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    Thursday, May 30, 2024

    What do people mean when they call for defunding the police?

    Stonington Police Officer Theresa Hersh directs traffic around Black Lives Matter protesters Friday, June 5, 2020, at Liberty Pole Square in Mystic. The RiseUp rallies have grown in protest of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and systemic racism. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Google searches for "defund the police" skyrocketed from late May until June 8, a peak where there was greater interest in the term than at any point since Google started collecting search data in 2004.

    "This is not a new idea, but in many ways it was kind of abstract to many people," said Noel Cazenave, a University of Connecticut sociology professor who wrote the 2018 book "Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism." He added that "through the good work of a lot of Movement for Black Lives activists, they've been able to move these concepts, like defunding the police and dismantling the police, to the center stage of political discourse."

    But what do people mean when they hold up "Defund the Police" signs at Black Lives Matter protests, or advocate this on social media?

    It depends whom you ask.

    Proponents interviewed for this article largely agree their immediate call is for shifting some police funding toward mental health workers, homelessness specialists, education, health care and jobs programs. Some take it further, viewing defunding as a step toward abolishing the police.

    "'Defunding the police' is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds, and engaging on this topic is necessary if we are going to achieve the kind of public safety we need," Christy Lopez, co-director of the Innovation Policing Program at Georgetown Law School, wrote in an op-ed on June 7. She added that defunding the police "means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need."

    Defunding advocates point out that only an estimated 4.83% of the nearly 10.7 million arrests made in the U.S. in 2016, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, were for violent offenses: aggravated assault, homicide, rape and robbery.

    Some view defunding as path to abolition

    In a petition that has garnered more than 6,000 signatures, the social justice organization Hearing Youth Voices demanded that 35% of the New London Police Department budget "be invested into services that support New London residents who are Black, Brown, and poor."

    Four people involved with Hearing Youth Voices joined a Zoom call with The Day on Tuesday to talk about what defunding the police means to them.

    Shineika Fareus, 21, finds it "ridiculous" that the budget for police in New London is larger than the budgets for public works, the library and the senior center combined. To her, defunding the police means reallocating money toward the public school system. (The budget the City Council passed May 27 includes $44.02 million for schools and $12.16 million for police.)

    Craig Parker, 23, wants to see more funding go toward psychologists, social workers and behavior specialists in the schools.

    Brothers Shane and Shawn Brooks-Fletcher, both 19, respectively spoke of demilitarizing and abolishing the police. Shawn called for abolishing the police and recreating something else, "because this system is not working for us, and it can't just work for specific groups and specific people if it's not working for all of us."

    In a separate interview, New London resident Kris Wraight, 39, said she thinks policing in its current state is the wrong way to go about resolving harm. If she was robbed, Wraight said she wouldn't want the perpetrator to lose their job and end up incarcerated, but for her to know if she was targeted or not and feel safe in the future, and for the person to make it right.

    Wraight wants to see funds put toward hiring New London residents in public works to beautify the city, New London Public Schools, a community center and human services.

    "Our emergency services, for the most part, do a good job of pulling people out of the river, but we don't go to the source; we don't go upriver," she said. She thinks with changes made, little by little, any traditional police department needed would be "really, really small."

    When people talk about police abolition, many point to Camden, N.J., which in 2013 eliminated the city police department and created a new one under county control, laying off cops and requiring them to reapply, Politico reported. But this didn't reduce police ranks: By cutting salaries, the county increased the size of the department from 250 to 400 officers.

    Officers were no longer rewarded for number of arrests made or tickets written. In the long run, use of force plummeted and homicides went down, though critics still say the department isn't transparent enough and doesn't accurately reflect the city's population, which is 93% nonwhite.

    Some cities start making police budget cuts

    Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin agreed last week to cut the police budget by $1 million, or 3.5%, next year but said he doesn't support defunding police. After that cut, an additional $1 million will be reallocated from the detention center and narcotics unit, and put toward community walking-beats, training, and a permanent domestic violence team.

    On Monday, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced the city is creating the Albuquerque Community Safety Department, for unarmed professionals to respond to nonviolent crimes rather than armed police officers, KOAT reported. But Keller said this doesn't mean the city is taking away money from core police work.

    The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday voted 11-3 to study ways to cut the city police budget by $100 million to $150 million; the higher number would be an 8% budget cut.

    Also on Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring the creation of a database tracking when officers have been terminated or decertified, and incentivizing local police forces to add experts in mental health, addiction and homelessness.

    Cazenave, the UConn professor, said he sees this as another victory for the "defund and dismantle" movement that Trump denounced. He thinks the "defund the police" phrase is effective because it gave Trump and others on the right something to rail against while providing them political cover to support other reforms.

    Some activists have criticized Trump's order for not having teeth or offering only "breadcrumbs."

    Johnny Williams, a Trinity College sociology professor specializing in white supremacy and social movements, called the order "all lip service." He wants to see substantial downsizing of the police and to see funding put toward social workers, the mental health system, and housing for homeless people, but he still called that a "Band-Aid," considering he doesn't want police carrying guns at all.

    A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted June 8-10 found that just 27% of the 1,000 respondents are in favor of "defunding the police." Of those surveyed, 19% thought this proposal meant "completely abolishing police forces," 56% thought it meant significantly decreasing the size and scope of police, and 25% were unsure.

    John DeCarlo, a University of New Haven criminal justice professor and former Branford police chief, said defunding the police would be "quite an operation to find out how much time the police spend on handling calls for the mentally ill, calls for the homeless," since these actions aren't clearly laid out in line items.

    He would like to see more education for police, noting that police in the United Kingdom must have a bachelor's degree, and that 54% of the Polish police force members have master's degrees. He also said the U.K. has 47 police departments while the U.S. has 18,500 — when adjusted for the difference in population, nearly 80 times more — and that we've "recreated the wheel" and "don't need such granularity."

    A question of rhetoric and semantics

    Attitudes vary on whether "defund the police" is the best term to use.

    Tre Brown, co-founder of the new NB Racial Justice Coalition in New Britain, said he has been using the term "reallocating" rather than "defunding" to characterize his advocacy for moving police funding to education, health care, social justice issues and employment opportunities for people of color.

    As someone working in marketing, Groton resident Michael Whitehouse thought using the word "defund" was "ineffective messaging," though he thinks that because more people are unemployed or working from home, they have more time to research the term.

    Whitehouse laid out in a Medium post that from most conservative to most radical, he divides police reform opinions into overhaul, defund and abolish, and puts himself in the middle camp.

    The Day Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom, called the "defund police" slogan "needlessly provocative and counterproductive. It hands rhetorical ammunition to those who want to discredit and diminish this important movement."

    Cazenave disagrees.

    "It is BECAUSE concepts like defunding and dismantling the police are so contentious and ambiguous that we are now having a much broader and deeper conversation than we did before they was introduced into the discourse," he wrote in a Facebook post June 9.

    He compared it to how "Black lives matter" was a contentious term three or four years ago, but now corporations and Republicans have joined in saying it, "because people pushed the term" and educated others about it.

    Cazenave added that because dismantling police could mean police unions aren't recognized, unions now have a reason to come to the negotiating table to support other, smaller reforms.

    With calls to dismantle and defund the police, Cazenave indicated that people are asking for more than what they think they can get, an important strategy because it leaves room to negotiate, and there need to be people pushing further than liberalism.

    When there is conflict, liberals "want it to be resolved very quickly, so they tend to be conflict-aversive, so they want nice language," Cazenave said. "They want a social movement that's nice. Social movements are not nice. Social movements by definition involve conflict."

    Local police chiefs respond to calls to defund the police

    One area in which police agree with proponents of defunding is that cops are being asked to do too much, and to do things for which others should be responsible. But chiefs and department spokespeople want more funding — for training, and for the purchase and maintenance of body cameras — to address problems in policing.

    New London Police Capt. Brian Wright said in an email that police are often called to respond to situations beyond the scope of their job: "not enough mental health funding or drug addiction funding, let the cops handle it; homeless crisis, let the police deal with it." He said these functions would be best served by trained, certified social workers.

    Stonington Police Capt. Todd Olson said his understanding of defunding the police is redirecting funds to areas "where trained/certified experts may be more effective." The department has a partnership with the domestic violence service agency Safe Futures, and Olson said this could be expanded to other areas.

    Norwich Police Chief Patrick Daley said his department has ongoing relationships with civilian mental health specialists, drug addiction coaches and domestic violence response specialists, and when available, these specialists accompany officers on calls. Protesters didn't cry out for defunding police in Norwich, and the City Council received no public comments addressing the police budget prior to final budget deliberations June 8.

    East Lyme Police Chief Mike Finkelstein said his department is "understaffed" with 25 full-time officers, and wouldn't know how anyone could argue his department is overfunded.

    "In a perfect model, having more services to take care of those social-services needs before police get involved is better for everyone," Finkelstein said. He thinks it's worth having a larger conversation on how to intertwine police and social services, since police will still need to get involved in such situations at times.

    City of Groton Police Chief Michael Spellman pointed out that social service departments are not typically open "24/7," while police departments are. Groton Town Police Chief L.J. Fusaro said policing has become more expansive in the last couple decades, as services that other parts of government handled are no longer around.

    Fusaro added that when police department budgets are cut, sometimes training is the first victim. He noted that the department sends officers to crisis intervention training and also has programs to address Alzheimer's and autism.

    Wright, of New London police, drew a distinction between training and education, noting that "more education would develop the mental and moral tools officers need to build stronger relationships with the community they serve."

    He said that "much can be done to improve policing but abolishing the police completely or severely curtailing their numbers would be more detrimental than beneficial to a community."

    Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Mary Biekert, Kimberly Drelich, Greg Smith and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.


    People march along Bank Street while participating in the "We're Fed Up! Black Lives Matter Protest" on Saturday, June 6, 2020, in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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