Defund the Police or Reimagine Policing

On behalf of Josephine Ross, Professor of Law at Howard University School of Law, Author of forthcoming book “A Feminist Critique of Police Stops” (Cambridge University Press, anticipated publication date mid-January 2021)

I was invited to post a blog because I have been working on a book about policing while all around us, the protests are changing the landscape. This is mostly figurative, but in some cases it is literally changing, as the streets in DC are now painted with Black Lives Matter = Defund the Police.

So I’ll start there, with the slogan “Defund the Police.” I’ve been grappling with whether the phrase feeds into the hands of Republicans by scaring people who should be allies. Why not use “Reimagine Policing” instead? Is defunding the police saying something different than reimagine? For white people like me or, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Americans who believe they are white,” we are called right now to support the dismantling of the racist power structure, the system that led to the death of Eric Gardner and George Floyd, of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, of Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. There is no sitting on the fence. In that vein, I invite us to think about what the slogan means.

Whatever its drawbacks, the slogan has already spurred some changes. The Minneapolis City Council unanimously passed a resolution to “replace the police department with a community-led public safety system.” This involves reimagining policing for sure, but it defunds the old in order start fresh, with different personnel and structure, with anti-racist professionals.

Calls to defund also force us to look at how police departments waste taxpayer money. My book builds on stories my students told me about their encounters with police. Howard law students told me about being stopped and frisked or pulled over for driving while black. None of their encounters helped make our communities safer. Stop-and-frisk is a form of sexual harassment. Just like unwanted touching at work, people who have been stopped repeatedly by police feel vulnerable just walking down the street. Repeated stops create a hostile environment, but it’s easier to quit a job to avoid a boss than it is to avoid the police. I call for the abolition of the stops and frisks (without probable cause) and argue that Terry v. Ohio was built on a lie. No more stops without probable cause. No more consent stops. No more patting people’s groins, pretending that’s where they might have hidden a small weapon that they will pull out while the officer talks to them.

When I talked to people outside the law school about what I was writing, I was often asked what would replace stop-and-frisk? The answer is nothing. Reimagine policing without harassment. The slogan “defund the police” speaks to this too, for why pay money for a system that subjugates us? If an organized patrol was set up to wolf whistle at young women on the street or harass women at work, we would call for them to be defunded. We would not seek retraining and education. We would dismantle it.

I think there’s still a need for a police-like agency that’s given a monopoly on violence. This unit must respond quickly to calls of rape or home invasions. Some type of detectives must investigate murders. The question is whether this police-like structure can be created from the same institutions that shot Philando Castile and kill approximately one thousand people each year. I remember when a Howard Law School student complained to me that “officials talk about blacks regaining trust as if we had trust before. We never had it.” It might be easier to build trust by defunding the old and creating something new.

I confess to writing Defund the Police on a sign before standing at the busy corner where my white neighbors stand (6 feet away) at 6pm to show support for the protesters. I figure that most law professors think they do more by writing and teaching. But I think it’s important to support our students, especially our black students, by adding our bodies to the sea of people calling for real change, not just the same lipstick job that’s been going on since Rodney King’s beating in 1991. I chose the Defund the Police sign because it pushes the envelope and forced me to really think about the slogan. I recommend taking some action no matter what your deadline and no matter what you draw on the cardboard. It makes us feel part of something bigger than ourselves.

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