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Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Defund Police, or Re-imagine Social Services

As I start this, it's June 9, 2020. The killing of George Floyd has sparked a movement to "Defund Police".

It's a catchy, two word slogan.  But I think Gov. Pritzker is right when he says "Define the Police" is a messaging obstacle to get police reforms.  "Defund the Police" conjures up the idea that we will cut police budgets to $0, and maybe turn large segments of our cities over to gangs and the mafia.  After all, it's fear of gangs that got us into this whole ineffective policing mess in the first place.

What's a Social Service?

I think we need to take a step back and look at what services society provides, and how well society provides them. Yes, this includes the idea that in return for our taxes and our willingness to die for our country, our country might decide to provide services or facilitate them. We also should note who benefits from these services.

Education benefits children, and also society as a whole by providing a better workforce and a more informed electorate.

Individual health care benefits the individual. How it's provided ripples through society (e.g. employers using more part time people to minimize health care expenses). Here's an area that is not done well in America today, but that's another post.

The Federal Reserve serves as an intermediary for checks, and tries to keep the economy working.

The Postal Service delivers mail, even to places that are difficult to get to.

Agricultural support programs try to stabilize farm commodity prices and keep farmers in business.

The FAA regulates airline maintenance and safety features, to get those places up and back down safely. Airline travelers benefit.

The FCC regulates the airwaves -- in particular, determining who is enabled to use what frequencies, so we don't just have a cacaphony.

The Commerce Department attempts to promote American trade interests and keep foreign entities from taking unfair advantage of us.

The prison system: the classic functions are rehabilitation (benefiting prisoner directly and society indirectly) and punishment (creating a sense that justice has been served for victims). But like many areas, there are secondary functions. The location of prisons provides employment in rural areas with few jobs. Prison labor, such as the legendary chain gangs, provides a low-cost work force.

Social security keeps our elderly from starving.

The road system allows us to get places, and allows goods to get to us.


This is obviously just a partial list. There are many services that a well organized society provides to us.

Equally obvious is that sometimes these services need to be re-thought.

The health care system in this country is a fine example of this, and one that we haven't really come to a decent conclusion about.

We re-thought the banking system when banks failed in the Great Depression and introduced federal deposit insurance.

Throughout the period 1920-1970 we adjusted to the arrival of the automobile with a massively changed road system, from no national system at all to the interstate highway system.

In the late 1970s, we re-thought fixed pricing for airplane seats, which resulted in both expanded and cheaper airplane travel.

So, when social services aren't working, or when conditions around us change, we need to rethink what the service does and how it should be improved.


Police, fire, and EMS departments are often grouped under the heading of public safety. That's a great heading, because it says that the primary purpose of these departments is the safety of the public.

It's pretty obvious that these areas have evolved in my lifetime. There are fewer volunteer fire departments now. EMS units are decades old, but still were established in my lifetime; before that, you had to depend on spotty private ambulance services.  While EMS and fire engine vehicles are housed in the same buildings and respond to the same calls, the training and skill sets of a fireman and an EMT are much different, and we don't really expect them to be all rolled into one person.

Police are responsible for keeping the public safe from one another in a myriad of ways: catching bad drivers before they kill us, arresting shoplifters to protect retailers, finding kidnappers, crowd control at large public events, investigating crimes. It's a long list.

Among the nation's largest cities, Chicago stands out for both its high murder rate and for the number of its murders that go unsolved. In recent years the police have been solving about 4 of every 10 murders in the city, but police data show the rate is even worse when the victim is African American.
     The data, obtained by WBEZ under Illinois' open-records law, show the city had 849 murders between the beginning of 2018 and this past July. When the victim was white, 47% of the cases were solved during those same 19 months. For Hispanics, the rate was about 33%. When the victim was African American, it was less than 22%.
     Community members, academics and police officials seem to agree on something: At the base of the department's failure to solve murders is a lack of trust.
If people don't trust the police, they don't help. If people don't help, the police can't protect them by getting criminals prosecuted. If criminals aren't getting prosecuted, people won't help the police because they fear retaliation. Police, already used to seeing criminals as the enemy, may tend to tar untrusting, uncooperative citizens with that same brush.

Policing is an inherently dangerous job where you get lied to a lot.

Not much mystery to why the community would be hesitant to trust the Chicago police. Just to cite two: there's years of Burge torturing confessions. There's that Laquan McDonald video -- and the attempt at the highest levels of Chicago government to keep that video hidden.

Of course, this isn't just a Chicago problem; similar problems arise in all large cities. And it's not a Democrat good versus Republican bad problem either, because in general large cities have had Democratic mayors for years. Chicago last had a Republican mayor in 1931!

So, it's time to re-think policing as a social service. How can we keep all our communities safe?

It would be wonderful if I could pontificate an answer here. But as a white suburban male retiree, I have a rather narrow perspective based on limited intimate knowledge of policing, the courts, the penal system, and what seems to me to be the byzantine array of social support programs, so I'm going to pass on that for now.  Besides, this post is already too long.

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