St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch paints a bleak picture of the “Defund the Police” movement.
Last week, the former county police chief took to Twitter to suggest that protesters pushing the mantra as the latest response to years of police brutality are urging a new era of lawlessness.
To make his point, he posted a picture from the 1981 dystopian movie “Escape from New York,” which was, ironically, shot mostly in St. Louis.
“Defund the police?” Fitch, a Republican, asks. “We’ve seen that movie haven’t we? Preview of coming attractions in Minneapolis.”
A couple of days later, during the council’s first public interview with new police Chief Mary Barton, Fitch continued to press his point, and Barton played along:
“You can’t just defund the police,” she said. “You can’t throw everything out without a plan.”
It’s the perfect way to end an argument without actually having a discussion.
You can have status quo, or you can have anarchy. There is no in between.
The truth, and the reality coming to legislative debates all over the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd, is much more complicated.
Which is why Fitch’s choice of “Escape from New York” to make his point is so unintentionally on the mark.
In the movie, the world has descended to lawlessness, but not because of some radical version of police reform, but a nuclear war between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. In the movie, all of Manhattan has become a maximum security prison, with a wall built around the island.
In 2020, the scene could be a metaphor for mass incarceration in the U.S.
The Defund the Police movement argues for reimagining financial priorities, with city, county and state budgets shifting money from bloated police departments to the sorts of things that might reduce crime to begin with, including mental health support, drug prevention efforts, early childhood education, and neighborhood development.
Lots of politicians in both parties support these concepts. In at least one area — early childhood education — there is empirical research that shows such investments can reduce crime and prison populations. But it’s hard to make those investments when police budgets always come first.
And about that prison population. The U.S. is “Escape from New York.” That’s the status quo, as it leads the world in mass incarceration, with the possible exception of China. Movements to reduce incarceration and decrease the criminalization of poverty have gained bipartisan support in the past several years, including in Missouri.
Those movements, specifically removing the financial incentive for police to put people in jail mostly because they are poor, cannot be separated from the Defund the Police movement.
When Missouri passed Senate Bill 5 in 2015 to reduce the amount of revenue cities could collect from traffic offenses, that overwhelmingly bipartisan bill was about defunding the police. It was sponsored by Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Republican who is now attorney general. He called the scheme uncovered in Ferguson in 2014 “taxation by citation,” and he lamented how some police chiefs were threatening their officers with their jobs if they didn’t meet ticket quotas.
Schmitt didn’t call the reform “defunding the police,” but the reforms he championed are directly related to the concept. So, too, was last year’s effort to end debtors prisons in rural Missouri, where poor people charged with minor offenses were jailed over and over again because they couldn’t afford their bills for time in jail. The proof of that bill being an element of defunding police came this year, when sheriffs convinced a state lawmaker to try to undo the bill, because it was affecting local police budgets.
Fitch knows the danger in police budgets being funded on the backs of the poor. He opposed the use of red-light cameras as a fundraising tool for cities, suggesting they were all about revenue and not about improving public safety.
That’s in part, at least, what the Defund the Police movement is about. It’s about reducing the financial incentive for over-policing, and reimagining budget priorities in a way that improves public safety, not welcomes a state of lawlessness.
Here’s how activist Mariame Kaba, the director of Project NIA, describes the challenge in trying to convince Americans that the old ways, the ways that led to mass incarceration, haven’t been working:
“As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm,” she wrote last week in a New York Times op-ed. “We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.”
Defund the Police has its roots in the sort of reforms that, considered individually, often receive support from both sides of the aisle.
Now is not the time to put a wall up and revert to partisan bromides.