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Defunding the police


They’ve become, after “Black Lives Matter,” the three most repeated words in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder: DEFUND THE POLICE. You see them everywhere, as graffiti defacing public spaces, on home-made signs carried by protesters, in newspaper articles and T.V. discussions.

When I first noticed “defund the police” gaining traction as a meme, I worried. It was so obvious and easy to see what Trump’s reaction would be. WHEN YOU DEFUND THE POLICE, THE CRIMINALS WIN. Barr speaks of “vigilantism,” as in the old west, when law enforcement was left to unorganized crowds of peacekeepers. Trump would play to every fear of every suburban voter: “they” will now invade our leafy neighborhoods, pillaging and looting if not worse, and there won’t be any police to call to protect us, because they’ve all been “defunded.”

I shared that concern. As the resident of an inner city known for crime, I’ve come to depend on the cops to protect my life and limb. True, in the 33 years I’ve lived here, I’ve never actually had to call the police, but just knowing they were a 9-1-1- phone call away was reassuring. It’s why, for many years, when I pass a cop on the street, I say “thank you.”

So that was my worry: Leave it to Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory! I was sure that Trump would be defeated in November, sure Democrats would retake the Senate. Nothing could stop the march of history from trampling Trump underfoot and, just possibly, ending the tyranny of the Republican Party. Until, that is, “defund the police” began to resound across the country. The blowback, I feared, would return Trump to the presidency.

Then, yesterday, I saw a guy on T.V. who is supposedly an expert in criminal law, and he explained what, in his opinion, “defund the police” means. Here’s what I heard. It doesn’t mean “no police at all.” It means limiting the number of cops to a cadre of highly-trained, sensitive men and women who will only be called upon when criminals are violent and dangerous. Most current police activity, this man explained, is for incidents such as domestic violence, or attending to a sick person (chest pains, auto accidents, falls), or drug overdoses, or to investigate suspicious activity; according to one study, half of all 9-1-1- calls are “bogus” or “inappropriate.”

The man further explained that, in most instances, an agency other than the police would be the more appropriate responder: child protective services, EMTs, drug counselors or other professionals who understand the nature of the emergency. Sending armed men and women to a domestic dispute, for example, is not only a waste of time and money, it does very little to resolve the situation, since cops are not trained in that way. Defunding the police, the man said, actually means transferring some current police funding to other agencies that will be more effective and responsible for solving problems.

Looked at that way, the argument makes sense, even to a guy like me, who was raised to respect “the thin blue line.” But this raises another, serious question. In our 24-hour news cycle, words have impact; to describe re-allocating police funding by the phrase “defund the police” is seriously misleading. To the average person who doesn’t have the time or inclination to investigate these things in depth, “defund the police” sounds like “End police departments.” Trump and Barr know this, which is why they instantly seized upon that mischaracterization to stoke fear. This is why the advocates of re-allocating police funding are going to have to come up with a different, less scary phrase to describe their plan than “defund the police.”

I don’t know what that alternative phrase is. But I do think that if “defund the police” becomes a real “thing” in America (and so far, it’s more of a three-day brouhaha), it could be the one issue that kills Democratic chances of defeating the monster. “Law and order” works all the time: Goering knew it in Nazi Germany; Richard Nixon understood it in 1968; and Trump and Barr know it now. There is an argument to be made for a serious re-allocation of police funding, but it has to be coherent and make sense, it has to be based on reality, and it has to take into account—not dismiss—the ordinary citizen’s fear of being victimized and having no one to come to the rescue.

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