit Christmas cracker jokes.
Increasingly the police are also being used to deal with people in mental health crisis. This is often because crisis teams often refuse to see a patient unless they consent. They have also been affected massively by austerity cuts and if the patient is experiencing psychosis and does not believe they are ill, this can become a huge problem. Cells are not the place for mentally ill people and neither the police, the patients or their families want this. While triage schemes in some areas have helped some access more appropriate support more quickly, we are still seeing deaths in custody of people and children who should not have been there in the first place.
And quite frankly, this type of work was not why the police were created. They were created to keep minorities and a discontent working class in their place. Their existence is brand new in terms of human existence, though Kings and Rulers certainly had their own enforcers before that time.
We need to build communities that catch people in times of danger instead of letting them fall, as well as having a huge focus on prevention work. We have an element of personal accountability in this, as we have a habit of deciding what is ‘our’ problem. An example of this is a personal one. I once had a seizure in the street late at night. Upon waking I was still not fully functioning and entirely postictal. People who walked past pretended not to see me. Eventually I was found by police who thankfully took me to hospital, but by then I’d been there for about an hour and a half in near freezing weather. My point is they weren’t what I needed and someone stopping even just to call an ambulance wouldn’t have been too taxing.
One of the arguments I have come across criticising the Defund The Police movement is that it will leave poor, impoverished communities vulnerable, while the rich will hire their own private police forces which are already in existence in some areas. My reply to that would be that if you are from a non white community, or an impoverished one, if you have a disability or mental ill health, or an addiction, or been homeless, chances your experience of the police is not a protective, positive one already.
Besides, the movement is not calling for the abolition of cops altogether.
I support victims of domestic and sexual violence in my work, both adults and children. I am a police and prison abolitionist. Do I encourage my service users to contact the police if they are in danger? Yes. If they are reluctant to have them involved, do I look at ways they can overcome those barriers? Yes. Because right now there is little viable alternative for them. To discourage this on the grounds of my political views would be irresponsible at best, and manslaughter at worst, and I am saying to you, if you are in a similar situation, do not let anyone make you feel guilty if you have to contact the police and decide to take things through the criminal justice system.
I have personally met people who’s lives have been saved because they called the police, but I accept that many of the people I support do not want their involvement and have a range of valid reasons for that. As workers we have had to find other ways to try and keep people safe in other ways, such as therapy, home security or rehousing, rather than keep pushing a criminal justice agenda. I’m not just talking about the police here. The court system itself is horribly oppressive, unjust and discriminatory. Most rape and sexual assault cases never even make it that far, and the ones that do can be traumatising because of the revictimisation that occurs during the process. More and more often we are seeing victims of serious crimes have to wait over a year for their trial, keeping their anxiety and cortisol levels up at dangerous levels, then wonder why they drop charges rather than continue to lie awake every night in dread.
Prevention work would have a massive effect in harm reduction where domestic abuse is concerned, particularly if we invest more in therapeutic and emotional resilience work for children. We know so much more about trauma and adverse childhood experiences and how this effects development and behaviour, yet we are still lacking much of the trauma informed practice we know works into childrens social care and childrens mental health services. When they are employed, it is often at the point where a child or young person’s experiences are already having a visible, negative effect on their life. What I dream of seeing is a time when give therapeutic work to children who have witnessed or been subject to abuse at the point of disclosure, rather than waiting until they show any sign of distress or underdevelopment, which many may not until their experiences are severely impacting on their own relationships, growth and mental well being.
And as more appropriate, holistic services have been privatised and stripped of their resources or defunded, we find we are trying to shield people from storms with broken umbrellas. Understaffed or under-resourced services are not the only issue.
I don’t just want to go after the police, I want to go after the entire criminal justice system because I sit within it, and for the large part it is not fit for purpose.
We need to completely change all of our structures- not just the police- in order to keep people safe and dismantle discrimination, and I do mean all. Many political organisations I have encountered are still clinging to their archaic procedures and attitudes. They are as complicit in the revictimisation of survivors as any court room I have ever seen. There is a tendency when women come forward to disclose sexual or physical abuse and harassment from other members, for the organisation to state they will deal with it internally because they need to protect themselves from police scrutiny- only to then cover the abuse up and isolate the victims instead.
This is gaslighting, and it is allowing predators to roam within our own house. Right now, several large unions and traditionally left wing or progressive organisations have serious problems with predatory people being protected within them, and if you do not think we are fucking coming for you next to rip down those walls, you are in for a terrible surprise. New minds full of radical ideas and energy are coming into our groups and unions right now, and rather than let the usual gatekeepers manipulate and exploit it and turn that energy and passion into vulnerability and disillusionment, you are getting pushed out of the way this time because you are part of the problem.
While activist groups blocking victims from disclosing to the police only to offer no safety or support to protect them is abhorrent and discriminatory, it is not unreasonable for activists involved in social change to be wary of their involvement. There is the current spycops scandal, of course, which allowed citizens to be spied upon when undercover police pretending to be someone else helped themselves to activist women who they saw as a perk of the job. We also know they spied on the families of Stephen Lawrence and Ricky Reel fearing a ‘race war’, and rather than use resources to find their racist killers, they spied on their grieving families instead.
Their job will always be to prevent any change of social order, and quash the fires of revolution that threaten structures of power, and that is why it needs to be defunded. There will still be cops responding to any emergency where no other service is appropriate, but the millions that is wasted on many of their current essential duties- such as harassing homeless people for being homeless- can be better spent on housing, drug treatment, domestic and sexual violence programmes and youth work. Don’t believe it is a viable option? Look at all of the money that has been ploughed in to police to tackle knife crime? Add up every penny given to their internal prevention programmes, amnesties and extra boots on the street. It didn’t do anything. Yet when we look at the model Glasgow used- a city with extraordinarily high gang related knife fatalities-to tackle knife crime which saw fatalities decline by 69% in a decade. They treat knife crime not as a policing issue, but a public health one, working on the basis that violence is preventable, not inevitable. They funded youth work, NHS schemes. They developed role models, talked to offenders and ex offenders about the cycle of violence. Extend that work right across our society and it is not unreasonable to think we can have real change.
Reform has been tried, and it has only brought about the most minor of improvements. Even the authorities that have tried to implement reform have admitted that more policing and prisons is not keeping us safer. Crime targets that police are asked to meet mean their priorities are protecting property and capital, and the Crown Prosecution Service’s decisions on what is in the public interest to pursue are severely questionable. I have lost count just this year on how many rape cases I have seen be discontinued, but I have witnessed someone cry uncontrollably in the dock as they were handed a suspended sentence for not paying a 7 year old speeding fine because they had been made homeless shortly after the offence occurred, and had only just started getting back on their feet by the time police caught up with them.
When something isn’t working we should not be afraid to build something new. Quite often police and prison abolitionists are accused of treating everyone like a victim, when really the opposite is true. It’s about saying we can stop creating victims on the first place and we all have a part we can play in that. For me, it should be more terrifying to actively decide to keep trying things we know do not work, and shunning the ones that we do.