Calls for Defunding, Dismantling or Abolishing the Police Miss the Mark on Police Reform

Defund? Dismantle? Abolish? None of these? When it comes to police reform as a response to the unwarranted killing of George Floyd, we find these approaches to be misguided and based on an intense emotional cry for an end to racially motivated police use of deadly force. These proposed solutions are well-intentioned, as they seek to address a serious, torturous, inhumane and improper use of deadly force that should not go unpunished. The suggested punishments, however, reflect a rush to judgment. An accurate diagnosis of the problem is needed before an appropriate solution can be developed. To do otherwise could make a bad situation even worse. Rather than rushing to defund police departments, the root of the problem should be diagnosed first, followed by a discussion of alternative solutions that get to the heart of the problem. An important question to ask is: Where does the problem originate? Possible answers range from officer recruitment and training to police department organizational policies and police (sub) culture.

Another issue to consider when determining an appropriate punishment is who will be affected by that punishment? One or a handful of officers engaged in gross misbehavior? Or the entire contingent of officers of the police department, the majority of whom do not engage in such offensive conduct? Application of the punishment to all officers indiscriminately is neither fair nor right, and doing so would be akin to clearcutting a forest when only one or few trees were diseased and needed to be cut down. The entire forest should not be sacrificed in order to rid the forest of disease. This kind of approach will discourage those officers who are dedicated to performing their job duties properly and decently.

Even more troubling than the negative effects of a punishment that involves clearcutting the forest is a punishment that involves cutting police department budgets or defunding them entirely. When funds are cut or eliminated, society as a whole suffers. One of the basic needs of humans is “security”; however, ours is not a utopian society where everyone acts like an angel, and criminals and crimes do not exist. Budget cuts mean fewer officers to respond to calls for service, less routine patrol, the inability to update or acquire new technology, a potential overall reduction in security for neighborhoods and businesses, and the possibility of an increase in crime. Given the chaotic situation that would ensue, either the National Guard or the military would need to be called into service—an action that is unacceptable in a democracy. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 speaks to the abhorrence of military involvement in civilian affairs in the United States.

Our first impression of defunding is that it is not the money that makes officers behave inappropriately and inhumanely, though the exact cause needs to be researched. Rather than defunding or dismantling or abolishing police departments, the focus should be on how the funds in police department budgets are allocated. We recommend more funding to line items that can be expected to improve officer recruitment and training with the goal of preventing officers’ use of excessive, unnecessary, improper and aggressive force. For example, additional training on topics such as de-escalation techniques, ethics in the use of force, cultural awareness, advanced communications skills and handling situations that involve minority groups should be mandatory for both police academy cadets andsworn police officers as part of their in-service training. To provide such training, police department budgets should be increased where needed.

In sum, the problem of police brutality and the use of excessive force should be diagnosed with an eye toward the root cause and then effective solutions developed and implemented. For example, if the problem originates from the recruitment process, that process should be revised to ensure that police cadets will adhere to values and norms of a democratic society. If the problem arises because police officers are not provided with training that will help them de-escalate tense or volatile situations, and be sensitive to issues that may be unique to minority groups, police department leaders should ensure that such training is available and that cadets and sworn police officers are required to satisfactorily complete the coursework. If organizational policies are at the root of the problem, then policies that tolerate harsh police tactics or the use of excessive force should be revised or completely rewritten with an emphasis on zero tolerance for the excessive use of force and the adherence to democratic values. These changes may be met with resistance by some or be seen as too sweeping or woefully inadequate by others, but we argue that either doing more or doing less is not the appropriate path forward.

*Mr. Christopher Smith, who is currently a PhD student at SUNY Albany has also contributed to the piece.

Zakir Gul, Ph.D.
Zakir Gul, Ph.D.
Zakir Gul, Ph.D., is an associate professor in criminal justice at State University of New York (SUNY) in Plattsburgh, where he teaches courses such as terrorism, cyber-terrorism, homeland security and intelligence, transnational crime, and policing and society. Previously, he founded a graduate program on international security and served as the founding director. He also worked in several research centers on terrorism and intelligence, and served as the deputy editor-in-chief of a peer-reviewed journal on policing.