Across the country, countless Americans continue to protest the killing of George Floyd — and decry our national culture of police brutality.
Perhaps foremost among protesters’ demands are calls to defund police. Such calls have only grown louder as Minneapolis has successfully disbanded its police, emboldening protesters.
Decades of police reform efforts — from sensitivity trainings to mandatory use of body cameras — have failed to resolve the epidemic of police violence. Defunding police departments would be a strong first step to correct that oppression, and it would advance the United States toward eventual abolition of the police.
As the front line of the U.S. carceral system, police are responsible for many of its most profound injustices — deciding who gets stopped and frisked and which people are considered “threats” even when they can’t breathe. Police also regularly escape any accountability for the brutality they inflict. Under a legal framework known as “qualified immunity,” courts convict officers only in rare and very precise instances, letting cops off the hook even for brutal killings.
As many Black scholars and activists note, the historical origin of modern policing was 19th century slave catchers. Policing today retains vestiges of its origins, largely protecting white property at the expense of Black lives: One in every 1,000 Black men, for instance, can expect to die at the hands of police.
In Berkeley, where census data estimates about 8% of residents are Black, police data for the past month shows that Black residents made up 49% of jail bookings. Such sharp racial inequity suggests that the Berkeley Police Department criminalizes Blackness and poverty more than it protects residents.
In a country where even children know they can dial three numbers to summon an armed officer, it’s clear police are asked to do too much. Defunding the police could restore funding to perennially starved city services, many of which now face devastating cuts. BPD’s budget, by contrast, has grown 16% since 2017 and is the single largest part of the city’s budget. Berkeley could spend most of the $77 million approved for BPD next year on social workers, food banks, homeless shelters, affordable housing, public schools and community centers — all of which can support communities’ needs before they become emergencies.
At present, U.S. police departments often train and equip their officers to think and act like soldiers. With “warrior” mentality trainings and surplus military equipment, police are primed to wield lethal force. But Americans should remember that police are not indispensable, and recognize that even police abolition won’t suffice to resolve our myriad criminal justice failures.
Until we can end our brutal, racist policing paradigm, Americans — and especially Black Americans — will be paying with their lives.