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Defunding the Police Is a Reparations Issue

The United States should take a long look at UN guidance on police reform in post-conflict countries.

Published in: The Nation
Police in riot gear clear the area in front of Kenosha County Courthouse during clashes with protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, August 25, 2020. © 2020 2020 AP Photo/David Goldman

After months of organized protests, the verdict is in. No charges will be brought against police officers directly for the killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black EMT and aspiring nurse, in Louisville, Ky., who was awoken and shot six times in her hallway during a botched drug raid. One former officer, Brett Hankison, was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment for shots fired through her neighbor’s walls. This outcome shows, once again, how our system of law and law enforcement devalues and discards Black lives.

Since its inception in the 1800s, policing in the United States has served to maintain the country’s racial hierarchy, which deems Black people inferior and disposable. These racist origins and continued police involvement in racial oppression during Jim Crow and afterward, including through expanded surveillance, paved the way for systematic racial profiling in Black and Latinx neighborhoods from Boston to Los Angeles. Over and over again, it has had fatal consequences.

Police departments across the country have targeted enforcement against Black, brown, and low-income communities, and this aggressive deployment of police has accompanied disinvestment in services and support for these communities that might more effectively reduce crime.

Some conversations about how to deal with police violence ignore the structural elements of racialized violence embedded in the policing system. The police violence against Black people continues, with the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wis., and the killings of Trayford PellerinAnthony McClain, and Jonathan Jefferson, all since August. We need not only to provide justice and compensation to the victims but also to engage with more transformative solutions—moving resources away from the policing system as a form of reparative justice.

Institutional reform is vital to preventing future acts of police violence. The United Nations guidelines for restoring rights in post-conflict countries, an operational framework for institutional reform, suggests “effective reform efforts might also have to review the functioning of an entire public sector and consider merging, disbanding, or creating public institutions.” US policing desperately needs institutional reimagining. The country would benefit from considering the UN recommendations to establish a well-staffed, independent commission to conduct a transparent and thorough assessment of the public’s needs as well as review the job functions and integrity standards of police officers and policing institutions. Depending on the assessment, this may require a large-scale removal of officers who have a history of misconduct or lack competence or integrity.

But most of all, US federal, state, and local governments must substantially reduce the scope of policing to build up new institutions that foster equal opportunity and real public safety. This approach acknowledges that massive investment in policing systems disrupts the enjoyment of rights and access to everyday needs for communities of color. It acknowledges that there are alternatives to policing when dealing with many societal problems currently under police purview.

For many of those now calling for defunding the system, that means shifting money to community-based systems that foster safety. Neighborhood peacekeeper programs, like Ceasefire in Chicago have proven successful in intervening and de-escalating conflict in communities without the use of force, conflict, or other coercion. The vision that underpins many of the calls to defund the police is of a future where everyone can enjoy their human rights regardless of their race, class, or gender identity, where communities have the resources they need to thrive, and where Black death is no longer a recurring viral spectacle.

That vision recognizes that police violence is not bound to the discretion of individual officers but is part of the very structure of policing. To get there, we need to limit the scope of policing and what police are responsible for, as well as to redirect resources from policing to social services, affordable housing, equitable education, community-based health care systems, and local economic development.

Police continue to kill people, disproportionately those who identify as Black, Latinx, and Native American. The number of shooting deaths this year is consistent with that of previous years. But abusive policing also shows up in other discriminatory ways, like longer traffic stops, more stops and searches, use of less lethal force, and higher rates of arrests in Black and poor communities.

Under international human rights law, victims of serious human rights violations have a right to an effective remedy, which includes reparations for past harm. In the United States, these victims include Black communities that continue to endure systemic discrimination, enforced through policing, including countless instances of excessive and unnecessary use of force and other abuses.

Through tragedy and lived experiences, communities of color have identified that more contact with the police increases the chances of being unfairly targeted, brutalized, or killed. So government reparations should be adequate, effective, and prompt, and should ensure that such actions are never again repeated.

The struggle for human dignity, freedom, and rights requires a reimagining of public safety and discarding what causes harm and perpetuates inequality. Systemic racialized violence by police contributes to widespread harm, and to repair such harm, we should reevaluate our reliance on this taxpayer-funded institution. Members of Congress are looking to address the historic damage of institutional racism by passing HR 40, a bill that would require investigation into the impacts of slavery and develop reparations proposals. Federal, state, and local governments can also achieve a reparative goal by redirecting investments from policing to communities, so that we never again have to convert a human life to a hashtag.


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