Ex-top cop Bratton: Defund the police? We're at the center of the storm, doing the jobs no one else wants

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Like Black Lives Matter, Defund the Police is a political hashtag that means different things to different people. Some want to abolish the police altogether; others want to take money out of police budgets and give it to social‐service agencies to be used for community needs and activities, particularly focused on minorities. Still others want to, as they put it, redesign or reimagine policing. 

All are centered around the idea of taking from law enforcement organizations many of the responsibilities and associated funding that have become flash points—dealing with the mentally ill, the homeless, the addicted—and putting them in other hands.

But there’s a reason those responsibilities have fallen to the police over the years: society in general, and the state in particular, decided it did not have the willpower or the funds to run programs that would handle them successfully. Mental institutions closed; shelters became unwelcoming and unsafe; addiction services became underprioritized and overwhelmed. 

So who ended up as the dumping ground for the homeless in the 1970s? The police. The drug addicts of the ’70s and ’80s? The police. 

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Who is having to deal with the issues of today? The police. 

Police departments around the country would be pleased to pass along many of these responsibilities and focus on more traditional policing concerns, but they cannot do that until some other fully capable entity is prepared to step into the breach.

Bill Bratton served as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, chief of the New York City Transit Police, and commissioner of the Boston Police Department and the New York City Police Department (in both 1994 and 2014).

Bill Bratton served as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, chief of the New York City Transit Police, and commissioner of the Boston Police Department and the New York City Police Department (in both 1994 and 2014).
(James Higgins/Penguin Random House)

Replacing the police as government caregivers is a great concept; its advocates just have it backward. We saw how small‐government representatives sucked funding out of most social programs since the Kennedy administration. Neutered them, starved them, and then tried to eliminate them. And we saw that the only one standing at the bottom of all society’s safety nets, when people fall through the holes because they are frayed and worn down or purposely ripped open, is the cop. And the country got very comfortable with that.

Shall we invest money in developing more care for emotionally disturbed people? Shall we increase hospital beds and institutions for the mentally ill? Shall we adjust the insurance laws so their needs actually get covered? Or should we just say, “Ahh, screw it. The cops will handle it”? 

Society had made that choice already, now they were rethinking it. Should we deal with the homeless with treatment and housing? Or should we tell the cops to tell them, “Keep moving it along”?

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Again, we’ve done that before; that’s how the cops became the enemy of the homeless. Should we deal with drug addiction and rehab and programs on a national basis, or should we just say to the cops, “Try to arrest your way through this and make it better”?

You can’t defund the police before you make those investments. You can’t withdraw police services until you have sustained and secured those services in other ways. You can’t take the money from the cops and throw it to failed agencies that don’t know what they’re doing. 

You have to make those investments, and then over time, as these specifically trained organizations get into gear and respond successfully to the responsibilities being given, the police can relinquish their role and defund themselves. The NYPD goes on an emotionally disturbed person call every 4 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If it was not the department’s responsibility, think of all the time that would be available to reduce disorder and prevent crime.

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The money must be reinvested first, and then one day police departments across America should be able to wake up and say, “Wow, we don’t need that many cops. We don’t have that many calls, we don’t have as big a drug problem, we don’t have a serious homeless problem, we are not affected as seriously by mentally ill people who are neither being cared for in a hospital nor supported on the outside.” At that point the departments themselves can say, “You know, we’ve got lots of cops who don’t have that much to do. You can have a few thousand of them back.”

You can’t defund an institution to punish it and think that this action is going to make it better.

But we are not there; we’re nowhere near. And we can’t possibly get there by taking a billion dollars out of the police budget, as has been proposed for the NYPD, including 60% of overtime funding, which is the department’s go‐to tool during a crime wave.

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It seems to me that a formidable portion of the effort to defund the police, abolish the police, f*ck the police is just punitive. People are angry and hateful and spiteful. It doesn’t make sense, it’s not well thought out. 

You can’t defund an institution to punish it and think that this action is going to make it better. Under normal circumstances, you have to pour more money into an institution with needs, not less. 

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So “Defund the Police” has never made sense to me. “Defund the police and send the money elsewhere” is at least rational, but that money isn’t being sent anywhere else, and the government and/or private agencies in line for those funds didn’t become any smarter or more efficient in the meantime. Those agencies must be rebuilt. Meanwhile, we are going to see exactly what we’re seeing, which is the police doing the job that every other agency has failed to do.

If you defund the police and tell them to stop doing those jobs—to disengage from the homeless, to walk by the mentally ill—the streets will not be pretty. 

As funds are being withdrawn and no replacements are being put in place, nothing is working. In June 2020, the 60% cut in overtime pay resulted in thousands of New York City cops being taken off the streets. The crime rate, particularly shootings, went through the roof. NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea equates it to turning off the hoses while a fire in a building is raging. He asks, “What did you expect would happen?” 

#DefundThePolice was a catchy hashtag driving policy. However, policy needs to be based on facts, figures and an understanding of the issues. Defund, redesign, reimagine, abolish the police all had their moments.

The worst idea is that somehow America should simply abolish the police, yet you can hear that call emanating from any number of protest podiums. There is an active opposition to the entire concept of policing that is using this upheaval as a shovel at a grave, saying, “We can abolish this!” What could they be thinking?!

Anytime police are absent, society degenerates. When the powerful but sociopathic decide they are going to take what’s not theirs, who is best trained and able to prevent bad actors from preying upon the community? Cops. With no cops in the streets, lawlessness prevails. Robbery, rape, casual violence, horrendous murder rates. 

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Who’s going to stop them? Social workers? Self‐appointed citizen vigilantes? Who are those people and who sets their agenda? It’s not pretty, armed anarchy. 

So, please, that is not going to happen. Forget about abolishing the police.

Adapted from “THE PROFESSION: A Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America” by Bill Bratton and Peter Knobler. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by William Bratton.

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