Shouts to ‘defund the police’ have been widespread in the George Floyd protests in the US. And this sentiment has travelled across the pond and gained momentum in the UK.
Police brutality and racial profiling are unequivocally worse in the US, of course. However,just because the US is worse does not give UK police a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card when it comes to racism and discrimination.
Before going into the various ways ‘defund the police’ could work in the UK, I’ll clear upa common area of confusion: defunding the police does not entail anarchy nor will it lead toa crime-ridden society. It does not simply translate into getting rid of all law enforcement. It is a process of reallocating resources, responsibility and, most importantly, redirecting funding away from the police and into other initiatives.
Since austerity measures were put in place in the UK, the police have been increasingly overstretched – forced to respond to issues, such as rough-sleeping, domestic abuse, and mental health crises, which would be better addressed by other agencies. Temi Mwale, Executive Director of The 4Front Project, stresses in an interview with CBS News, that police are not ‘mental health workers. They’re not social workers. They’re not community support workers.’
A 2016 report on policing in Sheffield found that there has been an increase in police involvement in “domestic violence, hate crime or so-called honour crimes” because more suitable agencies, like the NHS, local authorities and social services, are struggling tocope with austerity-related budget cuts. This stretching of the police’s remit has particularly harmful impacts on black communities.
Let’s take the example of how the police are involved in mental health crises. Matt Twist, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the NPCC, links the police’s growing role as ‘first responders’ in mental health crises to an increase in the use of violence against those with mental health concerns, especially against black people. An investigation into the use of tasers found that tasers are “deployed disproportionately against people of colour and people experiencing mental health issues”. This research came after the Home Office announced £10 million funding to arm more police officers with tasers in 2019.
This is where the idea of defunding the police came into play. Rather than spending millions of pounds on arming our police officers, we should be using these funds to address the social issues which drive crime and fund professionals who can better tackle the consequences. To help victims of domestic violence we should invest in women’s centres. To support vulnerable young people we should reopen some of 100 youth clubs which have been shut down in London since 2011. We should redirect funds away from the police force and into rehiring the 3,500 youth workers fired since the start of austerity. The police should also be removed from the process of sectioning those with mental illness. Instead, we should fund mental health professionals. In Sheffield, it takes up to two years for vulnerable patients to be seen by mental health services. It’s time to change this.
We also need to defund police programmes which are proven to decriminalise black communities. Take ‘stop and search’ tactics – a House of Commons briefing paper found that black individuals were ten times more likely to be stopped than white counterparts in 2018/19. In the UK, black people are statistically less likely to use drugs, such as marijuana, yet are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs. In South Yorkshire, the use of ‘stop and search’ has increased by 270 per cent since 2015.
These methods of policing disproportionately affect black and minority ethnic communities. They encourage a mindset of seeking out ‘criminals’ based on appearance or stereotypes. This creates huge room for human error built on centuries of discrimination which significantly affects how society views black people.
Redirecting funds from the police into other agencies and programmes is the only way to create a safer society for everyone. Reform alone does not work. Defunding the police will benefit overworked and out-of-their-depth police officers. It will benefit white working-class kids. It will benefit sexual abuse survivors. Most importantly it will ensure black communities are not oppressed at the hands of societies ‘protectors’.
Every significant social movement, from abolition to the fight for LGBT rights, starts with something ‘radical’. Defunding the police is our generation’s radical seed for change.
Image Credit: Taymaz Valley