The headlines are chock-full of announcements that various municipalities are “defunding” their law enforcement agencies. In the same way that many peaceful protests in the wake of the in-custody death of George Floyd were supplanted by outright riots, many calls for legitimate law enforcement reform have been drowned out by demands for outright abolition of the police. Despite the optimistic claims by some activists that the exodus of the thin blue line would reveal we didn’t need it in the first place, no municipalities have outright dismissed their police forces (yet). The incidents of defunding thus far have taken the form of massive budget cuts, many of which will force police departments to actually lay off existing officers. The drastic cuts in funding will most certainly force cuts in training as well.
Those most insistent in their call to defund the police are, at least, honest. Mariame Kaba, an activist whose opinion was recently featured in The New York Times, is unapologetic in her call to do away with the boys and girls in blue. She wants to abolish the entire profession, to create a world without professional law enforcement officers. She envisions a utopia that can’t exist in a world where there will always be evil. Although she’s wrong, she is at least being honest about her motives.
Slightly different from this approach is that taken by the “redirect” crowd. These folks point out that there are better ways to handle emergencies than simply sending the police. Their rallying cry is that many calls the police are sent to should actually be handled by social workers or mental health professionals. As a career law enforcement officer, I respond with a hearty “Amen.” There is absolutely room for improvement in the system. Cops are the de facto jacks-of-all-trades for government, and that’s not always a good thing. When something falls through the cracks of the governmental system, it usually lands in the lap of a cop. Many states do a very poor job of arranging for the care of the mentally ill, and the cops usually end up dealing with the issue once equally flabbergasted family members and medical workers are unable to find a solution. My home state of Tennessee is no exception. Many times, we unintentionally criminalize mental health issues because the system fails, and that’s unacceptable.
But the “redirect” crowd also gets it wrong (at least to a large degree). They claim that you can essentially get rid of 10 cops and replace them with 10 social workers. It sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t take into account the realities of the situation. I’ve worked in three different states. In every one of them, it was common for social workers to request that law enforcement accompany them to a home so that they could do their job. It’s a dangerous world, and danger requires the police. These same social workers often need law enforcement to conduct a parallel criminal investigation while they do their inquiry. So, you won’t be able to lay off a police officer for every extra social worker you hire. We’ll still need police. You can’t assume that your local police department won’t need the million dollars you strip from its budget, just because you used it to hire social workers or mental health workers. Some places, like St. Petersburg, Florida, have found success with forward-thinking multidisciplinary team concepts, but those teams still have to be supported by well-trained, well-funded law enforcement agencies. Although we should be open to the idea of having more appropriate workers handle different types of calls, such changes need to be well-planned, and the math needs to ensure that a police department can still do its job effectively.
Most cities that have actually taken steps toward defunding are somewhat less honest (or at least deluded) in their approach. If they truly want to improve the situation at hand, then simply cutting budgets is counterintuitive. Most of the places that are slashing police budgets are simultaneously calling for reform, and that’s simply dishonest.
When something falls through the cracks of the governmental system, it usually lands in the lap of a cop.
You see, reform costs money. Policy development, training and good police work take time and proper staffing. I’ve overseen three different police departments. In every one of them, I’ve struggled with a lack of staffing. The general public lacks an understanding of just how much behind-the-scenes time it takes to have a professional police department. In a perfect world, police officers would spend at least 20% of their time training. Most of the incidents that lead to public distrust of law enforcement take place in a split second. It’s imperative that officers spend time every month (or every week) drilling on the proper responses to these situations. It’s equally important that officers are accorded time to train on the more cerebral aspects of the profession, learning about diversity, racial sensitivity, unintentional bias and the proper way to handle victims of crime.
This training should be built into a standard work schedule, because the other thing we know is that overworked officers are more likely to be rude or use force. It doesn’t take a scientist to understand why burning out people who make life-and-death decisions is a bad idea. While this should be apparent via common sense, it’s been found to be true in studies by researchers at Washington State University and the National Police Foundation, as well as others.
Sadly, this is far from the reality in many law enforcement agencies. In my agency, officers work “overtime” as part of their regular schedule (they work 84 hours every two weeks, as opposed to the 80 worked by most other city employees). Court appearances, filling in for vacant shifts and staying late to help with high call volumes add to that heavy load. Their training is all done in addition to these regular work hours, on their days off. Our agency provides more training than most others in our area, but I’ll be the first to point out that it’s not enough. We’d do more, but trying to minimize the likelihood of an incident through training increases the likelihood of causing one through overworking. It’s very much like an old-fashioned scale, the kind that Lady Justice is depicted holding. On one side is the need to not burn out officers, to protect their mental stability, to provide a balance between work and home life that lets the agency retain quality employees. On the other side is the need to train as if lives are at stake (because they are). When you weigh down the training side of the scale, it ramps up the likelihood that officers will burn out. That burnout leads to an inability to keep quality officers. It also leads to an increased likelihood that an officer will act in a way that damages the department’s relationship with the community.
The only way to adequately address this struggle is to properly staff an agency. That means there have to be enough officers on the books to build a shift schedule with plenty of training time already built in. It also means having enough officers to adequately handle the workload of the agency. All too often, this isn’t the case. Local governments fund just enough sworn officer positions to keep the proverbial ship from sinking. Personnel shortages are addressed by simply forcing officers to work excessive overtime, and the employees have no semblance of an actual work–life balance. Training is treated as a by-the-way thing, and is conducted by calling officers in on their days off.
This is the sad reality in many (if not most) law enforcement agencies. Officers are overworked and undertrained. The public often assumes that officers spend hours training every week. Based on their favorite TV show, they may picture peace officers coming to work in a pristine building with an indoor shooting range and fully equipped gym. Their hours, they assume, are spent honing their fighting skills and preparing to handle confrontations with a minimal amount of force. Given this misconception, it’s easy to understand why the average citizen thinks a cop should reasonably be able to shoot the bad guy in the leg, or subdue him harmlessly with an intricate judo hold. This is far from reality. Most officers spend the vast majority of their time just filling a shift schedule, as their employing municipalities don’t staff to allow dedicated time for training. Furthermore, it’s not very common for agencies to have the specialized training facilities featured in our favorite fictional police departments. None of the cities I’ve worked for had its own police gym (even though all of their local high school football teams did).
Lack of proper training and overworking officers both have an enormous impact on the likelihood that something bad will happen between a police department and the community it’s supposed to be serving and protecting. Trying to increase officer training can (ironically) make the problem worse by overworking officers. The only way to have and eat your cake in this scenario is through proper staffing. Municipalities have to hire enough officers to build in guaranteed time away from the streets for the officers to train. In most departments, that proper staffing would require a lot of additional investment in the department’s annual budget.
That’s what makes the defund movement so incredibly ironic. If they truly wanted better policing, for the vast majority of cities that would mean pouring significantly more money into the profession. When law enforcement agencies get bad enough that the federal government has to step in, they’re often put under a consent decree by the Department of Justice. This provides a level of outside oversight that forces the city to do better. I don’t know of any agencies that were put under a consent decree and then given a reduced budget. Quite the contrary, that’s how many cities are eventually forced to properly fund their police department. It’s simple logic. You don’t improve quality by reducing funding. By slashing police budgets, the municipalities that buy into the dangerous defunding trend are almost guaranteeing an increase to their cop-related troubles. They’re also inviting an increase in their crime rates.
Most of the massive slashes in police budgets we’ve seen across the country so far aren’t targeted. They aren’t part of a well-thought-out plan to redirect. They aren’t realistic. At the end of the day, they’re simply a middle finger to police officers who are probably already overworked and struggling to find enough time to train. Sadly, it is the citizens of these communities who will ultimately pay the price for these politically motivated, knee-jerk reactions.
There are probably some true believers who genuinely think the world would be better off without police. But most people realize the reality of the dangerous world we live in necessitates that someone comes running when they call 9-1-1. For these, the idea that defunding the police will do anything whatsoever to address the issues they care about is intellectually dishonest. A huge cut in the budget of their local police department may fulfill some vindictive desire against a group they don’t care for, but it won’t reform anything. Quite the contrary, it will make any actual problems far, far worse. That’s why the movement to defund the police is the most ironic of causes.
Cliff Couch is currently a police chief in East Tennessee, as well as an adjunct instructor at Tennessee Wesleyan University. He’s also worked as a law enforcement officer in Kansas and Florida. You can follow him on Twitter @CliftonDCouch or at Lifeofalawman.com. honor your finest this holiday