Why people want to defund the police

Reform hasn't worked. Cops fight change at every step. Yes, even in Spokane.

Hey, it’s Luke.

There’s going to be another march today in Spokane. Each has had a theme. Today’s is “Defund the Police.”

So hell yeah. Let’s dive in.

In the last week, as the defund movement has come to occupy a central place in American discourse, I’ve seen a lot of people acting dazed. Like it came out of nowhere.

While it’s new to the center stage of American politics — meaning it’s being talked about on the news — the movement to rethink policing has been around a long time.

I first heard about it in Oct. 2017 when a Brooklyn College professor named Alex Vitale was on The Dig, promoting a book, The End Of Policing.

In that episode, the host Daniel Denvir paraphrases Vitale’s thesis:

“What’s most wrong with American policing goes well beyond the illegal abuses that go viral online. What’s most wrong with American Policing is that American government and society ask police to fix too many problems and do too many things. The results of this are mass incarceration and systematic legal abuses that also engender the illegal abuses.”

Then a moment later: “Because we don’t have a social state” — meaning a safety net to help people cope with poverty, mental illness, housing insecurity, discrimination of all kinds — “we have a carceral state.”

We don’t help people. We just lock them up.

And in doing so, we ask cops to do too much. Even police agree this is a problem. (In official statements and just getting mad on Facebook) Sheriff Knezovich frequently points out that the Spokane County Jail is the largest mental health facility in the county.

It shouldn’t be this way. Most cops and jail guards don’t have adequate training, and once locked up people often can’t get access to their meds, further escalating mental health emergencies. It’s a natural consequence of locking people up first, and then never asking questions later.

Rather than responding to this crisis holistically — and maybe like team players with the rest of the community — the next move from law enforcement is not to offer to shrink their budgets and reallocate to mental health and other social services that could keep these people out of jail.

Their move is to ask for BIGGER budgets, to handle the increased workload. Rather than put more than lip service toward diverting people away from incarceration, Knezovich has been trying (unsucessfully) to build a bigger jail for nearly a decade.

Racism is endemic

A bigger jail, to what end? So that local police can continue locking up black people at a rate FIVE TIMES higher than white people and pretend we’re making progress?

“Spokane isn’t like other cities,” Chief Craig Meidl said in an email. “We have worked very hard over the last four years to be a beacon of what law enforcement relationships with the community of color should look like.”

Meidl pointed to a 25% reduction since 2017 in the ratio of Black people who were arrested compared to Black people who experienced force. Compared to 2017, 72 more Black people were arrested in 2019 and two fewer experienced a police use of force, reducing the overall ratio by 25% over two years.

Pause on that for a second. The Police Chief is saying “we arrested more black folk, but we pulled our gun a couple less times, so that’s better, right?!”

No. It’s not better.

Going back to the 2017 report referenced here, it found Native Americans are also four times more likely to get arrested than whites and Spokane cops disproportionately stop Black, Native, Middle Eastern and Pacific Islanders.

That ain’t progress. And just because you say “Spokane isn’t like other cities,” doesn’t make it true.

We have a nationwide issue with over-policing and mass incarceration in America. That trend didn’t just skip over Spokane.

Among even cops of color who have experienced racism throughout their life and career, there’s a reluctance to deviate from the “few bad apples” talking points. The Spokesman printed a gutwrenching short feature on a black cop and his young daughter discussing whether the system is racist. He said no. She said emphatically yes.

In any institutional setting, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. That seems especially true when you’re one of the trees.

Reforms have failed or been obstructed

In 2013, people in the City of Spokane voted overwhelmingly (nearly 70% in favor) to increase the powers of the office of the ombudsman — meaning they wanted greater civilian oversight over their police.

7 years later, the ombudsman is still relatively powerless and the latest contract with the Spokane Police could potentially make city cops less accountable. (There’s a petition against the contract here.)

All this amid protests for police accountability at which unaccountable officers are using brutal tactics on peaceful protestors.

In. Spokane.

It’s no wonder our local NAACP joined the defund movement, joining an increasing chorus that is now reaching the highest points of civil life and culture.

Our ostensibly liberal city council has been borderline negligent in their silence, but there are rumblings that they’re going to send the contract back.

When the New York Times is running op-eds titled “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” you know it’s reaching a fever pitch.

So yeah, now people are saying “Defund”

When police and other government actors act shocked at how quickly this movement has spread, they’re either faking it or they were blind themselves to just how unhappy people are with policing. Or perhaps they just thought if they ignored the problem until they needed to obstruct reform, and then dig their heels in as deep as they could possibly go, the people would just get tired and give up.

But people aren’t just dying from over-policing. Even when they survive encounters with police, their lives are often torn apart in the justice system.

People realize that.

People in Spokane don’t approve of anything by 70%, except maybe the Zags. But they did come together to actually police the police.

Despite that overwhelming push, seven years later, almost nothing has changed. And so now folks are taking this moment to push even further.

If the system is going to resist every single push to make it more fair and more just, maybe it’s time to completely dismantle the system.

Think of what we might build.

Between the jail, the sheriff and the city police, we spend over $140 million on policing each year (Jail $37 mill, Sheriff $44 mill & SPD $60.5 million).

The Spokane County Regional Behavioral Health Organization — which covers 7 counties! — had a budget of about the same.

Every extra dollar we pumped into mental health services would keep our jails from filling up, but we might need to trade cops for mental health professionals.

On an average day there are around 1,000 people in the Spokane County Jail.

Barely 5% of those are booked on violent crime charges — a total of 888 people the whole year (May 2018-April 2019 data). Only 1% of those are classified as “serious violent” crimes — 135 total people.

70% of inmates on any given day are only there because they can’t afford to make bail.

Do we really need $37 million to keep thousands people locked up for being poor, or could we put some of that money making it easier for people to find stable, affordable housing?

I had a professor who always encouraged us to look at a problem from different angles to find unexpected solutions. It’s incredible the solutions that come to mind when you shift your angle away from a police-first mentality.

People have been calling to defund the police for a long time. Their voices are finally building to a crescendo.

Seems like a good time to start listening. Even — especially — in little ol’ Spokane.


BTW if you’re interested in Vitale’s book The End of Policing, the ebook is free right now.

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Okay let’s get to the dang news:

GOOD NEWS

  • On Weds (June 10), the Spokane School Board voted to establish anti-racism equity policies. Big step for kids. Read the resolution here.

  • After outcry from students and community leaders, EWU has reversed course and will NOT consolidate its diversity programs. Read the official announcement from the university (big tail-between-the-legs energy). We covered the inherent white supremacy of the cuts in RANGE 007.

  • A bi-partisan group of 16 Local leaders from all levels — state, county, municipal & school board— signed an unequivocal condemnation of the armed vigilantes that have been roaming downtown Spokane. Read the statement here

BAD NEWS

  • Actively declining to sign the anti-vigilante letter — according to one state lawmaker — were the Spokane Sheriff and our County Commissioners.

  • A little old but still pressing: County Commissioners want to use federal Coronavirus aid to increase jail capacity. This is a terrible idea. Spokane NAACP has the details.

  • INFO for voicing your displeasure with either or both of these decisions:
    Commissioner Al French | 509-477-2265 | contact form
    Commissioner Josh Kerns | 509-477-2265 | Jkerns@spokanecounty.org | contact
    Commissioner Mary Kuney | 509-477-2265 | contact form

ACTION NEWS

  • The pushback against bringing “Killology” police trainer Dave Grossman is going well. We blew the whistle on Grossman in RANGE 006 — it’s a dark but necessary listen. A community petition to cancel the training has over 2,000 signatures! ADD YOURS

  • City Council will consider a police contract from the Mayor that would neuter civilian oversight — something Spokane voters unanimously demanded in 2013 — at a time when the need for checks on the cops could not be more clear. SIGN THIS PETITION to let council know we won’t tolerate it.

  • During COVID, the population of the Spokane County jail has dropped to roughly 60% of its daily average. Crime rates have remained the same. Sign this smart justice petition to send a message to county leaders to keep incarceration levels low, end racial disparities and increase access to treatment.

  • Finally, protesters are returning to Riverfront Park for the third-straight Sunday to protest in support of Black Lives. The focus this week will be defunding the police.


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