Local Abolitionists and Academics Weigh in on Defunding the Police
By now you’ve seen the signs and hashtags, and maybe you’ve seen the moves made by other cities in the last few weeks. Defund the Police has caught traction with people across the country in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police and the ensuing weeks of protests in their honor that have been met with tanks and chemical agents.
Defund the Police is the condensed tagline for a much larger conversation about what truly makes communities safer, where resources are best spent and what really needs policing in our communities.
It’s not a call for chaos and anarchy, a leftist thought experiment or a push for complete lawlessness. The decades-old work and teachings of Angela Davis, Marsha P. Johnson, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and others have long called for us to rethink policing in our nation.
“I feel like people see this as a fad or something just emerging in this moment when really there have been people painstakingly working through these ideas and thinking through this and coming up with ways to imagine a world beyond police and prisons,” says Dr. Treva Lindsey, associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at The Ohio State University.
Dr. Lindsey, who describes herself as an abolitionist, says she didn’t identify with the term five years ago, so she can easily put herself in the shoes of someone just learning about it. The questions being raised are the same questions she had.
“I know it sounds scary to hear, ‘Defund! Abolish!’ And people are like, well, what about…” she says. “That’s the initial response, because that’s the response we’re used to when harm happens in our community, to think about the police and jails and prisons as the natural progression of what happens.”
Dr. Lindsey says because policing as an institution has been built around the idea of protecting and serving, it’s hard for people to imagine something different entirely.
“The call to defund the police is really asking Columbus to reconsider its priorities and what actually contributes to public safety,” says Dr. Lindsey. “By removing money from one sector into other sectors that we know have a clear impact on outcomes in terms of safety, well-being, health of a community, we’re actually addressing the root of the problem as opposed to a Band-Aid to a larger issue.”
While more traditional solutions for reform — including the recommendations from the mayor’s Community Safety Advisory Committee and an independent consulting group — are underway locally, abolitionists argue we should instead be working to build a community where police aren’t present.
“The idea [is] that strong communities make police obsolete. We want to see communities invested in so that people have the tools so that they don’t feel like they need to call the cops,” says Mia Santiago of the Columbus Freedom Coalition, a police and prison abolition group.
Last week, the City of Columbus announced its commitment to Campaign Zero’s 8 Can’t Wait campaign, which offers eight procedural justice reforms that, based on research, can significantly reduce killings by police.
This includes requiring a Use of Force Continuum, banning chokeholds and strangleholds, and requiring officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers. Columbus police already have four of the eight pillars in their policies.
While it’s important to push elected officials to take a position and make policing a top concern, Dr. Lindsey doesn’t believe the level of reform currently being discussed by officials can work in tandem with the sweeping reforms being called for in the defund movement.
“The problem with that…looking at the recent history of police reform across the nation, is that we’re still facing the same challenges even when these reforms have been put into place in other areas, in other major cities,” she says. “It doesn’t fundamentally change how we see policing broadly. What it does is kind of redirect policing energy. And I think that feels more reformist than…getting at the root of the problem.”
A competing campaign, #8toAbolition, argues that these reforms are based on faulty data science and assumptions. The campaign’s organizers go so far as to call 8 Can’t Wait “dangerous.” 8 to Abolition, however, can be seen as an introduction into the current conversation on defunding the police in the form of an eight-step framework.
In Columbus, a few of the eight pillars are already being discussed not only among organizers, but some city officials as well.
On Monday, June 22, City Council Pro Tem Elizabeth Brown announced she would begin to hold police demilitarization hearings ahead of the July 4th holiday.
And last week, Columbus Board of Education officials finally responded to calls for the removal of School Resource Officers by announcing a working group would be created to discuss the district’s relationship with the Columbus Division of Police, and that its contract with the division would not be renewed until a decision is made.
Regarding schools, Dr. Lindsey says it will be important to look at how schools are equipped to engage youth and handle the range of issues students come to school with.
“I think it’s so important that instead of officers attending to these places and heavy policing and surveillance of these students, that we be thinking about the kinds of resources like counselors, mental health, literacy assistance, social work,” she says.
But 8 to Abolition’s big one, defunding the police, hasn’t seen much traction. Some of what’s being discussed as far as police reform will even require more money to be budgeted, including an upgrade and replacement of IT assets, investment in virtual reality software to train officers, the creation of a position to manage those assets and the recruitment of officers to increase diversity.
Santiago points to the history of policing as a method of slave and labor patrol as a reason the institution is beyond reform. They say that as abolitionists, CFC is “against anything that can ultimately be used to give the police more power or funding.”
“Defunding is like an actual tangible step toward decreasing the power of the police as opposed to having them go through trainings that they don’t really care about, or redirecting the money to different places within the police department,” they say.
WOSU recently found that the city spends $361 million a year on the division, or 37% of its operating budget.
In City Council’s hearing with the Community Safety Advisory Commission on June 10, Council President Shannon Hardin said they would take a look at the budgetary process once it’s up for review.
“Abolish comes along with reinvestment, that comes along with divesting from institutions that we know have caused considerable harm in communities as well,” says Dr. Lindsey. “As much as food insecurity causes harm in our communities, we know that police have been causing harm in our communities [too].”
That brings us to 8 to Abolition’s last three pillars: Invest in Community Self-Governance, Proving Safe Housing and Invest in Care. And Columbus is already investing in these areas.
Once the budget is revisited, officials may want to consider reinvesting more in programs such as the Columbus CARE Coalition and the Department of Recreation and Parks’ APPS program, or Applications for Purpose, Pride and Success.
Columbus CARE Coalition received nearly $1.1 million worth of funding while APPS received over $1.8 million worth of funding from the city’s budget this year, plus a portion of the city’s cross-departmental Comprehensive Neighborhood Safety Strategy budget.
But Dr. Lindsey says our approach to community safety demands something different in regard to developing methods of de-escalation.
“It’s not that we’re not going to hold people accountable when they transgress, when they harm, but we’re trying to get at the root of what would make them transgress and see if we can fix that, and also have them be accountable to those that they harmed,” she says.
“But that doesn’t mean putting them behind bars, throwing away the key and having them [contibute] to exploited labor,” she continues. “That’s not a transformative process. That doesn’t allow for the community to be restored.”
In addition, the city’s Neighborhood Community Planning program, which was added in 2019 to focus on housing, education, workforce, transportation, small businesses, health and safety in the city’s most in-need neighborhoods, was given a budget of $721,125 this year, while the Columbus and Franklin County Addiction Plan received a budget of $1.5 million.
At some level, the areas that make communities safe are being recognized. However, now that the concerns being voiced are much louder and the changes being called for are more drastic, will officials rise to the occasion? Well, that’s up to the community.
“And that is why I am optimistic and excited, because the community is pushing forward,” says Santiago. “I think that’s what’s going to force elected officials because they don’t want to be voted out. So regardless of whether or not they’re actually abolitionists, if that’s what the people want, we have power when we’re together.”