Defunding the police: Put it to a vote

Defunding the police: Put it to a vote
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The horrific killing of George Floyd, and other fatal incidents involving African Americans, have given rise to large demonstrations for police reform. Many government bodies at all levels have moved to consider or enact police reforms, including increased training; eliminating certain police tactics such as use of chokeholds; more transparency on records of abusive behavior or excessive force by individual police officers, to put more focus on true police accountability; and more forceful prosecution of police abuse. Almost certainly, normally stubborn police unions will need to give ground on many of these issues.

But now, many activists are calling for defunding or eliminating police forces; some proposals favoring replacement by unarmed community social response workers or mediators. To be clear, eliminating police forces means forever. Local police processes of investigation, police data and records, prevention of criminal activity, and protecting the public, at times with significant force, require organizations, cultures, processes and systems that take decades to develop. It would be a huge social experiment. There would be no going back. 

In addition, reducing budgets by significant amounts sends a signal to law enforcement that they no longer have the support, nor will be granted the resources and compensation, to do their jobs. When local politicians and states’ attorneys lose the will or interest to enforce laws, the police will not stick around, putting themselves in danger but wasting their time. The withdrawal of police would seem like a disaster for poor, urban communities. 


America is a democracy, and leading, serious officials in major cities such as Minneapolis and Seattle, following protesters in the streets, have called for full elimination of their police forces, if not jails and prisons. Other cities such as New York and Los Angeles would substantially cut their police budgets. Leaders in San Francisco, Chicago and other large cities have voiced strong support for reducing their police forces. Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' MORE personally knelt in solidarity with aggressive protesters. Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden defends his health plan from Trump attacks Progressives blast Biden plan to form panel on Supreme Court reform Biden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver MORE (D-Mass.) and other Democratic candidates ran blistering anti-police campaigns. Congressional leaders such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHillicon Valley: Threatening emails raise election concerns | Quibi folds after raising nearly B | Trump signs law making it a crime to hack voting systems Ocasio-Cortez draws hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch livestream OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push expansion of offshore wind, block offshore drilling with ocean energy bill | Poll: Two-thirds of voters support Biden climate plan | Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes MORE (D-N.Y.),  Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibOcasio-Cortez draws hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch livestream Ocasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts Pocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair MORE (D-Mich.), and others have forcefully supported eliminating police forces and closing prisons, with little pushback from Democratic leadership. 

Many local and state officials recently released large numbers of prisoners from jails and prisons. Some cities and states routinely release dangerous criminals within hours of their arrest under no/low-bail laws. Many cities restrict police from enforcing laws. These positions are at odds with other leaders who prefer to engage in serious police reforms without cutting resources or eliminating police forces and prisons. Measures such as major defunding or eliminating police require broad-based support of local communities, especially minority communities. That needs to be taken seriously. It cannot be the mandate of a few bureaucrats. 

What do most people want? What do communities want, especially black communities?  America is a country guided by its people. It’s time to vote. 

The most effective way to start is for the city councils in Minneapolis and Seattle, and perhaps Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and others, to frame their proposals for major defunding or eliminating their police forces and put them to a public vote within the next 60 days. There’s no reason to delay; demonstrations have been large and, at times, violent and people are certainly impatient. It has become serious, and the police have a right to know the degree to which the public and public leaders support them. 

How this would be structured could vary by city and community, but the public needs to voice their views on whether they support the concept of strong, but improved, law enforcement and incarceration of criminals, or not. While the issues are complex, seeking the public’s view should be simple and straightforward to give proper guidance to officials: Do you favor elimination of the local police force and replacing it by (fill in the blank, be specific)? Do you favor a major (greater than 10 percent) reduction of your local police budget? Do you favor closing prisons and jails and releasing prisoners? 


A unique and important part of this process should be a clear view of how the African American community feels about these issues. Without question, poor blacks in large cities may be the most heavily affected by these changes — for better or worse. The most direct way to find out is to poll them before the vote so that their preferences and concerns are not lost in the overall tallies of the total community vote. The concerns of minorities should especially count on these issues. Black lives matter — and so do their views and votes.

Finally, there is the issue of public accountability. If the voters in these and other cities vote overwhelmingly against the anti-police measures — say 60 percent, both in vote total and, separately, by polls within the black community — it should trigger an immediate vote to recall the local city councils and mayors, and perhaps county representatives. It would represent a clear no-confidence vote. New elections should be held.

It is obviously time to figure out where we’d like to go as a country and a society. The people have heard many loud opinions. Now, let the public speak and vote. 

Grady Means is a writer and former corporate strategy consultant. While at the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, he worked on civil rights and expansion of America’s social safety net programs. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Follow him on Twitter @gradymeans1.