Letter to the editor: ‘Defund police’ is an invitation for different approach
The June 25 Addison Independent contained three different but related items: Angelo Lynn’s editorial, “Defunding police? Yes, but let’s not confuse the stage.” John Flowers’ “‘Defund the Police’ arrives in Midd,” and his second article, “Not in our town?”
Angelo Lynn’s editorial acknowledges the “problem” of militarized police departments elsewhere, compares that to our police department under the leadership of Chief Tom Hanley, and concludes by “advocating for reform at the national level,” while being “grateful for our experience locally.”
John Flowers’ first article highlights the call by “more than a dozen people” asking officials here in Middlebury to “redirect the Middlebury Police Department’s voter-approved $46,234 budget increase,” and “begin looking at ways to ‘defund’ the MPD.”
John’s second article covers the “erroneous report” by a 13-year-old girl of what she believed was a crime in progress, by a Black man against a white woman. Based on this report, two MPD cruisers race to the scene, with two MPD officers and a police dog; in addition, two Vermont State Police cruisers separately arrive. The officers all approach and surround the man, ordering him to put his hands up. The man, it turns out, is a support person whose job it is to assist and care for a white woman with “special needs” and other disabilities. Chief Hanley concludes, in the article, that there was “no evidence of racism and [ ] the police officers acted in accordance with the state’s ‘fair and impartial policing policy.’” The man, however, expresses his anger and belief that “this would not have happened” if he were white.
Of course it would not — and not because the individual officers were evil, or poorly trained, or violated policy. Rather, they, like all of us, grew up in a country that teaches us that “we are all created equal,” and also teaches and shows us every day that we are not.
The way we police differently in America, and the ways we grow up experiencing policing, both depend on our color and zip code. It is not the only manifestation of our entrenched and institutional racism, but it is a central and important one. Police forces started as a means of enforcing slavery and then segregation. For so long in our nation’s history, the wreaking of violence and mayhem by white mobs, the killing of Black and brown people and the burning of their homes and businesses, has regularly been sanctioned, if not actively supported, by the police. From the lynchings on trees outside county courthouses; to the rioting white crowds in Chicago in 1919, and “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa in 1921, murdering and burning whole Black neighborhoods; to the militarized face of policing which is the norm in so many parts of so many American cities — the police have been a force that regularly harms Black people and “protects” white people.
As Jon Stewart recently said: “The police are a reflection of a society. They’re not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the Black community. They’re enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. Then that situation erupts, and we express our shock and indignation” (NYT Magazine, 6/15/20).
“Defunding the police” means taking money away from the police department’s budget, and redirecting it toward other things — such as social services agencies and mental health agencies — that can do the functions police are often called upon to perform. Here in Middlebury the police and community organizations, such as Charter House and the Counseling Service, do often work together. But that doesn’t mean that 15% of our town’s budget is necessarily the right amount for policing, or that some of that funding might better go to support other services in an effort to support “public safety.”
Defunding the police means that, as a community — and in communities across the country — we should be having honest conversations about our societal choices; about the root causes that so often trigger police calls: poverty, addiction, mental health crises, lack of housing, poor education and inadequate employment. Together we should explore other, more effective ways of responding, and of providing public health and safety. Indeed, Chief Hanley would probably be among the first to say that his officers are too often called to deal with problems that could — in a different world — be much better addressed by other means.
The call to defund the police comes from the experiences of generations of Black communities and communities of color, for whom the police are not there to protect and serve, but to intimidate and brutalize. And while “reforms” like restricting the use of force, requiring body cameras, diversifying departments, and outlawing chokeholds, are not bad, they are not enough. Since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., six years ago, many such reforms have been instituted, and yet police across the country have continued to arrest and kill Black and brown people at increasingly higher rates.
So what might defunding the police look like? It would mean fewer police and more funding for other services. If someone were homeless and struggling, we could call 911 and social services workers could respond; or if a family member were experiencing a mental health crisis, we could call 911 and a crisis counseling team could arrive. These are only some examples of how we could cut down on the numbers of interactions between armed police officers and civilians, minimize the likelihood of escalating violence, and maximize public health and safety in the long term.
Despite adhering to “fair and impartial policing policy,” the recent massive show of force against a Black man doing his job reveals that it does happen in “our town.” The issue is not, as a member of the selectboard put it, “an issue with our police department.” It is not, as Lynn’s editorial puts it, “to reform those police departments at fault, to offer better training.” Let’s get over the terminology. Let’s get over the accusations and defensiveness. Let’s get over the idea that here is different. Let’s calm down, and start imagining how we might do it differently.
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