Lipstick on a pig

By | June 18, 2020

Although Republicans have defunded education, food stamps, public housing, Planned Parenthood, NPR, sanctuary cities, environmental and occupational health, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the UN Refugee agency, what really upsets Liberals lately is when police reformers call for “defunding the police.” Objections range from worries that Hannibal Lecter will be running amok, to how it might look if Liberals called for something radical.

In the midst of a global pandemic, an epidemic of police murders, and the breakdown of American democracy, it’s the least of our damned worries.

Liberals have been as incapable as Conservatives of re-imagining a world without a highly-militarized paramilitary force occupying, in effect, urban neighborhoods. If only now they are beginning to understand the need to demilitarize and democratize the police, they still seem more afraid of blowback from adopting a particular phrase — and of alienating the mythological white swing voter — than of finding common cause with police reformers. Hopefully this is changing.

But the “defunders” are absolutely right: there are many police programs that can be, and ought to be, completely defunded. There is no need to quibble about what “defunding” means in these cases. It means exactly that — stop wasting taxpayer money making police more dangerous, and stop throwing money at useless and deceptive public relations gestures.

Here’s what many of the “defunders” have been proposing:

  • defunding the 1033 program, which puts military weaponry into police hands
  • defunding the Department of Justice COPS program that assures preferential hiring of ex-military and subsidizes local police forces hiring them
  • defunding school-based police (so-called “resource” officers) and the construction of actual jail cells for children in some schools
  • defunding forfeiture programs that permit police departments to keep the proceeds
  • defunding municipal fine programs that automatically flow to police departments (think “Ferguson”)
  • defunding the enforcement of non-violent crime and harassment of the homeless
  • defunding sensitivity training for officers who should never have been hired in the first place and for whom the training is a waste of time
  • defunding “advisory” boards, ride-alongs, drug awareness and athletics programs that are basically public relations campaigns offering the public no real oversight or control of the police
  • defunding costly overtime and “details” programs (why can’t the electric company provide a flagman?)

If people think that “defunding the police” requires too much parsing and too much explanation, they aren’t spending any time questioning the phrase “community policing.”

Liberals have been some of the greatest champions of “broken windows” policing and “community policing,” which filled city streets with hundreds of thousands of additional cops, filled the nation’s jails and prisons to overflowing, and led to unconstitutional “stop and frisk” practices by police forces which suddenly began receiving piles of cash and military gear — including cities run by Liberal politicians.

One of their inventions, “community policing,” is little more than a public relations sham — a transparent attempt to convince a community [that knows better] that the White buzz-cut with a badge on their porch is really Officer Friendly. “Taking a knee,” as some police officers did last week (instead of putting that knee on someone’s neck), was just another P.R. stunt, a “charm offensive” police departments resort to on occasion.

But it’s not working. And the police response to recent protests showed it’s mostly a big act, when people protesting police abuse and members of the press are shot at, beaten, injured, tear-gassed, and pepper-sprayed by police, often for no reason. It only confirms how comfortable police are with abusing the public and getting away with it.

As the Department of Justice defines it, “community policing” is based on [unequal] “community partnerships” involving the police, media, and community groups, and places a few hand-picked community leaders and clergy on various “advisory” boards — which in the end have no real political power.

In its most benign form Community Policing is simply lipstick on a pig.

New Bedford residents will recall the Justice Department-brokered Action Plan, which was meant to defuse community anger and distrust after the murder of Malcolm Gracia, and which constituted an advisory board of community representatives and the media — but never challenged the power of police unions and never resulted in real community oversight or control of the New Bedford police.

Provisions of the Action Plan were striking: the community, not the police, was responsible for being informed of its own rights and avoiding complications with rogue police officers; and community “relations” and “choices” by young people — not police misconduct — were identified as the root causes of the Gracia murder.

But here we are again. We’re way past the lipstick. Clearly somebody needs to do some thinking outside the box.

Max Rameau, an activist with Washington DC based Pan African Community Action, recently discussed a more democratic definition of community policing. Members of a community board are chosen from the community by lottery and directly oversee police hiring, firing, and management of their own police departments. Voters in every precinct vote on whether to decommission or continue using existing police personnel. But Rameau’s idea of oversight and management of the newly-constituted police departments is very different from today’s.

If it makes Liberals feel any better, taxes are used to fund the operations of this form of policing — Hannibal Lecter isn’t a worry — but old, ineffective, dangerous, repressive and undemocratic forms of policing would be decommissioned. And all the old budgetary and legal machinery is scrapped and defunded. And we start again from scratch.

Last year over a thousand Americans, mainly men of color, were shot and killed by police. Almost the same number died after being electrocuted by Tasers. In contrast, in Germany, a country with a quarter of our population and certainly no stranger to racism, there have been roughly 11 police killings each year since 1990, and the number has been going down. In a country experiencing a resurgence of neo-Nazism, police accountability and oversight is the only reason for Germany’s dramatically smaller number of police killings.

It’s going to take ideas like Rameau’s, studying how police in other countries are managed, and experiments like the decommissioning of the Minneapolis Police Department, to re-imagine what policing ought to be. Given that America has a race problem not going away any time soon, police reform solutions must cede control of policing to victimized communities — and we must do it today.

Yes, today — and no uncomfortable phrase, no uncharted territory, and no experiment is too radical in the service of stopping the unnecessary slaughter of Americans by their own supposed protectors, particularly people of color who are their disproportionate victims.