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LAPD’s downsizing raises bigger question: Is defunding police the right move?

| Dec 18, 2020 | Criminal Justice |

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The tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers spurred a nationwide reckoning. Police violence – and the systemic racial injustice that plagues so many police forces – spurred protests, ballot measures and legislative action. Floyd’s death also fomented calls to defund the police, first in Minneapolis, then across the country.

LAPD budget cuts lead to massive reorganization

In America’s most populous city, the Los Angeles City Council responded to those calls a few months ago by voting to shrink the LAPD’s budget by $150 million. Those budget cuts have led to drastic downsizing of specialized units within the police force, including:

  • Homicide
  • Gangs
  • Narcotics
  • Robbery
  • Air support
  • Traffic

Police officers will no longer respond to minor traffic collisions, instead diverting those calls to online accident reporting. Stations have reduced their desk hours. And several programs will be completely disbanded, including the homeless outreach program and Safer Cities Initiative (targeting Skid Row), the sexual assault unit, the burglary and cargo theft unit, and the animal cruelty investigative unit. More than 200 officers will be reassigned to other investigative units and patrols. In total, the police force has lost more than 300 officers over the last 18 months.

Will crime rates skyrocket?

Los Angeles is already among the most crime-ridden cities in America. Violent crimes are 93 percent higher than the national average. The police-to-resident ratio is 7 percent below the state average. And the chance of being a crime victim in Los Angeles is a staggering 1 in 33.

The city has already surpassed 300 homicides this year – the highest in a decade. Police chief Michael Moore has reported double the usual number of daily shootings. However, he doesn’t attribute those to the budget cuts, but rather to the chaos, tension, confinement and job loss associated with the pandemic. Other cities and states across America – including North Carolina – have experienced a spike in homicide rates since March.

Still, it’s too soon to say whether the budget cuts will have a long-term impact on crime rates.

The bigger question

LAPD’s reorganization points to a broader question: Is defunding the police the right move? What’s the best way to approach law enforcement reform? How can we dethrone systemic racism while also protecting vulnerable members of the community?

Those in favor of defunding the police note that less drastic measures – like more training, body cams and community policing initiatives – haven’t worked. They point out that it’s not about eliminating law enforcement entirely. Rather, it’s about diverting some of the $100 billion that our nation spends on policing every year. Defunding entails channeling those funds into social programs aimed at reducing crime in the first place – community services, mental health treatment, youth outreach programs and the like.

Such an approach reflects the growing recognition of the significant role that mental health and chemical dependency play in crimes. The Treatment Advocacy Center notes that people with unmanaged mental health issues are 16 times more likely to be killed by police. Putting police officers on the front lines – rather than social workers or those trained in mental health – is akin to removing a sliver with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel.

The impact on racial injustice

There’s no denying that policies like the war on drugs have a massively disparate impact on minorities. Blacks are jailed at a rate five times higher than whites, according to the NAACP. Defunding police may go a long way toward dismantling that inequity.

Alternative models of policing focus on a rehabilitative rather than punitive approach to criminal justice. Arguably, this approach is more effective at curbing crime and reducing recidivism. It also eases the financial burden of mass incarceration – which is significant, given that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The downsides

Those against defunding the police contend that violent crimes will run rampant – and that minorities will bear the brunt of it. Wealthier suburban communities wouldn’t see much of an impact. Rather, residents of inner-city, poverty-stricken areas would pay the price for fewer patrols.

One thing’s for sure: It’s a controversial topic with no easy answers.

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