Defunding the Police Means Reclaiming Safety

The first-person plural has been getting a bit of a workout recently, especially by white people — and among them, white Jews — and especially when the white community, elected officials and law enforcement realized the cries of “defund the police” were serious and not just another hashtag that soon would fade. People have been demanding, “Who will protect us?”

In truth, the slogan “defund the police” represents a movement triggered by an ocean of pain stemming from police shootings but is based on years of research in the academy and organizing on the street. The argument is that community safety and security is better served by unarmed specialists who could bring to bear mental health training, restorative justice training and trauma training. A community’s safety and security might be better served by an educational system with more counselors and librarians in the schools, and no police officers. By now, it is an accepted truth in academic circles that prisons don’t deter crime; rather, they inflict deep psychological harm, injure a widening circle of people beyond the person caged, and in most cases, are just readying a person to return to prison after he or she has been released.

The lesser-known fact of sociological and critical geographical study is that policing is not protecting the communities it is policing. Black and brown communities in general are over-policed and under-protected, while wealthier and white communities are under-policed and over-protected. As legal scholar Alexandra Natapoff wrote in a 2006 Fordham Law Review, “urban underenforcement takes various forms, including unsolved homicides, permitted open-air drug markets, slow or nonexistent 911 responses, and the tolerance of pervasive, low levels of violence, property crimes, and public disorder.”

What this means is that although there are many more times the number of police in South L.A. than in Bel Air, the cops in South L.A. do far less than those in Bel Air to make residents feel safe or be safe. There is no rational reason for the residents of South L.A. to see police officers as protecting them. There is nothing to back that up.

So when white folks ask, “Who will protect ‘us?’ ” there is a clear meaning. Who will protect us from them? The police are not there to protect the residents of Black and poor neighborhoods. They are there to keep the residents of South L.A. from Bel Air and Beverly Hills. This nightmare fantasy of the white community is rooted deep in the racist past of this country. Most police forces started as slave patrols. In Los Angeles, police rounded up native people (Tongva and Gabrielinos) and, as UCLA history professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez writes, “auctioned [them] to private employers, their unfree labor fuel[ing] the city’s nascent agricultural economy during the first decades of U.S. rule.”

They were not there to protect the non-white population. They are still not there for that. 

In the short term, the city must start planning to invest funds that will be divested from the Los Angeles Police Department in community-based restorative justice programs and community courts, school counselors and jobs programs.

This week, in a groundbreaking and powerful appearance before the Los Angeles City Council, leaders of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles presented the People’s Budget. This budget was created from the results of a survey of more than 20,000 people from all over the city, from a broad cross-section of racial identities, gender identities, educational backgrounds, incomes and so forth. (As a comparison, this is the same number of people CNN might survey in a national political poll.)

The overwhelming conclusion was that people were in favor of reducing the budget of the LAPD — currently 54% of the discretionary budget — to 6% or so of the budget. The divestment from the police budget would be in favor of investment in housing security (rent and mortgage support; emergency housing); public health and health care; mental health and wellness (family counseling, community-led crisis response workers); and other community concerns.

What does this mean? How will we be safe?

It is important to note, again, who the “we” is. On the whole, people in Black and brown communities don’t feel safe right now. There have been more than 600 officer-involved shootings that ended in fatalities in Los Angeles since 2012, according to Black Lives Matter. At the same time, LAPD officers are getting a raise, and their share of the budget is slated to grow.

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 04: People gather in the rain outside of the White House for a peaceful protest against police brutality on June 4, 2020 in Washington, DC. Protests in cities throughout the country have been largely peaceful following the death of George Floyd, a black man, who died while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

The alternative is to stop expecting the police to perform functions for which they are not trained — and to which they show up armed. If a person is suffering a psychological break and is acting in a way that may endanger himself/herself or others, the appropriate response would be a team of trained mental health professionals who would be able to diagnose the situation, de-escalate, then get the person to an appropriate situation in which their needs could be taken care of. None of this needs a weapon.

If a person is intoxicated and asleep in his or her car at a Wendy’s, the appropriate response would be an intervention team, which would be able to get the person home safely (perhaps take away the car keys) and not shoot him or her in the back. When professionals turn up without guns, they focus on keeping everybody safe. Nobody gets shot.

In the immediate term, the budget should reallocate money for jobs that don’t require armed officers to agencies that can and should pick up that work. In the short term, the city must start planning to invest funds that will be divested from the Los Angeles Police Department in community-based restorative justice programs and community courts, school counselors and jobs programs.

The Jewish community can have an important role in this vision of a future of real safety. Rather than ask the question, “But what about our community?” in a narrow sense, the Jewish community, a community of white and Black and brown people, should be asking, “What about our communities?”

The ultimate safety of all communities, including the Jewish community, will not come from relying on a militarized police force. Real safety and security come from knowing that other people, even people who meet you in a moment of crisis, have your best interests at heart. This is what Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv understood as “carrying someone else’s burden with them,” and he named it as a precursor to righteousness. We should be walking this path of radical empathy, which is where safety lies.

Aryeh Cohen is professor of rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University, the rabbi-in-residence at Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, and co-chair of the Board of CLUE (Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice). His latest book is “Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism.”

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