Two schools of thought have emerged for altering US policing practices following the killing of George Floyd and widespread Black Lives Matter protests: reform the way police do their jobs, or defund or even disband police agencies.
Reform-based initiatives like 8 Can’t Wait, endorsed by Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, call for new rules, including deescalation training for officers, bans on choke holds, and mandatory reporting on use-of-force incidents. The Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House of Representatives last week, would require racial bias training and increase funding for body cameras.
Supporters of defunding say such steps aren’t enough. Police departments in Cleveland, Chicago, and Baltimore have instituted reforms but still face accusations of police brutality. Defunding means cutting hundreds of millions from police budgets and investing in housing, addiction treatment, and mental health services. Last month, the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband its police department.
One prominent case in the debate is Camden, New Jersey, which disbanded its police force in 2012, converting it to the Camden Metro Division of the Camden County Police Department. Hundreds of officers were fired and made to reapply following new training and psychological evaluations.
At a glance, the move looks like a success. Violent crime in the city has decreased 42 percent since 2012, officials say. Former police chief Scott Thomson has lauded the restructuring and new training.
But community activists in Camden argue that disbanding the force didn’t substantively change policing. “We never really accepted it,” says Darnell Hardwick, treasurer for the Camden chapter of the NAACP. “The whole narrative that the people were in it from the beginning is a lie. What the people wanted was their own police department.”
Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, one of New Jersey’s largest teacher’s unions, says the crime rate has fallen largely because gentrification is pushing out residents living on the margins. “Correlation is not causation,” he says.
Neighborhoods that were struggling with violence are being transformed. “The people are not there anymore,” Benson says. “That type of thing really has nothing to do at all with the police.”
Among their issues with the new force, activists note that while nearly 80 percent of Camden’s residents are Black or Latinx, the Metro police are mostly white and don’t live in the city. Benson argues that changes how they interact with residents.
If officers lived in the city, “you’re not just a cop. You’re also my neighbor,” Benson says. “And now you see me not as a potential criminal, but also as your neighbor.”
Another factor often overlooked in the Camden story is the increased reliance on surveillance, including license-plate-reading cameras, aerial surveillance, thermal-imaging equipment, and a city-wide web of CCTV cameras. Brendan McQuade, a professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine who studied the Camden County Police for his book on police intelligence systems, says Metro has turned to “soft social” policing and “mass supervision.”
“There’s a danger in the ‘defund’ discussion in assuming that uniformed, armed police are bad, soft social police are good,” says McQuade. The shift to “mass supervision,” McQuade says, is a cost-saving measure and a half-hearted approach to reform.
Hardwick, the NAACP treasurer, says the surveillance is “infringing on a lot of people’s rights” and increasing the number of minor arrests. Officials argue that “the people wanted these cameras. No, the people want to be safe.”
In 2011, then governor Chris Christie proposed eliminating the Camden police department as a cost saving measure, alongside tax incentives meant to bring in new businesses. By laying off police officers and rehiring them as county employees instead of city workers, Camden saved almost $90,000 per officer. With the savings, Thomson, the chief, hired hundreds of new officers at much lower salaries. That led to a big increase in arrests and summonses for minor crimes like tinted car windows or riding a bicycle without a bell.
Hardwick says that’s left a legacy of distrust. “There’s a lot of apathy,” he says. “People don’t vote, and the one time they did do an action, they were swatted down by their own mayor and the city council.”
A spokesperson for the Camden County Police referred WIRED to its use-of-force policy and to statistics showing declines in violence and in misconduct allegations against police in Camden. According to the city, there were only three excessive-force complaints last year, down from 64 in 2014; police brought charges in 55 percent of homicides last year, up from 16 percent in 2012.
As other cities face budget problems amid the pandemic-induced recession, they’ll likely face a similar crossroads. In the largest 150 US cities, police budgets have risen steadily for decades, even as crime decreased and even during economic downturns where spending on other public services tightened.
“If the crime rate is up, we say, ‘Well, we need more cops because crime is going up,’” says John Roman, senior fellow at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. “If the crime rate goes down, we say, ‘Well, we need more cops because what we’re doing is working.’ It’s ludicrous.”
Roman studies how city budgets, and police budgets in particular, are overbroad by design, with nonspecific goals like “Increase public safety” as opposed to, say, “Reduce vehicle break-ins by 7 percent.”
Students of criminal justice are concerned that more cities will consider cost-saving measures like those Camden adopted, drawn by the city’s growing reputation as a model of reform. But drastic measures like defunding or even disbanding police could still fail to produce real change.
Stephen Danley, professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers-Camden University, compares this moment to 1970s New York. Governor Nelson Rockefeller had come into office proposing increased treatment for drug users. Then, President Nixon announced a war on drugs and the more humane approach became a political liability. Rockefeller signed some of the nation’s harshest drug laws, with sentences ranging from 15 years to life in prison for most drug convictions.
Historians note that Black communities struggling with twin issues over policing and drug crimes were forced to support a carceral response to drug violence without similar investments in housing, addiction treatment, or education.
“What actually happened is you got increased enforcement and increased incarceration without the support for neighborhoods. I’m very worried that we are going to see that cycle repeated,” Danley says.
Roman argues that city budgets presume police should respond to all manner of scenarios, without assessing whether those responses benefit the community. This isn’t reflected in the line items of a city budget, though Roman argues that evidence is everywhere.
“It is really clear from the last two months that when you add an officer to a police force, the cost [is not just] their wages, pension, and benefits,” he says. “There’s a cost in terms of what policing does to the community. Policing should be about prevention. Deterrence is about imposing fear, and fear is costly.“
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