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IDEAS

The ‘defund the police’ debate is being warped by a false choice

We don’t have to decide between public safety and racial justice.

A demonstrator in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on July 30 in New York.
A demonstrator in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on July 30 in New York.John Minchillo/Associated Press

As a teenager, staring into the barrel of a police officer’s rifle, I learned an important life lesson: The police are not here so that I — a Black man — can feel safe and protected. Quite the opposite, actually.

That lesson returns to mind at the close of a roiling summer, bookended by protests over the killing of George Floyd and the recent announcement that no officers will be charged for Breonna Taylor’s killing. A once unthinkable question is suddenly a campaign issue. What would it mean to “defund the police”? This rallying cry has admittedly lost volume since it first made headlines in late May. Coverage of a recent Gallup poll, for example, mostly highlights the finding that more than 80 percent of Black respondents want either the same or more police presence in their communities. The findings prompted claims that Democrats are ignoring warnings from Black people about the folly of defunding the police.

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But another view is that public dialogue on police brutality presents and normalizes a false choice: where people can either accept policing as we know it or surrender to becoming the likely victims of crime. Justice or safety: Choose one. This narrative misrepresents the data itself. For example, the Gallup poll also found that Black people are more than twice as likely as the average respondent to lack confidence that police will treat them with respect. In other words, if Black Americans had to choose between a system of public safety that dehumanizes them or no public safety at all, perhaps many would choose the former. That isn’t much of a choice.

A protester carried a sign during a "Defund the Police" march from King County Youth Jail to City Hall in Seattle on Aug. 5.
A protester carried a sign during a "Defund the Police" march from King County Youth Jail to City Hall in Seattle on Aug. 5.JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images

Likewise, calls for defunding the police advocate building new public safety capacities, not stirring chaos and anarchy. Having come of age under the knee of police aggression, I find this message a powerful one. It offers a language for rejecting the false choice that keeps us hopeless and that numbs us into believing that racial justice is impossible.

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Gallup’s poll results may seem confusing, but they make sense to me. I grew up in Prince George’s County, Md., which then led the nation in police-involved killings. I endured countless hostile encounters with cops, but the most haunting incident occurred late one night after leaving a party. My best friend and I had just gotten into my car when an entire SWAT team, in a flurry of shouting, sprang upon us, seemingly from all directions.

The officers yanked us from the car. They threw us to the ground. They surrounded us with rifles. One rested his foot on top of me, pointing his weapon at my back. Another aimed squarely at my head. “Don’t you fucking move,” he barked. A tiny moth landed on my face, crawling slowly up toward my eye. I was too afraid to swat it.

We had learned by then that being Black made us an easy target for aggressive policing. For officers chasing higher arrest counts to impress precinct captains. For politicians seducing voters into the assumption that punishing us made them safe. We had a name for it: “getting pressed out by the feds.” It was business as usual. Only a few years earlier, my best friend’s father had been killed by police on the very block where he lived. Lying beside my friend the night the cops swatted us, I felt his nervous energy. I saw his back heaving up and down through his T-shirt, which had been ripped as the cops wrestled him to the concrete.

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My best friend and I also knew that our Blackness disqualified us from feeling protected by good guys in blue, the way we saw in the movies. In fact, the cops had pounced because they thought I had stolen my own car. They would often prowl the parking lots of nightlife venues, peering into cars and running license plate numbers, while we danced and socialized inside. That’s likely how they found out that somebody had stolen my car recently. But I had, thankfully, recovered it the prior week, with no help from them. Also business as usual. Many of my family and friends — like other Black Americans — still believe in the ideal of the “good cop” but struggle to recall a time when a cop actually helped them. They desire better police protection but have never gotten it. Their complex feelings are rooted in the complex realities of living in communities with “too much police involvement and too little at once.”

A sign outside a protest encampment where people advocated on July 25 for the New York City police department to have its funding reduced by $1 billion.
A sign outside a protest encampment where people advocated on July 25 for the New York City police department to have its funding reduced by $1 billion.Stephanie Keith/Getty


The false choice narrative silences and exploits those of us who live every day with these complex feelings and realities. President Trump himself cited the Gallup poll in his recent town hall event. He deceptively acknowledged something true: Black communities “suffer more than anybody else [from] bad police protection,” he said. “They want protection.” But, predictably, he interpreted the poll results to mean that “we have to give the police back the authority to stop crime.” Similarly, defenders of police departments insist that surging crime rates in recent months — in the wake of a pandemic, economic recession, and protest-inspired work stoppages by police — prove that the priorities of racial justice activism are at odds with those of public safety. Though very few cities have actually defunded police, Trump still justified his move to bring out federal law enforcement in several cities by blaming “the far-left movement to break up our police departments” for “causing violent crime to spiral … seriously out of control.” This talking point, borne out in real policy, perversely exploits Black Americans' basic human desire for protection to justify giving police even more license and leeway to harass and abuse them.

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Clearly insufficient reform measures embraced by prominent Democrats — like anti-bias training, community policing, and de-escalation — convey the same false choice, intended as they are to modify but ultimately preserve policing as we know it. Touting these measures, former Vice President Joe Biden has opposed defunding the police and even promised to expand funding for local departments. Other prominent voices say that police defunding should not entail anything beyond modest funding reallocations. The aim is to put Americans at ease and reassure them that police reforms will amount to something less than a complete system overhaul.

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But what if we take seriously the obvious failure of these police reform measures? The brutal response of police to this summer’s protests? The well-documented infiltration of US law enforcement by white supremacists and militia? These sobering realities indicate a system beyond repair. At the very least, an alternative public safety model would involve overhaul: not only shifting overall spending priorities but also doing things like disbanding existing personnel and rehiring under new protocols and expectations and establishing new crisis response teams for problems like mental health challenges and domestic violence.

If we’ve learned anything this past summer, it’s that politicians' constant reassurances that they are against overhauling the police are counterproductive. Meaningful reform would certainly include sensible and practical measures, but it also calls for a real departure from the status quo. Constant reassurances against overhaul mean that fewer white Americans will be inspired to honestly grapple with their emotional investment in that status quo and their unease about change. They mean that fewer people in communities of color will see a future beyond a system that perpetually fails them. They mean that fewer people across the board will confront and interrogate that pivotal part of the law enforcement apparatus: their own sense of attachment to it. To the ideal of the good cop. To policing as we know it. Because inequality drives crime, our society will possibly see crime rates rising further as the pandemic rages and exacerbates the gap between haves and have-nots. We may be at a critical moment for a course correction in our approach to public safety.

Unlike so many young men and women of color in similar circumstances, my best friend and I were lucky that fateful night to escape with our lives. But the terror I felt then has stayed with me ever since. My experiences have taught me there is no disconnect between the way Black Americans feel about policing and the aims of defunding the police. The radical changes needed to address the former are essentially those for which the latter advocates. Likewise, the question of “defunding the police” is not about public safety versus none at all. It is about who gets to define what is possible. The false choice narrative tells us it is impossible to combine public safety and racial justice. It says we must sacrifice one for the other. It’s really easy to believe it. But it’s pivotal that we don’t. The vision of defunding the police tells us that public safety and racial justice go hand in hand, and both are impossible under the status quo. I find power in that vision because it attests that a better future is necessary. And possible.

John N. Robinson III is assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.