Defund the Police: What it is and what it isn’t by James Washington and Emma Johnson

Photography by James Washington

Editors Note: This article was co-written by a white person, and while this platform is dedicated to amplifying the voices of BIPOC & multicultural identifying individuals, we believe having productive conversations with white people will aid in the goal of dismantling and defunding the police.

James: The safest communities are often those with the most resources. Conversely, the communities with the most violent crime are almost always those with the least resources. It is upon this material dialectic that the “Defund the Police” movement rests its foundation. Those who attempt to castigate and wholly dismiss the movement as anarchistic and criminal are either ignorant of this foundation or are more interested in building scarecrows.  

In fact, “Defund The Police” is only one demand of the larger Black Lives Matter Movement, and its successful implementation is entirely contingent upon a simultaneous reallocation and reinvestment of resources into directly impacted communities. In this conversation, we’ll argue that a lack of socio-economic opportunity and over-policing generate cyclic poverty, recidivism, and crime. Overreliance upon a Police State to address crime is reactive and inefficient. The “Defund the Police” movement recognizes that investments in education, housing, and healthcare yield a greater social Return on Investment than incarceration. 

This essay is not intended to serve as an investigation into the legislative and social processes that codified and created the persistent $29,281 gap in median household incomes between white and black families. If you’re unfamiliar, I suggest: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X Kendi, and Toxic Inequality by Thomas Shapiro. In this essay we will primarily center our argument around the relationship between education and policing. However, the central principle; smart investments in communities yield greater returns than investments in policing and incarceration, applies across various spheres and socioeconomic systems..

I know that Defunding the Police can work because I’ve personally watched it play out. I currently teach High School English and History, though previously I worked at a relatively well-funded, predominantly-white elementary school as a Behavioral Support Team (BST) paraeducator. The purpose of this program is to support students whose behavior negatively impacts their own learning or that of their classmates. While I won’t dive into pedagogical rationale in this piece, it will suffice to say that the goal is not to punish the student, but rather, to ensure a student receives the care, support, and practice in developing healthy coping mechanisms that they need to be successful, not suspended. Especially when their actions went as far as physically striking teachers, we adhered to this paradigm. Licensed therapists and trained teachers work with students in small groups or individually, with the ultimate goal of helping the student return to their class to participate constructively and consistently.

I watched it work. Frequently. In this relatively-rich, white school, our administrators made the correct choice to invest in BST, a proactive strategy, rather than policing, a reactive strategy. 

Emma: Like James said, when we say defund the police and refund Black communities, this isn’t a new concept. It’s been happening in wealthy white suburbs across America for decades. I grew up in Potomac, Maryland, one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country. We have an excellent public education system, because 47.2% of my home county’s operating budget goes to education. Meanwhile, 4% of this budget goes to policing.  I never saw police growing up. We had a couple security guards in our high school that took themselves too seriously, but I rarely, if ever, came across a police officer. Not at the parties where my friends and I were under-aged drinking, not at football games where my peers would get rowdy, not even in speed traps around town – we had cameras set up for that. And yet, seemingly despite this lack of police presence, my hometown is considered extremely safe. 

It’s a place people want to live because of our school systems, and because of the high level of public safety. But my hometown isn’t safe because of policing, it’s safe because the community has been heavily invested in year after year after year. We have ample grocery stores, solid public transit, access to doctors, hospitals, and afterschool programs, everything a community needs to thrive. Everything a community needs to thrive. Because of these resources, we keep us safe, not the police. 

James: This sort of healthy and constructive environment is a privilege denied to many, and disproportionately denied to children of color.  Across the nation, schools with 90% or more students of color spend an average of $733 less per-student-per-year than schools with 90% or more white students. 

In districts and schools without: adequate funding, empathy for young Black lives, pedagogical foresight, or political will to implement Behavioral Support Specialists, the State instead pours additional funding into already-bloated police budgets, placing police officers in schools (Often called “School Resource Officers, though they have full arrest power). The State disproportionately places these officers in majority-Black schools. 

The Justice Policy institute found, “even controlling for a school district’s poverty level, schools with officers had five times as many arrests for “disorderly conduct” as schools without them”. This is systemic racism: even if we could be sure that there were no racist individuals in the system, the absurdly and disproportionately high volume of police officers in predominantly-black schools creates a system in which routine behavioral infractions can land Black students a suspension or juvenile incarceration. When all you use is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. 

The disparity begins in preschool: 48% of preschool children suspended more than once are Black. In primary and secondary schooling, Black students are suspended or expelled 3 times more frequently than white students. And while Black children made up 16% of all enrolled children in 2011-12, according to federal data, they accounted for 31% of all in-school arrests. 

These suspensions have damaging and cyclic consequences. Students who have been suspended are more likely to be held back a grade and more likely drop out of school entirely. Additionally, the largest impacts of graduation on crime are associated with murder, assault, and motor vehicle theft; put simply, students who gradute are far less likely to engage in violent crime than their counterparts. 

When you realize that nationally, 65% of prisoners have not completed high school, and 14% have less than an 8th-grade education, yet over the last 3 decades, corrections spending has outpaced education spending in 48 states, the relationship between educational opportunity and crime reveals itself. And while millions of children suffer from the effects of the Police State in schools, a disproportionate number of these children are Black.

It costs an average of $33,274 for the state to incarcerate a person for a year. These costs compound, as evidenced by high recidivism rates; 5 in 6 (83%) of state prisoners released across 30 states in 2005 were arrested at least once during the 9 years following their release, while about 4 in 9 (44%) prisoners were arrested at least once during their first year after release. The Carceral State, as it currently exists, is far from rehabilitative. And the pipeline to prison begins in schools.

For example, Washington DC has more police officers (more than 400 armed and unarmed) in public schools than it does mental health professionals. These cops are concentrated in schools with predominantly Black students, and they disproportionately arrest and incarcerate Black students. 

In rich, white schools, the police are already defunded; made dispensable by the social services, education, and safety net that promote positive adolescent development. Black students, however, are more likely to contend with the Carceral State from their first day of school, and thus less likely to make it to the last. 

“Defund the Police” might seem alarming or scary at first, but “Dissolve police departments and rebuild them as one small facet of a network of specialized services so police aren’t called to handle problems they’re woefully ill-equipped to solve” isn’t as easy to chant. 

I suppose a more accurate slogan might be, “Defund the Police, Fund Communities”. This is how rich white communities already exist. For Black and Indigenous People, and particularly for LGBTQ+ BIPOC however, the bitter truth lives on. 

James is a multiracial High School Teacher in Washington D.C. He received a B.A. in Political Science, Education, and Africana Studies from Haverford College, and an M.S.Ed. from The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. 

Emma is a white Master of Social Work student at New York University. She received her B.A. in Political Science, History, and Women’s Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

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