Defund the Police?
Start With Funding Equity to Improve Health & Safety

Published on July 11, 2020
Photo credit: Milo Waltenbaugh

By Kurt Waltenbaugh

On Monday, May 25, 2020, less than three miles from where I live with my family, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. Protests began the following day, escalating into riots during the night. Three days later, the Governor activated the National Guard.

Each night, for more than a week, we felt the sting of tear gas in the air, as gunfire punctuated the ongoing cacophony of low-flying helicopters. There were moments of quiet as the city cycled through protests and recovery, only to have sirens once again pierce the silence as police convoys tore through the city.

While the violence has passed, the protests continue. Rioting, arson, and police response have destroyed almost the entire five-mile length of Lake Street, resulting in at least $100 million in damage.

How did this happen?

The Story Begins With Unmet Social Needs

“…a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Photo credit: Milo Waltenbaugh

Dr. King continues:

…we must still face the fact that our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”

So, what is it that America has failed to hear? What was delayed in 1968 – 52 winters ago – that is still missing today, in 2020?

Over the past 50 years, rather than addressing inequity issues to fix the broken promise of freedom and justice, we’ve continued to turn a deaf ear to unmet social needs. We’ve deepened inequities by defunding schools, mental health support, substance abuse programs, and essential social services. These funding cuts have not been equally distributed — hitting hardest the communities most in need. At the same time, the cost of living has outpaced median earnings. As of two years ago, a year of median full-time wages can no longer cover family expenses.

When we evaluate income distribution through the lens of race, the disparity is even starker. The “American Dream” that James Truslow Adams defined as, “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” has moved out of reach for many Americans, especially Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC).

From Social Work to Police Work

With the depletion of social resources that might have helped pick up the slack for families caught in the income gap, we’ve shifted the solutions further downstream. In the meantime, the consequences for these unmet needs grow, as does the cost of addressing them.

  • A lack of affordable housing pushes people onto the streets, and we criminalize homelessness.
  • Food prices outpace paychecks, and we ask non-profits to feed the hungry.
  • Healthcare becomes unaffordable, limiting access to preventative care, and millions of uninsured forced to use emergency rooms as their first point of care.
  • The cost of quality childcare becomes untenable and increasing numbers of children enter school already behind the curve.

These holes in our social safety net have left police departments trying to hold together communities in crisis. In addition to enforcing public safety, officers are called upon to be marriage counselors, mental health professionals, conflict negotiators, social workers, and child advocates. Increased expectations have prompted bigger law enforcement budgets. For example, in Minneapolis, public safety spending is 6.5x higher than public health spending.

Growing law enforcement budgets and increased police militarization have become the norm, but they cannot fix what the dereliction of social programs has left broken.

So What Does It Mean to “Defund the Police?”

It means returning the balance of spending to address social issues, before they become policing problems. It means reducing the need for police enforcement by reallocating funds to address the root causes of substance abuse, homelessness, violence, health, and hunger.

Shifting investments to care rather than incarceration ultimately requires fewer resources as we reduce public safety demands (fewer police interventions, less prison). Likewise, shifting healthcare investments to creating wellness rather than treating disease makes better use of resources, and creates better outcomes (fewer chronic illnesses, lower rates of cancer, improved longevity).

There is a saying in the education world: You can pay for preschool now or prison in 20 years. Spending on early childhood education — birth to age 5 — have some of the highest return on investment of any public program. Not coincidentally, those who receive education interventions ALSO have better health outcomes — a lifetime of lower blood pressure, lower hypertension, and reduced substance abuse — besides substantially higher employment and income rates and lower rates of incarceration.

Why Don’t We Reallocate the Funds?

The problem is temporal. In the example of early childhood investments, they pay off – after the cohort is grown and becomes productive in the labor force. That benefit starts more than 15 years after the investment in preschoolers. We see the same problem in healthcare. For example, we know that eliminating childhood obesity pays dividends down the road by preventing adult-onset diabetes, yet the savings aren’t evident until several decades after the intervention.

In a society that’s learned to look for the instantly gratifying quick fix, we’ve shortened the timeline to measure the return on our investments. The impulse is to spend money in hopes of fixing the problem we see today, rather than invest in programs that address the inequities at the root of those problems, so we reduce them tomorrow.

When we shine the bright light of data on our social disparities, we clarify the causes and effects of inequities and their outcomes. Evidence-based decision making can change our focus and our priorities so that we can meet this challenge.

“Defunding” police by re-directing funds upstream builds stronger communities, creates healthier, happier people, and, ultimately, builds a better democracy—for all of us.

A person standing in front of a building

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Photo credit: Milo Waltenbaugh

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