On Defunding the Police

There’s been a lot of calls for #defundthepolice. It initially sounds like people want to get rid of the cops which is usually not the case. There are organizations that are aiming for that like MPD150. They certainly have the goal to get rid of the police entirely in a very long term way but I’m just going to assume that won’t be as politically viable in the United States. Most of the movement is about reducing the funding for the police and directing it to society’s actual problems ahead of time. Why catch the criminal instead of preventing them being one?

Background: What do we spend on policing?

We spend a lot on policing! So here’s a fun fact. If you’ve never heard the term discretionary and non-discretionary funds it’s an important distinction. Non-discretionary funds must be paid for by commitment or law. This includes things like debt, public works, HUD, the mayor’s office, etc. Most things are funded by both, but if you look at this pretty graph in Oakland you can see the vast majority of the police budget is discretionary funds. Which is good! It means we have control over it over through without requiring to be passed.

Another thing you’ll notice is that education and OUSD (Oakland unified school district) isn’t on there. I think that’s because schools budgets are actually in school districts which are different than a city? It was difficult to find out why.

OUSD site’s doesn’t have working links for their financial reports but this shows that OUSD budget is around $568 million (https://edsource.org/2019/oakland-unified-board-approves-budget-despite-doubts-about-its-accuracy/614579). I’m honestly not sure if there are any line items that I’m missing, like I don’t know how Laney works in Oakland. Or other organizations like OUSD.

I chose Oakland because they seem to be much better about open access. So props to the city of Oakland.

So let’s break this down what are some of Oakland biggest line items:
– Debt: $330 million
– Police $291 Million
– Fire: $145 million
– Public Works: $137 Million
– Human Services: $79 million
– Capital Improvements: $65 million

The police are still the 3rd largest line item (if we include OUSD). Larger than housing, parks, and transportation combined. I’ve seen lots of articles talk about 40% of discretionary budget which is accurate but I wanted to give background on it. When I first saw it I didn’t realize the distinction here. I also see a lot of graphs that only show discretionary funds only and then show percentages.

Alternative: Replacing cops

We could easily replace the cops with more humane and better services oriented toward the issues. Instead of focusing on “enforcement” we could focus on getting people the help they need. At lower costs. There hasn’t been a lot of studies or information on this because it hasn’t happened too much in the US. The best we have is that the crime rate continues to plummet even though police budgets continue to stay stagnant Source.

Mental Health Checks

Why couldn’t a trained social worker professional come and help out? There’s actually a program in Eugene that doesthis and they’ve had success. They cost less than a million a year which is a fraction of a $58 million budget for the police in Eugene but they handled 17% of all the calls to police in Eugene. That’s nuts! I love this quote from the article that talks about benefits for everyone: “When I’m talking to a more liberal group of people, I’ll make the argument it’s the compassionate thing to do, it’s the humane thing to do,” said Manning Walker, a 35-year-old Cahoots medic and crisis worker. “When I’m talking to a conservative group, I’ll make the argument that it’s the fiscally conservative thing to do because it’s cheaper for us to do this than for the police and firefighters.” So when talking about #defundthepolice please bring this case up! I think this quote is a great example. These programs can be tried out locally and cater to the needs of communities in each area.

There’s not a lot of data about what these check-ins are like that I could find. There is some possibility of violence with any type of mental health check-in but I have no idea how rare it is. The organization does mention cops accompany them sometimes which means they would still be involved but having another outside perspective with a mental health orientation will be beneficial. Especially as we’ve seen the police tend to not police themselves well. These workers should not have to handle people with knives or should keep their safety first and foremost.

We can see that in Boise, ID that Welfare Check and Assist Citizen are the #1 and #2 items people call the cops for. See Calls for Service.

This case in Alameda didn’t need to end in arrest and if we had something like they had in Eugene it wouldn’t have been. The call was just a mental health check from a Karen. I don’t think Karen’s are going away so let’s make sure their impact is restricted.

Traffic Violations

I mean cops are technically there to enforce laws but it seems traffic violations could be easily done by civilians. This would free up cops to investigate proper crimes vs speeding violations and running stop signs. This goes into the reducing stop and frisk and other routine laws (though we’d have to make sure whatever replaces them doesn’t do the same shit). Honestly, not having an updated registration is not a risk to public safety. Philadelphia passed something like this. This was done last year in 2019 so I imagine the data on it is not enough to say anything about it especially as COVID-19 hit us and affected traffic patterns. Honestly, I’d rather see traffic cops catching speeding and reckless drivers. This could also help us ensure efforts like Vision Zero where we try to prevent pedestrian and bicycle deaths. The term for these staff that are meant to enforce traffic laws but not arrest people are called parking control officers. Lots of countries already have them.

We can again do the liberal/conservative argument here. Talk about justice with liberals and freeing the police and money for the conservative friends.

Alternatives: Fund Social Services

This is probably a tougher sell (given Republicans in the US) to some the general public version of #defundthepolice but a reasonable one. We continue to reduce the fund education, parks, and other things but not the cops. Direct funding away from cops and move it toward affordable housing, welfare programs, job assist programs, and countless other programs meant to target and support help the community. Will this reduce crime? This argument takes a bit to reason with but I have found some evidence about it.

  • There’s a paper that talks about the effect of focused non-profits in the community reduces crime rates. I couldn’t get through the paywall though so I’m not sure outside of it’s conclusions.

  • There’s an interesting article that draws parallels and talks about how the rise of the Italian crime families in the US could be due to the inaccessibility of Irish-Americans access to the regular American ladder (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/crooked-ladder). Unlike popular portrayals of Mafia families, these Mafia families used crime to make a better life for their kids and grandkids and got them into the upper or middle class of the American society. If you see no path through the regular system and we just make it harder, why wouldn’t you pursue alternative paths? I understand the allure of doing the right thing but why not make it easier for everyone to do the right thing? Why make people have to work 2-3 jobs and raise their kids. There’s some privilege here as Italians did integrate into “white” society.

  • There’s also some evidence about the link to drug abuse and getting desperate enough to commit petty crimes in order to make money for their addiction. According to Beth Macy in her book Dopesick opioid abuse has primarily been a white american problem. It hasn’t affected the black community as much because doctors didn’t trust black people to prescribe opioid in vast quantities that caused this crisis. It’s possible to bring this up as sympathetic case or a maybe bridge though the concerns about treating all drugs problems exist.

  • We could also send the money to support the communities deprived by the cops which is what SF mayor and supervisors are planning. Still waiting for the numbers though.

I personally think affordable housing / food / job treatment are probably the most popular options here but I personally prefer sending the money to the communities most affected but political viability is a factor here. I just imagine it won’t be as popular but I think it’s a better deal than the black community has gotten in the past.

Alternatives: Decriminalization (Drugs)

Decriminalization of drug offenses has worked well in cases. Portugal has effectively changed their strategy from criminalizing drug use and addiction to supporting and getting help for the people who need it. Addiction is a disease and it’s a hard one to solve for but I’m really curious if people think punishment would be the appropriate action against someone addicted? At some point when you’ve already committed to doing an illegal drug, what’s the point in criminalizing it even further to stop you? Portugal sends anyone caught to a commission with a doctors, a lawyer, and social worker who make the appropriate decision. We already have them in the US and they’re called Drug Courts. The effectiveness of these measures is not always clear.

There are other decriminalization efforts including of homelessness but I haven’t found a lot of research on it.


After doing so much research, I am convinced that procedural reforms to the police are not enough. There’s some changes to the criminal justice system that we can’t change easily (especially SCOTUS cases, do you wanna try to change Clarence Thomas’ mind?) and I’m not convinced that society has changed to the point that it’s easy to trust civilian juries and review boards. After Civil Rights everyone was like

We should bring up discussions about systemic racism and the prevalence of changes. We never really resolved this in US history, we forcibly desegregated schools (still doing it in 2017… and passed some voting reforms but really didn’t do anything about generational divide on black people here in the US. We suddenly expected a group of people who have been abused for over 400 years to suddenly get better. And that’s not assuming that racism has continued to discriminate against people well beyond the 60s.

I do think a lot of the efforts in #defundthepolice though can be couched in both the language of justice and a conservative view point though. Making the case for it for both sides will be better and easier to get everyone on board and I think there’s really great arguments in both languages. Appealing Qualified Immunity is a popular libertarian ideology too and I’d rather see the commonalities to get things done with other ideologies and see things on both sides in order to achieve reform here.