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Stephen Gottlieb: Refunding Policing

I attended a zoom meeting on the various attempts to reformulate policing in New York. The effort to reform policing was no more productive than I expected, with the panelists largely describing the failure and explaining why it didn’t have better results. At one point I wrote in the chat that we should consider eliminating the 911 calling system. I think the moderator took it as a joke. Actually I was trying to point out how police are asked to do many things they shouldn’t be asked to do. Breaking 911 down into separate components could sidestep some of that – provided that there are other services available to call. That of course is the rub – everything depends on funding: other services have been beggared to pay for too much policing.

Years ago I phoned a former fellow student at law school. He’d devoted himself to the lives of those less fortunate. When I called, he’d joined the faculty at one of the country’s best law schools. Naturally, I asked what he was teaching. Tax! I barely held on to my chair. But his point was clear – everything depends on funding, whether through the budget or so-called tax expenditures. By getting into tax law, he was getting into all of society’s choices. We can say whatever we want about what the police should do and how they should do it, but we’ve funded them to handle virtually all citizen needs – with weapons.

Research on decision-making describes so-called garbage-can decision-making. Use whatever you pull out of the can as a tool. Doctors wear stethoscopes, carry tongue depressors, and tools for checking your heart and blood. Our primary care doctors spend a lot of their time referring us to people who know more about our specific problems than they do. But they care about us and try to get us the right services, most of which should make us healthier. Police don’t carry stethoscopes or refer us to experts, and what they carry isn’t benign but that’s what they’ve got.

The culture of policing, passed down from senior to junior officers, doesn’t help. Think about the reasons people go into policing. There isn’t just one but given the constant carrying of weapons and permission to subdue or overpower people, one reason, repeat one reason, that some people will join the force is to act tough. It’s no answer that there are good cops – bad ones spoil the barrel and teach the rest.

Then there’s us. Our calls for police protection are often laced with prejudices about “them.” Remember the term paddy wagons for police vans? Ethnic slurs are buried in our daily language. Many police forces were organized as corporate union-busting security forces – armed with guns and clubs. And in parts of the country, police were successors to patrols that kept former slaves in their place – white men riding out to catch Blacks seeking freedom, both before and after the Civil War when they were nominally free. The Klan became deeply enmeshed in many police forces. Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were killed by cooperation between Klan and police. In other words the historic origin of many police forces in this country had nothing to do with obeying the law and everything to do with violating it. Culture and traditions die hard.

If chiefs of police stay long enough and work hard enough they can counteract it, but they have to be very strategic, not about compromising with their officers or appeasing them, but getting their support. That’s possible. I just haven’t been seeing it done. So I’d focus on the funding to get the services we need.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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