(The writer is the executive director of the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing.)
Imagine a two-sided list. On one side you have a pot of money in the Lansing Police Department budget, totaling $4.7 million. On the other, you have a significantly longer list of programs and organizations in which the city could invest those $4.7 million to promote community safety — like mental health programs, housing, domestic and sexual violence programs, public transit, and harm reduction. Ten percent of LPD’s annual budget is $4.7 million. Lansing spends over one third of its entire budget on police alone. That is more than public services, human services, economic development and parks and rec combined
We are calling on the city to move our community’s dollars out of a violent and untrustworthy policing system and into programs that actually keep our community safe.
We must defund the police and begin to transition to a new community safety model.
I know what you are thinking: Won’t this allow all of the “bad people” to do “bad things,” and what about murders?
We need to recognize that police and prison abolition is not a reaction to this moment. It is a movement backed by decades of thinking, experience, and research done by Black leaders in this country.
Black-led organizations have created many spaces to address the trauma borne by Black communities by police and have created innovative, proven solutions to involve the police less in our lives, like restorative justice. We have created weekly community cookouts. There have been informal teach-ins. Neighbors are talking to each other to build solidarity. People are having deeper conversations about community care and safety. We are creating a police-free future in real time. Everyone should be taking the steps to create this future. Our lives depend on it.
So, what about violent criminals? We are not suggesting ending protection against violent criminals. In fact, prevention efforts, such as robust mental health services, will reduce the number of violent crimes. We, the people, will be empowered to decide for ourselves what we need, whether it is community watches to protect our neighbors from property crime, community mutual aid efforts to assist those in need, or transformative justice programs to truly stop the prison-to-prison cycle. The fact is, it does not make sense to structure our entire multi-million-dollar social safety apparatus around a relatively rare class of behaviors. As a city, we do not need to spend millions on police. Police do not stop crimes; they only respond to them (if they respond at all).
I work with domestic violence survivors daily. Instead of spending money on police, we can invest in domestic violence organizations that will create programs for people who have committed acts of violence against their significant other, as well as survivor programs for those who need it. We can also respond to a number of 911 calls without relying on the Police Department. People who are trained to respond to specific emergencies can be dispatched instead of police. For example, CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, is set up so that a medic and a crisis worker respond to mental health emergencies instead of police.
Police are often deployed against social problems they have no idea how to deal with — confronting people who are homeless, substance users or those who cannot access mental health care. They often respond with the tools of their trade: violence and arrests. Even with crimes like drugs and burglary, throwing police at the problem does not solve the desperation that is often associated with the root cause of crime. Arresting and re-arresting people only makes a person’s situation worse, creating a vicious cycle that disproportionately punishes people who live in low-income communities, particularly Black Americans.
Policing is both harmful and expensive. It drains public money that could otherwise go to measures that would address the actual underlying problems that cause criminality. Investments in affordable housing, youth programs, mental health services, addiction treatment options, jobs programs, and education have been shown to reduce crime more than policing.
We want everyone to be safe. However, we in the Black community acknowledge that there are better ways to think about community safety than armed paramilitary forces with a proven track record of racism, brutality and a focus on responding to harm after it has already occurred rather than deescalating or preventing it in the first place.
Will a focus on prevention magically stop all harm? Of course not. But we have to ask: How much harm is our current system stopping? How many murders, or sexual assaults, do police currently solve, much less prevent? Black people know viscerally the harm that police have caused in our neighborhoods. The police cause more harm than they prevent, especially in Black communities. We can end this punitive approach and reinvest in programs that help people and reduce crime.
“Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” – Ruth Wilson Gilmore