Published August 14, 2020
The movement to defund police following a national awakening of systematic racism and brutality presents the opportunity to build a criminal justice system more fair to communities of color and reform “penal and punishment bureaucracies,” according to criminal law panelists joining a virtual conversation organized Wednesday by UB’s School of Law.
“The idea of defunding police has become a real political possibility in a way it hasn’t before,” said Anthony O’Rourke, professor of law and director of the Advocacy Institute
in the law school, who as moderator started the virtual conversation.
“For example, the city of Minneapolis has voted to amend its charter and disband its police department and replace it with a department of public safety. Many other cities have committed to substantially reducing their police budgets.
“These recent gains are products of decades of activism by Black-led social movements that seek to abolish policing as we know it and re-imagine law enforcement,” O’Rourke said.
Joining the panel were Monica Bell, associate professor of law and sociology, Yale University; Allegra McLeod, professor of law, Georgetown University Law Center; Jamelia N. Morgan, associate professor of law and Robert D. Glass Research Scholar, University of Connecticut School of Law; and Rick Su, professor of law, University of North Carolina School of Law. A former law professor at UB’s School of Law, Su is an expert on immigration law and local government.
More than 130 students, faculty, alumni and other members of the law school and university community attended the program.
O’Rourke asked panelists — who he called some of the legal academy’s “deepest and most imaginative thinkers about crime, policing and government” — what activists mean by the term “defunding the police” and why these calls are gaining traction now.
Some hear the phrase and assume there is nothing besides “defunding,” Bell said. “But there is also an investment part, and a broader symbolic meaning.”
“One way to think about defunding is to move away from investing in policing to investing in non-criminalizing forms of service delivery,” she said. “It’s investing in Black communities that have been marginalized and dispossessed through policing for a very long period of time.”
The current defunding movement is “radical,” McLeod said, and seeks to bring about meaningful change, to transform policing practices so they are “less racist, predatory and violent. This will require addressing root causes, rather than furthering superficial reforms,” she said. “Taking resources from police budgets, from prison budgets is only part of the current call.
“Divest from penal methods, which consist of up to 40% of municipal budgets, and you invest in meaningful public safety and human well-bring; specifically, affordable housing, public health care, mental health care and quality public education.”
Su agreed defunding police was much more than reducing police budgets.
“It’s a way of re-imagining public safety, re-imaging police practices,” he said, “but also addressing structural racism and other structural concerns embedded when we talk about policing in general.”
Su said the concept of defunding reflects an interest in “re-imaging” law enforcement.
“It’s a reaction of our public consciousness of how entrenched police practices and police institutions actually are,” he said. “The only way to address these issues is to attack it with money.
“We need a blank slate to start over, and only by defunding can we send a powerful message versus other approaches in the past.”
Morgan talked about how the movement to deinstitutionalize mental health patients could be a model for defunding police. She said it was “inspiring” that movements calling for defunding and investment of social programs, “distinctly separate from our punishment bureaucracy, are re-imaging our responses to mental health and mental health crises.”
“Not only are they resisting the role of police and promoting public safety, they are also contesting the role of police as providers of mental health care,” she said.
An attendee asked the panelists whether defunding leads to lawlessness.
Defunding police means alternative structures of preventative justice, said McLeod, who referenced Angela Davis and W.E.B. Du Bois, whose ideas led to “positive abolition.”
“It’s not simply the abolition of prisons or police,” she said. “It’s a movement against a form of government that holds in place white supremacy and racial capitalism, and relies on caging, shackling and subjugating oppressed people, ultimately to preserve the distribution of wealth.
“It’s a movement for government ... that instead of relying on criminal law enforcement, it turns to other forms of collective governance,” McLeod said. “It’s a struggle for new and more inclusive racial, political and economic order.”
O’Rourke asked what questions should have been asked.
Citing a similar plan proposed in Berkeley in the 1960s, Su discussed consequences of each neighborhood establishing its own police force.
“It failed,” Su said. “But given the conversation, it gets me thinking.
“If every neighborhood sets up its own neighborhood watch, their own precinct, what is the exclusionary effect we are going to see? We think about the accountability of police,” he said. “Is it only to their neighborhood, or is it also their engagement to people who see it as their neighborhood but don’t live there?”