Why Police Should See the 'Defund' Movement as a Golden Opportunity | Opinion

Calls to "defund" police echo throughout the country. Not surprisingly, the police are appalled and insulted. They see their devoted service and personal sacrifice as unappreciated. And while they may be only human, and while the "defund" mantra is in significant part intended as an insult, the police might want to step back from the current ugliness and see that the movement actually presents a golden opportunity.

The core mission for police, and the mission for which they are specially trained, is fighting crime: investigating and proactively preventing assaults, rapes, thefts, murders and so on. In this, they are doing something that only they can do—that only they are trained and equipped for. They need not worry that this core mission will ever be "defunded" because it carries with it its own self-correcting mechanism: The community that defunds this function will soon collapse. No democratic society would tolerate a government that did not take seriously its crime prevention obligation.

But police departments have been the object of enormous mission creep. When there are complaints about homeless persons taking over the sidewalk, who do you call? Drug overdose? A mentally ill person acting out in public? Auto accident? Noise complaint? Call the police. Traffic tickets, evictions, child custody transfers, school discipline issues? Call the police.

No doubt this mission creep developed under a notion that it was efficient. We already have a police force, so why not use them whenever some social problem or disorder needs immediate attention. Indeed, an enormous percentage of police work is now devoted to such off-mission activities. As one former city police chief, now a professor, explains, "About 90 percent of all the police department calls that I've looked at in my life have nothing to do with a major [u]niform [c]rime."

What was probably not so obvious at the time of the mission creep was that this continued expansion of police responsibility also has serious hidden costs.

First, the core police mission of crime-fighting requires a certain training and, probably, a certain culture. But the people and training that make a good crime-fighter are not necessarily the same people and training that are good at the mission creep activities. Indeed, even within the expanded activities, an effective system will have different kinds of people with different kinds of training dealing with different problems. The best person to deal with the mentally ill will be different from the best person to deal with auto accidents, who will be different from the best person to deal with chronic drug users.

Protest sign in New York City
Protest sign in New York City Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Second, many if not most of the mission creep activities are no-win situations for the police. Every person who gets a speeding ticket will be unhappy. Every interaction with child custody transfers or evictions is likely to generate bad will against the police. In contrast, in their core crime-fighting mission, as long as police act professionally, they are likely to get public support and approval, for it is the public who is being saved from victimization. The best way to turn around the current demoralization of police and their alienation from the community is to have the police focus strictly on protecting the community from what the community sees as condemnable crimes.

What kind of reforms does this suggest? On Wednesday, Berkeley, California moved forward with a proposal to eliminate police from conducting traffic stops, transferring the duty to civilian city workers. Similarly, the Minneapolis schools have now stopped using police officers to maintain discipline. Police ought to enthusiastically support these kinds of reforms.

On the other hand, on June 15, New York disbanded its police force's "Anti-Crime Units." These units targeted illegal guns and combated local crime sprees, such as burglaries. This was not a good change, and the city seems to be paying the price. The move sparked a 200 percent increase in shootings, the bloodiest period for the city in the last quarter-century.

Police have every reason to be offended by the now-standard broad-brush claim that "ACAB," as protesters regularly announce ("all cops are b***ards"). But they ought to not rise to the bait and ought to stay true to their professionalism to make the most of this golden opportunity. They should join in supporting a "revolutionary" restructuring of police departments—something that, in fact, many police chiefs have been calling for for years.

Paul H. Robinson is the Colin S. Diver professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Crimes That Changed Our World: Tragedy, Outrage, and Reform (Rowman and Littlefield 2018).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.