Should we defund the British police?
By TERESA TURKHEIMER
Conversations about race - whether it be with family at the dinner table, friends, or colleagues at work - are now laced with an increasing significance. With race relations in the UK at a delicate tipping point, such conversations are now lined with a sense of responsibility, a need to educate oneself, and a longing for change. In light of the death of George Floyd, the ensuing Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, and the increasing precedence of BAME issues across numerous institutions and industries, the British media has helped cultivate an engaging debate on the ways institutional and systemic racism can and should be tackled. When the current of the world is on pause as a result of the pandemic, and more and more stories of racial discrimination are surfacing, members and supporters of the BLM movement understand that the time to finally set in stone the foundation for a more equal society is now, before this window of opportunity eventually shuts. But the question is, how?
In honour of Black History Month, I wanted to delve into a prominent issue that the Black Lives Matter protests have raised in the fight for equality and justice. “All cops are bastards” and “defund the police” were slogans plastered across the nation on demonstration placards calling for a stop to police brutality and the disproportionate incarceration of Black people in the country. As a result, the initiative to defund the police has been a popular one, and has caused widespread debate within the US. The motion itself is currently being enforced more and more in various forms across the states – with Minneapolis City Council recently announcing their commitment to replace the city’s police department with a new public safety system, Los Angeles City Council voting to cut its police budget by up to $150 million, and New York City going further by cutting as much as $1 billion – but the UK, on the other hand, has not seen such an immediate or dedicated response. Although I noticed that there is a tendency to highlight the difference in race relations and systems of law enforcement between the UK and US on this topic, it is important to clarify that this does not shy away from the fact that institutional racism is nonetheless rife within the UK police force. Institutional racism is not a question of comparison across nations, it is institutional racism full stop. With the current Conservative government ignorant to the tragedies of Britain’s imperialist past, and a Labour opposition leader calling the notion to defund the police “nonsense”, it is long overdue that the discussion cross the pond in full effect.
‘Defund the police’ calls for the reallocation of subsidies from the police force towards other social services such as education, public healthcare, housing, unemployment, mental health services, and so on. Although a common misconception, it is not a call to ‘abolish the police force and leave it at that’ - campaigners understand that something else must happen in conjunction with budget cuts in order for this to work practically. There are three key reasons behind this reallocation. Firstly, and most importantly, the police fails in its job “to protect and to serve” British Black people and ethnic minorities because of the racism inherent within the institution. As of 2018 in the UK, Black people are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police; three times more likely to be arrested; four times more likely to be handled by the police with force; and twice as likely to die after restraint is used. With the policing system entirely stacked against them, it is no surprise that Black citizens are now calling for a resolution to the problem.
Secondly, it is, as Harvard Kennedy School Professor Cornell Brooks accurately states, about “defunding the things that don’t work, and funding the things that do work”. Not only does British law enforcement fail in its job to protect its own Black citizens, it is also clear that the use of a police force more generally has not helped to drastically prevent crime. Instead of heavily investing in penal and corrective measures such as policing, imprisonment, and more detention centres (with the UK, in fact, having the highest incarceration rate in Europe), the state should direct its resources towards solving the societal problems and conditions that are behind most of the crime in the UK. In directing subsidies towards resources such as mental health services, youth clubs, drug rehabilitation centres, foster care, homeless shelters, and other social services, the root causes behind crime are being tackled before it is able to come to fruition. Not only could crime decrease as a result of this, but, in doing so, the government could progressively develop and enforce a societal framework established on ‘transformative justice’, whereby its response to abuse, violence, and misconduct is to opt for healing, support, and guidance instead. At the moment, the current attitude of British law enforcement tends to be a militarised and chaotic version of action and reaction, to no avail. Many argue that police officers, or the ‘good’ cops, could be disheartened by the budget cuts, and that, consequently, defunding the police would not be able to work operationally. I think it is important to clarify that police officers, or at least the majority of them, enter their line of work to prevent crime for the better of society. As this is currently not being achieved, and in a rather purposeless manner, I am confident that they would happily look elsewhere for solutions. For example, instead of directing mental health crises towards the police, it would be more beneficial to invest in on-call counsellors or mental health experts to respond to these calls instead. Just under 500,000 mental health related calls were made to the police alone in 2018.
A last reason for defunding the police is the fact that the government is in dire need of reevaluating its expenditures. What the Conservatives’ austerity measures have revealed to British society is that the government is willing to sacrifice citizens’ well-being and, on occasion, basic rights in favour of falsely portraying itself as united and strong on both national and global fronts. Over the last 10 years, homelessness has risen by 141%, billions of pounds have been cut from education, more and more children go to school hungry, and NHS waiting times have increased. There are other public and social services that would perhaps fare better with the funds that are, rather pointlessly, being funnelled into security and defence.
In light of the powerful argument in favour of defunding the police, it is also important to recognise that it will not eliminate systematic racism evident within the police. Hence, it may also be beneficial to invest in other internal institutional reforms that could go hand in hand with the reallocation of subsidies. First and foremost, these reforms should focus on enhancing the accountability of police officers and staff. This is to ensure any incident involving any form of discrimination is correctly and justly settled. This could be achieved through the regular re-profiling of police officers; greater community engagement by the police force in engagement; or enforcing direct links between the force and campaign groups such as BLM. Secondly, the criminal priorities and initiatives of the police force should be entirely reconstructed. By now, it is common knowledge that measures such as the stop-and-search missions or UK’s hard-line immigration policies only work to perpetuate racism and ethnic discrimination within the country and not actually defeat the problem at hand.
The defunding of the police is often perceived as a punishment for the bad police officers within the force. I hope that the rhetoric surrounding this debate changes from such a perception to a narrative that instead highlights the fact that the defunding of the police is instead a response to an institution that no longer works. The British policing system isn’t just systemically racist. For as long as we’ve known, it is a breeding ground for corruption and malpractice: the Hillsborough disaster, the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, Windrush 2018, and the case of Stephen Lawrence, to name but a few. Defunding police might not just be the first step to tackling systematic racism, but might just also be the first step to repairing this broken institution.