Getting Serious About Cops: The Call to Defund the Police
by Dolly Prabhu, Staff Attorney for The Abolitionist Law Center
A shortened version of this article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s op-ed section on January 3, 2021.
On Friday December 18, 2020, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Editorial Board published an article criticizing activists for calling to defund the Pittsburgh police. It claimed that we actually need more police, and that decreasing the police budget would result in less public safety and increased crime — assertions that were backed by the following pieces of evidence: “Duh” and “Duh, squared.”
If the Editorial Board had bothered to actually research this issue, it perhaps would have learned that these claims were baseless. While an array of non-violent and largely innocuous behavior is criminalized in this country, violent crime — the kind of crime we think about reducing to make our communities safer — only accounts for a sliver of what police spend their time on. Only 1% of all 911 calls are for violent crime, and police spend less than 4% of their time responding to or following up on violent crime.
In Pittsburgh, violent crime only accounted for 6% of all crime reported to the Pittsburgh Police in 2019. Rape and murder combined accounted for less than half of one percent of all reported crime. On top of that, data shows that police solve only 2% of all major crimes. In other words, the necessity for and effectiveness of police in keeping the public safe is largely exaggerated, and the belief that increasing police resources automatically increases public safety is contradicted by decades of data and research.
Much of the time, additional police presence results in unnecessary confrontation, arrest, and incarceration for low level crime, or no crime at all. In cities like New York, police strikes and slowdowns over the years consistently resulted in significant decreases in major crime.
When individuals are unnecessarily harassed and arrested by police, they often must sit in jail for months before they have the opportunity to defend their case. In fact, 89% of the people incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail are awaiting trial and not actually serving a sentence. Data shows that pretrial incarceration increases the likelihood of conviction, because incarcerated individuals have a more difficult time developing a defense and because they are more desperate to leave the jail, even if it means pleading guilty to a crime they never committed or forgoing a valid defense.
Pretrial incarceration occurs in a racially disparate manner, as Black residents in Allegheny County are more likely to have monetary bail imposed against them than other residents. Additionally, practices such as cash bail unjustifiably punish low-income defendants. Pretrial incarceration also increases the likelihood of future recidivism, and is thus counter to public safety — as are the policing practices that unnecessarily place so many harmless individuals in the jail to begin with.
Despite the beliefs of the Editorial Board, defunding the police is not a radical, unreasonable, or impossible measure. Nor does defunding the police necessarily require massive layoffs; hundreds of Pittsburgh Police Officers are eligible to retire this year. Allowing officers to retire without hiring replacements is a simple way to reduce the scale of the police force. Furthermore, most Pittsburgh activists calling to defund the police are only asking for the police budget to be reverted to what it was just a few years ago. Critiques of the movement to defund police claim that implementing massive and immediate changes to the City’s budget is imprudent, yet have been notably silent in response to the rapid increases in police funding over the past several years.
In just six years, Mayor Peduto increased the police budget by 60% — an unprecedented rate of increase for a budget that had previously increased by an average of less than 1% each year since 2000. This steep increase began at a time where crime levels were at historic lows and had been steadily decreasing for at least a decade. There has not been any evidence that shows that this massive increase in funding has had any significant positive effect on public safety.
While there is a 2.9% decrease in the police budget planned for 2021, this decrease is not reflective of an affirmative policy aimed to curb police power; it is merely a result of across-the-board cuts in city budgets. In fact, the proportion of the City’s entire operating budget that is dedicated to the police budget has actually increased to about 20%.
But the movement to defund the police is not only aimed at reducing excessive spending; it also seeks to reduce the power of a consistently racist, brutal, and oppressive organization. Data from the Pittsburgh Police’s yearly report shows that while Black people only account for 23% of the City’s population, they accounted for 44% of individuals involved in traffic stops, even though only 61% of Black residents in Pittsburgh own a motor vehicle, compared to 89% of white residents. Black residents also accounted for 71% of all frisks, 69% of individuals subject to warrantless search and seizures, and 63% of all arrests conducted by the Pittsburgh Police. And over 60% of the time the police used force, it was against Black residents.
The police also conducted warrantless searches and seizures against children nearly 400 times in 2019 alone — 83% of the time it was against Black children. In the same year, Black children accounted for 100% of children ages 10 and under against whom warrantless searches and seizures were conducted. Racist policing is largely to blame for why Allegheny County, whose population is only 13% Black, has a jail population that is currently 68% Black.
Police harass, brutalize, and incarcerate Black people, including Black children, at alarming rates in this City. Yet the communities that are the most over-policed are also the least protected. When police are requested, they often have the slowest response rates in minority neighborhoods, resulting in skewed crime clearance rates.
For instance, from 2010–2015, more than half of all murders in Pittsburgh went unsolved, and 97% of unsolved cases involved a Black victim. These disparities exist despite massive increases in police budgets in Pittsburgh and nationwide, which suggest (perhaps unsurprisingly) that an institution that descended from slave patrols will never offer the best protection for communities of color in this country.
In light of the reality of apartheid policing, the movement to defund the police seeks to increase the public safety for all residents. Its opponents, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial Board, are in the business of defending undeniably and overtly racist institutions. There is no righteous middle ground with a human toll this high.
Ultimately, the only impressive quality of the Editorial Board’s article was its ability to fit so much hypocrisy in a mere 324 words, including calling the defund the police movement “reckless and irresponsible,” lamenting that “[m]ore innocent people will be hurt,” and observing that activists “truly do not seem to know the difference between virtue signaling and public policy.”
On the contrary, defunding the police is an intentionally clear policy demand that, by definition, requires substantive action beyond repeating vaguely progressive rhetoric. This is the very reason politicians despise it. Far better examples of virtue signaling include proposals to “reimagine” police, to transition to community policing, to impose even more police training, and just about every other reform this City has offered in the past to respond to racist policing and police brutality.
That this poorly written assortment of unsupported claims was passed off as journalism would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerously irresponsible.
One can only ask, in the ever-eloquent words of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Editorial Board:
“Are these people for real?