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Defunding The Police: What Would It Mean For The U.S.?


Defund the police is a call that's swept through protests and into the broader conversation about American policing. This week, we're looking at what that would actually mean. We've heard from a police chief who rebuilt his department from scratch in New Jersey and a group of social workers who respond to 911 calls in Oregon.

Today, two people who've spent years studying what it would mean to defund the police - first, St. Louis activist and lawyer Derecka Purnell. She would like to abolish the police entirely. And she told me the first step is changing how we think about stopping crime.

DERECKA PURNELL: For example, if someone sexually assaults someone or if someone kills someone because they're homophobic, calling the police officer is not going to stop people from becoming homophobic, right? It can only put that particular person in a cage, in a box in prison. But it doesn't actually get to the root of the problem, which is homophobia or toxic masculinity, for example. How do we transform society? How do we respond to harm alternatively that doesn't create more harm but actually can stop harm and save more lives?

SHAPIRO: So you're talking about investing in everything from education to mental health to homeless services. Can you really envision a point where those investments result in zero crime, zero need for law enforcement?

PURNELL: Oh, well - so two things - one, what we consider crime and harm, first of all, is a social construct. We get to decide what that is. And we could...

SHAPIRO: So you're saying part of defunding the police is changing the laws to decriminalize things that we now think of as criminal offenses.

PURNELL: Absolutely, just like marijuana. So you know, 10 years ago, it was illegal, if you were in California or in Colorado or in the District of Columbia, to use marijuana. Now it's not, and those things have been decriminalized, so that removes enforcement power from the police, stopping them to be able to come into contact.

The second thing I'll say to that is we know across the country - across the world, even - places where there's less inequality, places where there's a more egalitarian society, there's less harm and less crime. So you don't have to worry about someone breaking into your house because there is no reason for someone to break into your house and take from you because they're not doing it out of economic desperation.

SHAPIRO: What does it feel like after all the years that you've spent thinking about this to see it really discussed on a national level, in mainstream circles among people who'd never talked about this before?

PURNELL: Yeah. I think this is an incredible opportunity. You know, after law school, I went and worked on the Ferguson consent decree. And I went back home. I'm from St. Louis. It's where I am now. And I worked on that consent decree with community organizers who thought the best that they could initially get was just body cameras - right? - even though there's no evidence that body cameras stop police from being violent. That's the best that we were hoping for.

And then for five years later, for them to be imagining - we don't have to call police because people are outside who are loitering. We can instead use that money to create a jobs program, to offer employment instead. I think that shift in five years is remarkable.

SHAPIRO: That's lawyer and community organizer Derecka Purnell in St. Louis.

Thank you for talking with us.

PURNELL: Of course. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Alex Vitale has been thinking about this, too. He recently wrote a book called "The End Of Policing." And so I asked him what specifically it would mean to defund the police.

ALEX VITALE: Often, these conversations tend to center around things like reducing our reliance on policing in schools, getting police out of the mental health business, quit using police to manage homelessness and start actually trying to put people in housing. The goal here is to both reduce the number of crises before they happen and also to create an infrastructure that allows clinicians to respond to these crises rather than armed police.

SHAPIRO: What about violent crimes - rape, murders? Police obviously don't have a sterling track record on solving those cases, but they do seem to be important to voters. What do you tell people about who's going to respond to and handle those kinds of offenses?

VITALE: We have community-based antiviolence initiatives that have shown real success in reducing homicides and shootings without relying on mass incarcerations. They only solve about half of homicides. The majority of sexual assaults are never even reported to the police, and this is only after the harms have already occurred. We need to take as many steps as we can come up with to try to prevent these harms from happening in the first place. And as we do that, we can dial back our reliance on policing. It's not about just, you know, getting rid of all police tomorrow and you're on your own.

SHAPIRO: In your vision of the future, is there a police force at all? And if so, what does it look like?

VITALE: Well, I think we don't know exactly the answer to that question. I think this is about a process of looking concretely at what police do and trying to find alternatives that don't rely on violence as the mechanism for producing safety.

When we look at wealthy suburban communities, we don't see police on every street corner managing the problems of those communities. Those people are able to manage their own affairs, for the most part, because they have resources, and they have stability in their lives. If their children have a drug problem, they don't want the police to get involved. They want to get high-quality drug treatment or mental health counseling to deal with the reasons that addiction has become a problem in their lives. Well, why can't we have that for all communities to create that stability so that policing doesn't present itself as the only possible option?

SHAPIRO: That's Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of the book "The End Of Policing."

Thank you for talking with us.

VITALE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.