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Previous reform attempts have not made serious change: Why we must Defund the Police



In order to stop police violence in Rhode Island and nationwide, our officials should not be funneling more money to the police to increase their equipment and training. What we need in order to stop police violence is substantive, transformative investments in community safety and health, which starts first and foremost with defunding the police.

In response to nationwide protests sweeping the country in the past month following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arberry, and Tony McDade, many cities are starting to tout a strategy of “8 Can’t Wait” policies that they claim will reduce police killings and violence. However, beyond the flawed data analysis used to make this claim, what many city officials and politicians fail to recognize is that the majority of the “8 Can’t Wait” policies have already been in place in cities across the country and have failed in reducing police violence. 

For example, Minneapolis had a “duty to intervene policy” (policy number 5 of 8 Can’t Wait) in place since 2016, meaning that officers are required to intervene when other police officers are using excessive force. However, George Floyd was still murdered when Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while three other officers assisted his restraint or prevented bystanders from intervening. 

San Jose, CA has all eight of these policies in place. However, last week, their police officer shot and injured protester Derrick Sanderlin. Sanderlin had previously led the police department in an anti-bias training. 

Boston announced last Thursday that it would update its use of force policies in accordance with “8 Can’t Wait” reforms. However, these “amendments” boil down to increasing the strength of the language or articulating more clearly their pre-existing policies such as banning chokeholds, requiring de-escalation and requiring warning before shooting. Simply firming up policy language and training will not lead to systemic change. 

The “8 Can’t Wait” policies share the fundamental assumption that having more rules around police force will reduce police violence. However, police break these rules all the time and are rarely held accountable for it. Furthermore, our city’s goal shouldn’t be less police violence, but rather no police violence. Achieving that goal requires adopting the fundamental assumption that we can’t solve police violence with a strategy of more policing. 

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In order to stop police violence in Rhode Island and nationwide, our officials should not be funneling more money to the police to increase their equipment and training. What we need in order to stop police violence is substantive, transformative investments in community safety and health, which starts first and foremost with defunding the police. 

Previous reform attempts have not made serious change. The Providence Community Police Relations Act, also known as the Community Safety Act (CSA), went into effect in 2018 with the intent of reforming the Providence Police Department with provisions such as “banning racial, gender-based, religious or sexual-orientation based profiling” and requiring police officers across the department to wear body cameras. Yet implementation of this reform was met with resistance from the police union and enforcement was tasked to the Providence External Review Authority (PERA), which has been slow to implement and take effective action.

While the CSA and the PERA had progressive intent when they were enacted, they would only address harm once it occurs. Further steps need to be taken in order to prevent the harm police officers cause in our communities. We need to completely dismantle the gang database and other forms of community surveillance, and we need to defund and eventually abolish the police.

Defunding the police does not mean just cutting the police budget, but rather shifting priorities and reallocating those funds to investments in the community’s health and well-being – physical and mental health care, education, community mediation programs, youth programming. 

The Mayor’s Office should take tangible action now to defund the police and invest in our community’s health, education, and well-being. This can be done through making substantial changes to the FY2021 city budget and the police union contract.

For example, the FY 2021 proposed budget includes $2 million for police horses, $1,461,620 for the Providence Police Department to hire and train 50 new officers, over $800,000 for unnamed ‘equipment,’ over $500,000 for police officers in schools. Overall, 17.4% of the proposed FY 2021 city budget is allocated toward funding the police ($88 million). The proposed police budget is 48 times the funding for Economic Opportunity; 23 times the funding for Recreation; 24 times the funding for Planning & Urban Development; 25 times the funding for Human Services; and a staggering 600 times the funding allocated to connect residents to behavioral health supports. The end goal should be redistributing the entire police budget through a community-led budgeting process. 

On the state level, Rhode Island’s proposed FY 2021 budget proposes spending $35 million to construct new police barracks in the southern part of the state. In addition, $230 million is invested in incarcerating 2,600 people. These should be cut and redirected to families of color, who have already been most affected by the COVID crisis.

These staggering numbers represent an opportunity for city and state officials to redirect these funds to community programs that desperately need the financial support. For example, Providence School Districts need funding for teachers, counselors, and educational resources and yet funding for School Resource Officers (SRO) has consistently exceeded funding for behavioral health counselors. Schools can be reimbursed for up to half the cost of hiring a new SRO, demonstrating an inappropriate incentivization of policing. SROs should be removed from Providence schools and this funding should be reallocated for teacher’s salaries and educational resources that better support Providence youth.

Defunding the police is a step towards our eventual goal of abolishing the police. Abolishing the police is not simply about dismantling the systems that criminalize and shorten the lives of Black, brown, and poor people in Rhode Island. Our project is also to build up life-giving systems that address harm at its root causes, and that do not leave our neighbors in need of food, clean water, housing, healthcare, and quality education.

Providence city officials should invest in community-led models of building safety and community healing for frameworks to build on. Alternative forms of community safety include community-based intervention teams, peer support networks, harm-reduction based street outreach, community health workers and comprehensive reentry services that includes mental health care centering a trauma-informed approach. 

By taking these steps to defund the police and invest in community resources for health, education, and well-being, we can build towards a future in which the police are made to be obsolete and fully abolished.