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If Localities Want to Defund Their Police, States Should Get Out of the Way

Partisan lawmakers are moving to block cities and counties from managing their own police budgets and redirecting funding as they see fit. Decisions about public safety are best made close to home.

Two men wearing facemasks sitting at a desk on either side of a clear Plexiglass divider.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson and defendant Derek Chauvin listened during the trial of the former Minneapolis police officer. (Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
The murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, which got underway last week, has triggered memories, pain and trauma from police-inflicted violence that is occurring too frequently still. It has refocused the country’s attention on racial violence at a time when homicide rates are on the rise almost everywhere and there has been a recent rash of mass shootings, including one that targeted women of Asian descent.

Because of this violence and the anticipated escalation of tensions between the police and minority communities once the outcome of the Chauvin trial is known, many Americans are becoming increasingly alarmed and want their local government officials to do something to curb the scourge of brutality, make law enforcement accountable to those it is supposed to be protecting, and redirect some police funding to addressing conditions at the root of racism and inequality. That’s the essence of calls to “defund the police,” but that term’s meaning has been twisted into something else entirely by those whose only solution is to get even tougher on crime.

That attitude is driving the actions of too many politicians at the state level, where partisan games are evidenced by Republican lawmakers introducing, and in at least one case passing, legislation that threatens to withhold state funding from local governments that reduce their police budgets. While this move may be welcomed by some, it is bad policy that has an additional disadvantage of pre-empting local governments’ sovereignty and ability to protect their citizens as they see fit.

Not surprising given the partisan nature of seemingly everything these days, this bad idea is catching on. Lawmakers in several states have introduced legislation to this effect. In Iowa, for example, bills in the Senate and the House working their way through various committees would deny all state funding to cities and counties that reduce their law enforcement budgets by a larger percentage than their overall budgets. This comes less than a year after Iowa lawmakers outlawed chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

In my home state of Georgia, meanwhile, on the last day of this year’s legislative session, House Republicans slipped through their bill limiting the amount by which cities and counties can reduce their police funding. If signed into law by the governor, local governments would be barred from reducing their law enforcement budgets by more than 5 percent in one year or cumulatively across five years.

Data shows this legislation and others like it are unnecessary and superfluous. Bloomberg CityLab reports that while police budgets in the 50 largest cities overall have decreased by just over 5 percent from this time last year, mostly for pandemic-related reasons, law enforcement budgets as a share of general expenditures actually rose slightly, to 13.7 percent from 13.6.

To be sure, many cities on their own took a hard look at reforming their police departments and decided against making drastic changes at this time. On the upside, many reforms proposed by groups like Black Lives Matter have been instituted by local governments, such as the banning of chokeholds and other similar techniques and requiring an officer who accompanies another officer on a call to intervene if he or she feels a suspect’s life is in jeopardy.

There also is a new focus on better public safety training. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently announced, with the support of the city’s police foundation, that she intends to use 150 acres at an old city prison farm to build a state-of-the-art training academy for police and fire cadets.

Then there are cities that are taking another look at adopting the Obama-Biden administration’s final report on 21st-century policing. These recommendations suggest that police forces should tamp down the warrior approach and emphasize better relations with the community.

There are other benefits of police reform that accrue to officers themselves, such as higher salaries for better-trained officers, incentives to provide reduced-cost housing if officers agree to live in neighborhoods where they patrol, and, given the stressful work that police do, greater psychological evaluation at the point of hiring and throughout their careers.

Above all, the idea of reforming policing by redirecting funding into other areas that support public safety has been embraced by many police officers and their unions. These include hiring more social workers to deal with domestic abuse, adding youth counselors for restorative-justice programs, and offering job training so underserved young adults can obtain skills to compete for sustainable-wage jobs and not be as available and vulnerable to drug dealers, gang leaders and other criminal elements.

Many of these ideas, including ones favorable to police officers, could not be adopted under current state legislative efforts to prevent local governments from revamping funding for their police departments. And it should go without saying that none of these reforms will work in isolation and without tackling systemic racism and economic inequality.

The safety of communities and the sanctity of human life are foundational reasons for local governments to exist. The Chauvin murder trial — and the obvious pain it will evoke — should summon public officials and their constituents to reflect on what type of communities they want to live in, how to build them, and what the appropriate role of policing is. These decisions are best made closer to home. State politicians should get out of the way and let the talks and healing begin.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.


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