To the editor:
Our world seems pretty crazy right now. I’m sad, anxious and concerned for the future for a lot of different reasons, just as I’m sure others are. I want to address one of those concerns, and that’s the sentiment that has arisen to “defund the police.” I have some understanding of funding policing operations, and I hope this letter will get others to give some consideration to this topic.
I don’t know of anyone who wasn’t horrified and shocked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, with other officers playing a role in that death. Emotions are running high as expected. It’s important that people get to express their feelings and release some emotion. That said, making decisions based on emotions rarely results in good outcomes.
Defunding the police appears to be a gut reaction based on strong feelings related to the actions of a very limited number of officers. I’m not talking about this one death in Minneapolis because this push is a reaction to a number of cases of police officers shooting or killing unarmed black men. The key phrases I hear repeatedly are “the police,” reform the police, defund the police, dismantle the police departments.
One of the basics when studying the criminal justice system is that our law enforcement agencies exist in a fragmented structure. Departments vary widely in their makeup, their approach to the community they serve and the various officers and leadership in each of those departments. Certainly, there are similarities, but there are also significant differences.
I would like people to contemplate the differences in what community expectations and needs are for the Panora Police Department, Perry P.D., Pella P.D. or Peoria, Illinois P.D. The differences seem obvious. You have communities that have significant tourism, college towns and blue-collar towns. Some communities have gang issues. Some have more significant illegal drug problems, and others have more issues with alcohol. The resources that each department has will dictate, to a large extent, how they can respond to each of those problems.
When people are rightfully outraged by the Minneapolis killing of George Floyd and they want to “defund the police,” do they mean just the Minneapolis Police Department? It would appear not. This effort has been repeated often in a variety of places. There are roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. There are approximately 800,000 law enforcement officers. The vast majority of those officers work in departments similar in size to Perry and Pella. Lumping those agencies in with Minneapolis, Los Angeles and other large cities is, in my opinion, ridiculous.
Is there room for police reform? Absolutely. That said, the tactic of kneeling on someone’s neck is not one that I ever witnessed or heard of in any training during my 36 year career. Choke holds have not been taught or seen as an accepted practice in decades. Officers that violate the law and ignore their training need to be held accountable.
Most police officers that I know would love to have a mental health professional handle crises involving people in mental distress. These same officers would prefer that homeless people be tended to by people who specialize in homeless issues and know the resources to address those needs.
You can carry on that theme for a variety of different issues that the police have had dumped in their lap. If citizens want their police officers involved in the community, addressing crime, keeping order and helping them stay safe, then police departments need to have the resources to do that.
Addressing crime, reducing crime, keeping the public safe are what most police officers want to do. They want to help people by suppressing crime and making their neighborhoods safe. Properly funded and staffed police departments with good leadership have proven effective in accomplishing those exact tasks.
I will finish with the example set in Camden, New Jersey. With the recent discussion about “defunding the police,” Camden is held up as an example of how that can be successful. If this topic interests you, a CNN article about efforts in Camden is available online. To summarize, Camden had an outrageous crime rate, a culture in the police department that wasn’t conducive to change or reform and limited resources.
They did not “defund” or “eliminate” or do away with policing. They rebuilt their police department. They changed the culture and the approach and fully invested in community policing. Community policing practices have been in use in one form or another in communities like Pella and Perry forever. That’s because the officers know their community and the community knows them.
Camden is unique because when they rebuilt their department, they doubled the number of police officers. That level of staffing allowed them to respond to emergencies, investigate and suppress crime while engaging their community at a high level. That requires funding, not defunding.
When departments are defunded and their budgets are cut, the first things they lose are their opportunities to train and maintain professionalism. They also lose the ability to engage their community through programs like DARE. They are left at their base operations, which is responding to emergency calls and trying to investigate and arrest crime.
Those tasks leave underfunded departments with officers who are worn out both physically and mentally. It has the opposite effect of what I think the “defund the police” folks want to actually accomplish for their communities.
Thank you for the opportunity to address this issue.