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Behind calls to defund police, a refrain long-held by police themselves

A movement to reallocate some of the millions spent on policing begins with a notion that police themselves have long championed: Police can’t do it all

People walked down 16th Street in Washington, D.C., after “Defund The Police” was painted on the street near the White House.
People walked down 16th Street in Washington, D.C., after “Defund The Police” was painted on the street near the White House.Tasos Katopodis/Getty

Early in his career as a Minneapolis police officer, Michael A. Davis, now Northeastern University’s chief of police, realized he was being dispatched to calls where he was not necessary: Petty arguments between adults; undefined suspicious behavior; loitering.

People called police not because they saw crimes being committed, but because they felt isolated. They called because they were fearful in their neighborhoods — but they were not afraid of anything a police officer could fix.

“We frequently had the refrain of, ‘well, if you see something suspicious, give us a call,’ " Davis said. “And then, oftentimes it was nothing. Sometimes it was, but nonetheless it just perpetuated this over-reliance as I see it.”

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As calls to defund police departments around the country have risen in the wake of the killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by a white officer from the department where Davis once served, activists are echoing something police themselves have long maintained: The police cannot fix all of society’s problems, from mental health crises to homelessness to students misbehaving in school.

“Dependency on police is not equivalent to community health,” Davis said. “Communities thrive when they’re interdependent. ... [This is] such an important moment. And it may be the moment of our generation. We need to take advantage of it.”

Advocates in Boston are not calling to abolish the department entirely. But they are questioning how much money the city is spending, and if that money would serve communities better elsewhere. Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he was looking into reforms Monday, but did not specify which.

“We frequently had the refrain of, ‘well, if you see something suspicious, give us a call,’ " Michael Davis, Northeastern University’s chief of police, said. “And then, oftentimes it was nothing. Sometimes it was, but nonetheless it just perpetuated this over-reliance as I see it.”
“We frequently had the refrain of, ‘well, if you see something suspicious, give us a call,’ " Michael Davis, Northeastern University’s chief of police, said. “And then, oftentimes it was nothing. Sometimes it was, but nonetheless it just perpetuated this over-reliance as I see it.”Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The concept of defunding police departments has come from ongoing conversations about abolishing police departments, said Thomas Nolan, a retired Boston police officer who now teaches criminology and criminal justice at Emmanuel College.

Historically, police departments have been “sacred cows,” able to get high levels of funding with few questions from cities and towns, Nolan said. But now, more people are reconsidering whether those resources would be better spent elsewhere.

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“Homeless people sleeping in a park: Is that a law enforcement issue, or is that for the public health community, or the homeless advocacy community?” Nolan asked. “Certainly we’re not going to abolish the police, and we shouldn’t. But we may want to consider the largess that we have given them.”

Organizers in Boston don’t want to immediately abolish the police department. But they do want some of the money in the next budget to go to community groups — starting by creating youth jobs, especially because the service sector has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Now’s the time for Mayor Marty Walsh to be accountable to Black and brown residents of Boston, and prioritize funding that supports our safety and well being," said Nosica Verdieu, a youth organizer with the Youth Justice and Power Union. “And to do that, they have to start defunding the police department and investing into our communities.”

But the longer-term step is looking at how the city funds policing in general. Could some of that money go to creating a more stable society, in which people are better taken care of?

”I’m sure that if you go out to wealthy suburbs outside of Boston, you don’t see the police everywhere and those folks are surviving just fine," said Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League.

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“And if we had $414 million actually invested into housing and health care and food and youth jobs, and all the things that people need to survive and be healthy and happy and safe, I’m pretty sure that we would not have all these issues. It’s very clear that having a lot of police doesn’t solve violence, it actually just creates more violence and puts people into a really violent system.”

In 2008 Davis became chief of police in Brooklyn Park, a Minneapolis suburb with about 75,000 residents, he decided to change to department’s core mission: The 109 officers were going to build community. They were going to engage kids at a community center, throw small block parties, teach kids and teens how to make clothes or fish. They were going to put themselves out of a job.

“The question is, what does policing look like optimally?” Davis said. “And I would say, when it’s working itself out of a job.”

Within a year, arrests were down and so were major crimes, Davis said.

“The reflexive notion of more police to deal with crime wasn’t a sustainable one, nor was it even the most effective solution,” Davis said. “I had to get them to see the benefit of building things in the community.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.