In what would be his final column before a U.S. presidential election, Charles Krauthammer pleaded with frustrated voters to avoid the “catharsis of kicking over a table.” He was talking about the prospects of a Trump presidency in 2016, but the logic applies equally well to the anti-law-enforcement movement that is convulsing cities across America today. #DefundthePolice may be nice ear candy that evokes a classic N.W.A. hit, but the concept is not just bad public policy — it actually undermines the goals its loudest proponents seek to achieve.
It is more than a little odd to hear even the reasonable left — which has never been averse to expanding government and increasingly speaks about modern monetary theory and the irrelevance of deficits — arguing that constrained public finances necessitate trade-offs between police budgets and other critical services. The false dichotomy set up by those making this argument is that an investment in mental health, drug treatment, and social workers must come at the expense of traditional policing. Why, for example, should the Fish and Wildlife Service or the Bureau of Engraving and Printing not be placed on the chopping block instead?
A slightly different argument made by activists is that there is intolerable waste in police budgets, and that much of this waste is not benign. For example, the libertarians who run the Cato Institute and the progressives who publish Mother Jones agree that the widespread use of military equipment by American police forces is both expensive and dangerous to the public. The fact that these two outfits agree on anything suggests they’re probably right.
But one would expect this issue to be discussed at a local level, with reference to actual line items in actual budgets, and teased apart dispassionately by accounting types, not protesters demanding blanket budget cuts from terrified and befuddled politicians. Perhaps the Portland Police Department is overfunded, but perhaps Seattle’s is not.
If anything, the more humane, flexible, and publicly accountable law enforcement activists claim to want would require a significant financial investment in both people and equipment. For example, while body cameras are considered a necessary tool in ensuring there is objective evidence of police misconduct, the costs of using them are not simply a one-time capital outlay. Data storage costs are often cited as a major impediment, which is why many departments have bought cameras but ultimately gave up on using them. Less lethal weapons such as stun guns — the most popular of which is the Taser — only work at close range, are not always reliable, and sometimes can result in death.
The dearth of better alternatives is so profound that the U.K.’s Defence and Security Accelerator just opened a £500,000 contest in search of technologies that would help officers deescalate potentially violent situations from distances between five and 50 meters. The tools activists should want to see police forces deploy are not just expensive — most of them have not even been invented yet. So add R&D costs to the wish list.
Protesters, who are always operating with the benefit of hindsight, also tend to discount the challenges faced by front line officers and overestimate the powers of social workers or other paraprofessionals. Consider the example of an armed person wandering the streets in a state of agitated delirium. Such a situation may present imminent danger to others, or it may be a mental health or drug crisis that can be resolved without violence.
A flexible force that is capable of pivoting between wildly divergent approaches in real time would require general purpose officers to be cross trained across multiple disciplines. More likely, response teams would need to be larger to ensure that different skills can be leveraged on a single call without putting officers at greater risk. Better law enforcement would also require an investment in data scientists and related technologies to measure how standard protocols are working and how they might be improved.
Lurking in the background of the current Defund the Police movement is the fact that even in communities where trust in local law enforcement is low, people still rely on the police and fear that when they need them overtaxed and demoralized cops simply won’t show up at all. For example, the residents of Newark, NJ — who have seen enough scandals and misconduct to nurse a grudge against their police department — have nevertheless been in a decades long battle over response times to 911 calls.
America’s recent uptick in murders is another reason why cutting back on police funding is likely to do more harm than good. It is debatable how much of this trend can be laid at the door of activists, but what is not debatable is the fact that greater effort will be required to investigate these crimes and to prevent at least some of them.
Any death at the hands of law enforcement that is not unambiguously justifiable homicide is a tragedy and should raise tough questions. But mindlessly vilifying police and slashing their budgets, while pleasant and cathartic for some, won’t solve anything. If the goal is to ensure there are fewer of these tragedies while still protecting everyone else, any reasonable solution will likely require more funding to police departments, not less.
Ian Cooper W95 is a media, technology, sports, and entertainment lawyer based in Toronto.