Don’t defund the police, rethink policing

Our city and nation must do more to address the root causes of all the social problems we unfairly ask cops to handle.

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Protesters march on June 6 in New York.

Ragan Clark/AP

Let’s imagine how our police and city can work together a whole lot better.

It won’t happen with “defunding” the Chicago Police Department, a bumper sticker idea that sounds too much like a call to do away with cops altogether. Chicago is not about to do that, not until the city magically wakes up one morning and finds there is no crime.

But policing can improve by taking to heart, and acting on, the most compelling arguments made by those in the defund-the-police movement.

At bottom, they are arguing that Chicago and the country finally get their priorities straight, addressing first and overwhelmingly the root causes of the social problems that lead to the hiring of more cops.

And they are right.

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Who’s being arrested?

For decades, we as a nation have asked the police to do more. We have put them on the front line in the war on drugs. We have put them on the front line in dealing with the homeless and the mentally ill.

We have built up massive forces of officers and military-caliber equipment, all geared toward controlling people and making arrests.

But who are we controlling and arresting?

Millions of calls made to Chicago’s 911 center each year have nothing to do with actual crimes. Nationally, of the 56 million encounters between police and people every year, only some 9 million result in someone going to jail.

As the “defund” advocates argue, Chicago and the nation would be smart to invest substantially more in mental health and drug-abuse treatment, in job training and affordable housing, in schools and youth programs.

A drug addict who gets help might be a drug addict who doesn’t go to prison.

“Only 10 percent of people who need drug treatment can get it,” Alexander Sharp, executive director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, told us. “It is time to stop locking them up.”

Politically dangerous

State and local governments across the country spent $115 billion on policing in 2017. In Chicago, 40 percent of the municipal operations budget goes to the police department.

The defund advocates would have Chicago chop to nothing its policing budget and put that extra revenue toward services that address root social problems. Chicago might, for example, pull officers out of the public schools, freeing up $33 million that could be spent on social workers.

To a limited extent, we would agree. In an editorial on Tuesday, we argued in favor of taking police officers out of Chicago’s public schools.

But a massive reduction of policing forces is neither realistic nor politically smart.

More than half of Americans, according to a recent poll, oppose reducing police forces. The police are one of only three institutions (along with the military and small businesses) that more than half of Gallup poll respondents consistently say they trust.

To call for the defunding of the police — even as a shorthand way of talking about a more equitable reallocation of resources — is to play into President Donald Trump’s hands. He would love nothing more than to brand his opponents as crazy soft on crime.

Funding human capital

To call for a massively greater investment in human capital, however, makes sense. And to demand a re-imagining of how policing works, making every effort to end the criminalizing of normal human struggles and tragedy, makes sense.

Other cities are doing so, along the edges.

In Austin, Texas, 911 calls are now answered by operators who ask whether the caller needs a police officer, a firefighter or — here’s what’s new — a mental health professional.

In Eugene, Oregon, a medic and a crisis worker with mental health training are deployed on emergency calls.

And here in Chicago, several aldermen this week said they won’t even think of approving a new police union contract that does not eliminate certain unconscionable protections for bad cops.

Deflections, not arrests

A concept that runs through some of the best police reforms is called deflection. The idea, as explained by Jac Charlier, executive director of the Police Treatment and Community Collaborative, is that the police are reimagined as a huge conduit for referring people in crisis to behavior treatment experts.

Over the past several years, 850 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments have signed on to the concept. A deflection program involving 15 police departments in Lake County is considered a national model. Chicago police have a small deflection program, and it really should be scaled up.

But scaling up deflection efforts while cutting back on the police doesn’t necessarily work well, Charlier said, because it often is the police, in the neighborhoods, who are best positioned to link up people with services.

The movement to defund the police is premised in part on an assumption that we can’t accept — that funding for all the essential needs of a safe and caring society is a zero-sum game. That a dollar spent on a cop is a dollar not spent on a social worker.

Our nation, beset by extremes of wealth and poverty, has an obligation to do both — and it can. It would begin — once we have a new president — by rewriting the federal tax code to demand more from the super rich, reversing the Trump administration’s giveaways.

“The police open doors for people,” Charlier said.

We couldn’t agree more.

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