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Don't let ill-advised slogan derail an important movement

It is a slogan that demands attention. But it is also a sure way to risk the broad public support for major reforms in policing that has arisen since the killing of George Floyd during a Minneapolis police arrest and the subsequent demonstrations.

We’re talking about the slogan, “Defund the police!”

Defund, according to Merriam-Webster’s, means “to withdraw funding from.”

Some advocates say the slogan is a good way to focus attention on necessary radical change, but that defund doesn’t actually mean to withdraw all funding from police. It means, they say, to reprioritize; to strip some funding from law enforcement and better invest in priorities such as education, mental health and social services. It means to stop using police to deal with issues that are not fundamentally criminal, such as homelessness, substance abuse and family crises.

That all makes sense. Defunding the police does not.

A recent Huffington Post/You Gov poll, taken after the Floyd killing and the groundswell of demand for change, found that defunding police was about the only reform Americans didn’t back.

Banning police from using chokeholds received 73% support. Creating a federal registry for civilian complaints against police officers got 72% backing. Assuring an independent prosecutorial review in cases of police using fatal force received 67% support. Eliminating immunity from officers being sued for misconduct had 59% approval. Ending “no-knock” door-crashing arrests was favored 49% to 30%.

Defunding the police, however, was rejected 57% to 27%, including 49% to 29% among black respondents.

People recognize society needs police to enforce the law and that police need funding.

The “defund police” slogan is needlessly provocative and counterproductive. It hands rhetorical ammunition to those who want to discredit and diminish this important movement.

The marshalling of public support for genuine and sensible reforms has the potential to lead to real change. On Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order which, among other changes, ordered the creation of a federal database to track officers with records of use-of-force violations and deter them from moving between departments with their histories undisclosed. Such an action by the president could not have been envisioned a few weeks ago.

The registry plan is likewise included in a bill introduced in the Democratic-controlled House. It also would end broad immunity protections for police and their departments and broaden the authority of the Justice Department to hold local and state police accountable for misconduct.

But reform will have to take place most fundamentally at the local and state level. There are 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. The challenge for the current movement will be to take the national fervor and do the grassroots’ work necessary to achieve policy changes at the local level.

Change is already happening.

The Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council last week issued new guidelines banning chokeholds and neck restraints and reemphasizing the responsibility of an officer to intercede to stop another officer’s misconduct. The council’s guidelines govern local departments.

Gov. Ned Lamont also ordered a ban on the use of chokeholds by state police and established an intervention requirement. And the governor wants every trooper to have body cameras and dashboard cameras by year’s end.

This is not enough. But it’s a start. Connecticut already has undertaken numerous reforms to try to handle nonviolent crimes, such as those stemming from substance abuse, as the behavioral health issues they often are. Prison populations have been in steady decline.

Subsequent and necessary steps, which demand structural and strategic changes in how society is policed, will prove more challenging. Providing earlier intervention by social workers and mental health professionals as an alternative to the haul-them-in and lock-them-up police approach could defuse situations and stop utilizing jails and courts as the depository for a long list of social ills.

Needed is more community policing, less militarization. Toward that end, The Connecticut Chiefs of Police Association has issued a 90-day moratorium on accepting surplus military equipment.

Increased training, better screening of future officers, zero tolerance for going outside the guidelines during enforcement and the willingness and means to remove bad apples are all needed to stop the epidemic of disproportionate, race-based enforcement and police violence against black suspects.

The goal should be to reform and improve policing, not to defund it.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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