The issue of defunding the police has drawn a lot of attention but also a lot of confusion. At the Commonwealth Club on Thursday evening, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin and Boston area representative Ayanna Pressley discussed issues of policing and clarified the issue of defunding the police.
One of the big issues is that people conflate defunding the police with disbanding the police. There is a difference. In addition, the movement to defund the police has focused on how resources themselves can be better allocated.
“I want to focus on this term we’ve heard a lot in the last few months, this defund the police,” Chesa Boudin said. “It’s a movement that’s taken off. I think it’s started in critical conversations about the ways in which our country has responded to some of our most complex challenges in how we’ve used police as a one-size, fits all, one-sided response no matter whether we are dealing with an armed robbery in progress or someone having a mental health breakdown.”
During times of tight budgets, Boudin pointed out that this has “a tremendous fiscal cost” which he argued “has come at the expense of other investments in our communities.”
For example, Boudin continued, in San Francisco, the police budget is over $700 million a year. In 2019, the department handled around 1 million calls for service.
Of those, he said, “only five percent were for violent crimes in progress. So many of the calls for the police—who are paid about 50 percent more than our teachers, that police are responding to are not crimes, but they’re drug overdoses, they’re mental health crises, they’re disputes between neighbors.”
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley pointed out that the defund movement isn’t actually new.
“I think about Dr. (Martin Luther) King talking about the three evils being militarism, racism and poverty,” she said. “This isn’t new, the Black Lives Matter movement is not new, really what this is about is investment in communities that have historically been under-resourced, over-policed, over-surveyed, and not only under-resourced but divested from.”
She said in her time on the Boston City Council, “I often had to make these unjust choices.” She said that she voted down budgets for the city because she refused to decide between a para-educator, a school nurse or a school police officer.
“We know what works to foster healthier learning communities, safer learning communities, and support the readiness of our children learning,” she said. “An investment in social workers, in psycho-therapists, in trauma-informed learning communities, restorative justice practices. We know what works—we just don’t fund it.”
She said, “I voted down that budget in Boston because how could I vote for more school police, when everyone didn’t even have access to a school nurse.”
Pressley said, “It really is about investment in community. A reallocation of funds. I would really say it is a refund because we have been over-investing in policing and militarization and we know what works, we just have not funded it.”
Chesa Boudin then explained the difference between defunding and abolishing the police.
“I think folks, especially on the far right, are trying to conflate defund with abolition,” he said. “Those are different conversations. We can talk about abolition, that’s a conversation that we can have, people can advocate that as a theoretical conception. People can talk about that as a goal to move toward where we don’t need police in society.
“The conversation we are having today on a national level is frankly a conversation that I think elected officials should have in the budget cycle,” he said. “Is this the most effective way to use tax dollars? Are we getting a good return on our investment? Is there some other way we could spend this money that could make us safer? Or do a better job of achieving the goals that we have?”
He pointed out that policing and incarceration “are tremendously expensive and are failed responses to what we are trying to deal with.”
Ayanna Pressley added, “Our first responders have a role to play in our society, but they need to play a role in every part of society.”
Later they addressed how to approach people put off by the idea of major police reform.
Ayanna Pressley suggested one need is to end qualified immunity. Pressley along with Justin Amash have introduced legislation that would end qualified immunity, which shields police officers and other government officials from legal actions by victims and families whose right are violated.
Amash, who represents Michigan as a Libertarian, said on June 2, “The brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police is merely the latest in a long line of incidents of egregious police misconduct. This pattern continues because police are legally, politically, and culturally insulated from consequences for violating the rights of the people whom they have sworn to serve. That must change so that these incidents of brutality stop happening”
Pressley explained last night, “If we really believe that black lives matter, then justice for the people who have been robbed of their lives matters.”
She said, “As long as there is qualified immunity, these set of protections created out of the Supreme Court, codified and strengthened in court case after court case, honestly there will never been real justice… but there must be accountability and there has not been accountability because there is qualified immunity.
“We have to do away with these protections and end qualified immunity,” she said.
Likewise, she said she supports the defund movement.
“I support it because we can’t allow the narrative of that movement to be co-opted,” she said. She explained that “where our money goes is a statement of our values,” and that “it’s clear that our budgets have not valued black lives.”
She said again, “The focus is what we need to invest in and re-fund in order to create a more just society.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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