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What ‘Defund the Police’ Means and What Some NC Cities Are Doing

Defunding the police covers a spectrum of ideas Some people want to reallocate portions of police budgets to other needs. Others want to dissolve law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system altogether.

by Virginia Bridges, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) / June 11, 2020
AP

(TNS) -- In 2016, D’atra Jackson stood before the Durham City Council and asked it to stop funding the police department.

“We really want the city of Durham to look into divesting from policing and instead funding black futures and investment in the black and brown communities,” she said.

At the time, some council members dismissed the suggestion as naive and offensive to officers who risk their lives serving the community.

A lot has changed in four years, and especially in the weeks since since George Floyd died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Amid nationwide protests, defunding police has gone from a radical idea to one that some cities are considering to various degrees. Efforts in Durham, where the City Council last year rejected hiring more police officers in favor of raising part-time city workers’ pay, have been noted in The New York Times and National Public Radio.

“For some folks it is a new concept, but it isn’t to us,” said Jackson, an organizer with BYP100 and the Durham Beyond Policing coalition. “We have been planning for this moment for a minute.”

Floyd’s death, along with the fatal shooting by police of Brianna Taylor in Kentucky, and the release of video showing the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by armed white residents in Georgia unfolded during a pandemic in which African Americans and Latinos are getting sick and dying at higher rates than white people. An incident in New York City’s Central Park, where a white woman called police on a black birdwatcher, ratcheted tensions higher.

The current movement is pushing the concept of black criminalization to the forefront, said Jackson, whose BYP (Black Youth Project) 100 chapter organized a Defund the Police march in Durham on June 1.

What does ‘defund the police’ mean?

Defunding the police covers a spectrum of ideas Some people want to reallocate portions of police budgets to other needs. Others want to dissolve law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system altogether.

A majority of Minneapolis City Council members committed Sunday to dismantling their police department and rebuilding a new model of public safety.

City Council President Lisa Bender told CNN such a model could have mental health professionals, instead of police, respond to some emergencies. Durham advocates point to CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, which provides an alternative to 911 to call during a crisis and sends out a medic and crisis worker.

“Instead of investing in more policing,” Bender explained, ”we (would) invest in those alternatives, those community-based strategies.”

Mayors in Los Angeles and New York City plan to redirect police funding. Officials in Portland, Oregon, and other cities have removed or are discussing removing law enforcement officers from schools and shifted spending.

Durham, NC, police debate

In 2019, a debate over whether Durham should hire 18 more officers the police chief wanted revealed a divide on the City Council.

Some council members and residents said they were tired of seeing children being shot and that hiring more officers would bring relief to those in neighborhoods plagued with violent crime.

The council majority, however, opposed the new officers, arguing the money should be spent on other community efforts and increasing the wages for part-time city workers to $15/hour. The council rejected more officers in two 4-3 votes.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson has been critical of the policing and incarceration systems. In an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered Saturday, she said some people support entirely defunding the police, but it would be hard to take that route.

“It’s difficult to go immediately from what we have now to nothing because we’ve told our residents for years and years that whenever anything goes wrong, the answer is to call the police,” she said.

Reforms providing greater accountability implemented in Durham, such as body cameras and requiring a signature for consent searches, have been “substantial” and “important,” Johnson said, but not enough.

Ultimately, she said, the system wasn’t designed to serve communities, “especially black communities,” Johnson said.

“Our best chance for building a safety solution that puts people first, that puts communities first, that takes care of people rather than criminalizes, incarcerates and punishes them is by shifting resources that we use for policing into other systems, alternative systems, alternative institutions rather than the institutions that we know are also causing us harm,” she said.

A significant number of police calls are from someone in a mental health crisis or another situation that requires de-escalation.

“And so sending an armed police officer into that situation can actually escalate the conflict,” she said.

Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis, who spoke last week on “Good Morning America,” is also a part of the national conversation, but for a different kind of reform. She was previously deputy chief in Atlanta and last year became president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

“I believe that we need to have sweeping changes and police reform where we are supported with legislation and that agencies are held accountable with accreditation to ensure every agency large and small has the best practices in place, “ she said.

The News & Observer sent Davis questions about defunding Monday morning but had not received a reply as of Wednesday evening.

Raleigh considers budget changes

Some mayors, including Durham Mayor Steve Schewel and Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, have signed a pledge from former President Barack Obama calling on them to reform police use-of-force policies.

But Jackson and other defunding supporters say reform isn’t the answer. Those solutions see individuals within an institution abusing their power, when Jackson and others see the institution as the problem.

“We have seen that through centuries, and racial equity training is not going to solve that,” she said.

In Raleigh, the City Council recently created a police advisory board to review policies. After criticism of its response to George Floyd protesters two weeks ago, the city is also seeking an outside review of how police handled the event, in which officers deployed tear gas, rubber or foam bullets and sponge grenades.

“This is kind of like that watershed moment where you can initiate change,” Baldwin said. “We have everybody from the federal level, to the state level to the local level, all looking at ways we can do this.”

Rolanda Byrd, executive director of the organization Raleigh PACT (Police Accountability Community Task Force), said her organization unsuccessfully asked the city last year to shift money from the police budget to investing more in community services, education, housing and proper training for police.

Byrd, whose son Akiel Denkins, 24, was killed by a Raleigh police officer in 2016, said they have the same request this year. They are also are asking that no new police substations be built, especially in black communities.

Charlotte removes chemical agents

On Monday night, the Charlotte City Council removed money from the police budget for chemical agents used for crowd control, The Charlotte Observer reported.

It also tasked a committee with reviewing how the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department spends money and told its city manager to align police policies with the national “8 Can’t Wait” initiative, which emphasizes de-escalation strategies.

“The people of Charlotte will be pushing forward with new models to keep our community safe,” said City Council member Braxton Winston. “We are not looking backwards. Our eye is on the horizon.”

Still, the changes fell short for social-justice advocates who asked that 5% of the police department’s budget go to affordable housing, transportation and community health programs, among other needs.

The defunding movement raises concerns for some law-enforcement leaders. Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton cautions that decreased funding could hurt the ability of small towns like his to attract good officers. Carrboro has about 21,000 residents.

“People talk about defunding the police department. We’re going to have a hard time keeping good people and finding good people,” Horton said. “We’d rather work short than bring somebody else bad into this police department. It’s not good for us, and it’s not good for the community.”

Policing and the slave patrols

The country’s first police force was established in Boston in 1838, following volunteer night watches and constables, often paid with fees for the warrants they served, Gary Potter, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, wrote in a report on the history of policing in the U.S.

But in the South modern policing evolved from the slave patrol, Potter wrote. After the Civil War, the “vigilante-style organizations” became police departments “primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves” and enforcing Jim Crow segregation laws, he wrote.

Those origins continue to affect how people view police, said Johnson, the Durham council member.

“White folks are taught to trust the police, that the police are their friend, that the police are there to help them,” she said. “And black folks largely are not taught that.”

In Durham, defunding advocates came together in 2016 as Duham Beyond Policing to oppose a new $70 million police headquarters. The coalition includes local chapters of BYP100, SONG (Southerners On New Ground) and SpiritHouse.

The headquarters was built, but coalition members did help defeat the hiring of additional officers last year. They lobbied instead for a community safety and wellness task force, which is being established.

The coalition also helped to successfully push the city’s “participatory budgeting” program, in which the council let residents decide how to spend $2.4 million in the city budget.

“Participatory budgeting was one of our first demands, specifically as a way to democratize how we spend our money in our city and what we care about,” Johnson said.

Nuances in the participatory budgeting and the police discussion need to be considered, said Durham City Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton.

In the participatory budgeting, 60 percent of those voting were white, said Middleton, who supported participatory budgeting but with less funding.

“This was supposed to expand participation in democracy, and what it turned out to be was really a supplemental white voter initiative,” he said.

Police do more than fight crime, Middleton said, who supports hiring more officers as the city grows.

Police respond to traffic wrecks. They help find missing children and adults. It isn’t the size of a police force, but its culture that matters most, he said.

Middleton said he supports spending more on initiatives addressing poverty and or that would reduce contact with police, but doesn’t know what it means to abolish the police.

“There are more than 300,000 people in the city. I took an oath to protect them,” he said. “I just don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to explain what abolish the police department with a single stroke looks like in terms of providing services.”

Police spending slated to increase

Amid the growing debate, police spending in Durham is currently scheduled to increase in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

In March, council members approved hiring six more officers to support an increased gang unit and to address violent crime. In a draft budget scheduled to be approved this month, the Police Department will receive a 5% increase to this year’s $70.4 million appropriation.

The increase would help absorb costs from a 2016 federal grant that funded 15 police officers for three years, the six police officers approved in March, and mandatory state retirement costs, wrote Bertha Johnson, city budget director, in an email.

The N&O staff writer Tammy Grubb and Charlotte Observer reporter Alison Kuznitz contributed to this report.

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