Pressure To Reform Police May Produce Hasty Decisions

Jun 10, 2020

In the wake of a string of acts of police brutality, many protestors are calling for cities to defund their local police departments.  That cry is even being heard in Lansing.  Defunding a police force doesn’t necessarily mean shutting it down.  While some in law enforcement are open to calls for reform, others are resistant.

 


I asked Dr. Scott Wolfe for his take on the term “defunding.”  He’s an associate professor in the Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice.  Wolfe doesn’t think many people really know what defunding the police would actually entail. 

“Typically, when we talk about the term “defunded” police, or disbanding, it’s going be some form of budget reallocation,” Wolfe explains.  “The concern we have about the call for defunding police right now is that there's an immediate need and public pressure for politicians and police chiefs to do something about excessive use of force.”

Camden, New Jersey is often cited as a model of what a restructured police force could look like.  It wasn’t actually disbanded, Wolfe explains.  Instead, it was reconsolidated with the local county police department. 

"There were more police officers on the street," Wolfe says.  "Homicide and violent crime went down.  That's a good thing.  But the problem is, that example is not evidence that disbanding or restructuring of any type works.  What that is evidence of is that in some ways, if you do it right, more police can be a good thing if those officers have the ability to do things that we know work to solve crime like community oriented policing."

 

In some ways, if you do it right, more police can be a good thing if those officers have the ability to do things that we know work to solve crime, like community-oriented policing.

 

Community oriented policing may mean shifting more dollars that would otherwise go to the department to social service agencies and mental health experts.  Wolfe says police officers have wanted that support for a long time.

“A lot of officers have been calling for it themselves for years to take responsibility off of their shoulders,” he says. “All of society's problems tend to fall on the police, and they're not prepared. They're not trained and they're not well equipped enough to handle a lot of the problems that we throw at them, like the mental health crisis.”

 

Guarded by Lansing City Police, hundreds of protestors sit outside the home of Lansing Mayor Andy Schor on June 6.
Credit Kevin Lavery/WKAR

This week, the city of Lansing announced a plan to provide $170,000 for a new program called the Racial Equity and Anti-Racism Fund.  Scott Wolfe hasn’t heard of anything similar in other cities.  He wants to see it used with transparency.

“If you’re going to overnight take a huge sum of money away from one government institution and put it to another…I hope for the benefit of the taxpayers that decision is evidence-based,” says Wolfe.  “In the same way, we need to be more accountable for what police departments are using that money for. They should be accountable for demonstrating that what they're doing with the money is beneficial.”


 

FULL TRANSCRIPT

 

SCOTT WOLFE:

I don't think a whole lot of people know what defunding the police would actually entail, and that’s a problem. Typically, when we talk about the term “defunded” police, or disbanding, it’s going be some form of budget reallocation. The concern we have about the call for defunding police right now is that there's an immediate need and public pressure for politicians and police chiefs to do something about excessive use of force. But, in that public pressure, there's going to be a lot of hasty decisions being made without thinking how those are going to impact policing and community relations in the short term and in the long term.

KEVIN LAVERY:

I think what many people are calling for is less investment in equipment and the armaments that go into policing and a little more toward social services and a little more toward community policing. To my knowledge, the closest example we have of a defunded and rebuilt police department has been Camden, New Jersey.  I’m wondering If you could envision what a defunding situation might mean for the city of Lansing?

WOLFE:

The reality of what happened in Camden is the police department wasn't really disbanded. It reconsolidated with the county law enforcement, and almost immediately, all the officers from the Camden Police Department that were let go were immediately rehired by the Camden County Police Department. There were more police officers that were put on the street. There were more citizen contacts. What happened as a result of that is homicide and violent crime went down. That’s a good thing. But the problem is that example is not evidence that disbanding or restructuring of any type works. What that is evidence of is that in some ways, if you do it right, more police can be a good thing if those officers have the ability to do things that we know work to solve crime, like community oriented policing. 

LAVERY:

It seems many rank and file police officers would agree with that position, but when you hear it from the police unions, they are reticent to change.

WOLFE:

Unions have historically been resistant to change of any type, and that's not surprising. A lot of officers, a lot of command staff, all the way down to officers on patrol beats are open to the idea (of reconsolidation).  They've been calling for it themselves for years to take responsibility off of their shoulders. All of society's problems tend to fall on the police, and they're not prepared. They're not trained and they're not well equipped enough to handle a lot of the problems that we throw at them, like the mental health crisis. So, when we talk about defunding, it may be a worthwhile discussion to have a larger conversation about where can we build up social institutions and local, state, federal governments to take that pressure off of the police so we can avoid some tragedies that we've seen over the past couple of years.

LAVERY:

This week, the city of Lansing announced it’s asking the city council to move $170,000 that’s available for the rest of this fiscal year, and put it into (what’s called) the Racial Equity and Anti-Racism Fund.  Have you ever heard of such a thing? Does this money produce positive results?

WOLFE:

I honestly have not heard of such a thing. It may be beneficial; I don't know what it's comprised of. But the question I’d have is, if you're going to overnight take a huge sum of money away from one government institution and put it to another…I hope for the benefit of the taxpayers that decision is evidence-based; that where you're putting that money has been shown to be effective for whatever you're trying to do. In the same way, we need to be more accountable for what police departments are using that money for. They should be accountable for demonstrating that what they're doing with the money is beneficial.