#DefundthePolice misunderstood

Sometimes slogans can be misunderstood, as is the case with #DefundthePolice. But there is a good principle behind this slogan.

Elisa Resce, Democrats campaigner

The Defund the Police movement originates from the US, where police brutality has been on full display both with the killing of George Floyd, and the violent approach towards protestors. 

Here in Australia, police culture is arguably better; though the deaths of 437 Aboriginal people since 1991, some of whom have died from suspicious causes, excessive restraint, criminal neglect and failure to provide medical care – with not one conviction – beggars belief. 

In Australia, convicting police of misconduct and failure to take due care must occur, and we support the establishment of an independent body to investigate these cases. 

But prevention is better than cure, and in many of these cases, Aboriginal people would not have had the contact with police if the police weren’t called on to target crisis situations including substance abuse, failure to pay fines, mental health crises, and homelessness.

We can have empathy for police officers, knowing that many do a good job and have community interests at heart. In 2018, the Police Association of NSW warned its members were at “breaking point”, and urged for funding to employ more police officers to reduce the strain.

But in recent years, all states have increased their police force numbers well beyond population increase, despite lower crime rates. This is largely due to the political imperative to be ‘tough on crime’ (which drives rates of incarceration, too).

Professor of Law at UniSA Rick Sarre explained in 2016

“…a combination of factors other than police strength can accurately predict crime trends…They include education levels, employment levels, income levels, school-leaving rates, the number of families that regularly need crisis assistance, and the heterogeneity of a relevant population. None of these factors is under the influence of police numbers, or indeed police powers.

…The more reliable reasons (for the crime drop) are as follows: the better economic conditions in the West in the past three decades, better-financed social services, greater emphasis on intelligence-led policing, the removal of lead from petrol, and more affordable and available home alarms and business security services.”

So if police truly are at breaking point, perhaps the solution is not more police officers, but reduced scope of police responsibilities. 

I think of it this way. As a teacher, I would be horrified if I saw a trending hashtag saying #DefundtheTeachers. It’s already a stressful job where I feel undervalued and underequipped – how could people call for less funding?

But what if governments recognised that support for students/families – especially those who are disadvantaged and at risk – requires a holistic approach, that teachers can’t / shouldn’t have to deliver alone? What if they recognised that teachers should be only one part of a network of support, to respond to every aspect of student needs?

With this approach, Defund the Teachers might mean funds would be redirected so the school could employ attendance officers, in-school psychologists, youth workers, behavioural coaches, family liaison officers and interpreters, work experience coordinators, school event organisers, tutors, data analysts – specialist staff who could take on the many, many additional and stressful tasks that are dumped on teachers (and are sometimes way outside our skillset). 

This is an imperfect analogy – schools, especially public ones, need more funding, not redirected funding.

But the principle is the same: recognise the complexity of community needs, reduce the scope of responsibility for police officers, and invest in community services and specialist staff that can respond to people suffering mental health crisis, domestic violence, substance abuse, difficulty paying fines, and the other crisis situations that won’t necessarily benefit from a cop showing up. 

This would ease the strain on the police officers who are already at breaking point; and prevent situations that can escalate quickly and lead to unnecessary violence, imprisonment, or worse (especially if a police officer is having ‘a bad day’). 

Defund the Police might be the slogan, but the principle is justice reinvestment, and it is already occurring in communities around Australia

To be fully effective, though, the ‘tough on crime’ political approach needs to shift towards one of empathy, health, and community support.

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