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Defund the police?!

by on June 2, 2020

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Acknowledging the end of institutional authority

I’ve spent the better part of the last decade arguing that institutional authority has been replaced by cognitive authority. While not mutually exclusive, the argument focuses on how people build trust, and why they choose to trust who they do (or why they don’t). Specifically that institutions are no longer the basis of trust, but how people communicate (and what they do) is far more important.

This shift in authority represents a crisis in legitimacy for institutions, especially those like law enforcement who have refused to recognize how their relationship with their constituencies have changed. Their authority is no longer regarded as legitimate, in so far as it is derived from the institution, rather than their relationship with communities.

We’re now seeing the consequence of the failure of institutional authority. Does this also mean we’re seeing the failure of these institutions?

In the face of sustained police violence and abuse, there’s a growing call to “defund the police” and transform law enforcement from a military based organization to one that focuses on conflict resolution and deescalation.

The following segment aired on CBC TV nationally, and briefly makes the case for defunding police agencies:

Desmond is incredibly smart and articulate. Unfortunately I’m not sure he realized he was speaking to a national audience, as he was tragically Toronto centric, which will alienate a sizable portion of the non-Toronto audience, which is too bad, as this is an argument they should be exposed to more often.

Part of the problem with presenting radical arguments, is that they can cause cognitive dissonance, especially if they receive limited exposure and appear to the audience as novel. The argument that police agencies should be defunded (and disolved) comes as a shock to most people, as they cannot conceive of any alternative.

Yet as a democratic society we should always be entertaining alternatives. In this case, is there a better means by which a society should secure and protect themselves? Is there a better means by which a society should seek safety and the well being of all residents?

The obvious answer is yes. The difficulty would be found in the how and what. The when and why is increasingly obvious. This video from LA kinda proves the point:

For many, the trust that they place in police is largely gone. Actions such as those depicted in the video above alienate the people who turn to police because they have nowhere else to turn.

Similarly, when police turn on peaceful protesters, and engage in violence upon the people they should supposedly protect, society adapts:

The tweet above is the first in a thread that describes how one neighbourhood in DC opened its doors to protesters who needed shelter from law enforcement. It’s remarkable if only because it shows how communities are uniting out of distrust of police, and a commitment to protect each other (and strangers).

And that’s just one thread among many! Police violence or dysfunction is not new. There’s been evidence of it for as long as there’s been police. However when people perceive those actions as isolated, they can be ignored. Perhaps now we’re in a situation that exposes police violence as systemic rather than isolated:

This is a significant thread. I’ll share a few, but I recommend browsing them all.

Police violence exists because we allow for the existence of a group of people who are permitted to commit violence. It doesn’t matter how many rules, or training, that law enforcement is required to follow, giving people the ability to choose violence will inevitably lead to them using it.

In Desmond’s segment on CBC, he notes that instead of giving people the permission to use violence, we should instead focus on alternatives that seek to avoid and prevent violence. Training and paying people to enter violent situations with the goal of ending or preventing that violence. It’s foolish and stubborn to think that violence is the only response to violence, when we all know that violence begets violence.

Another stale argument in favour of keeping law enforcement in its current form is the existence of significant threats like organized crime, gangs, and violent criminals. While these threats are real, police forces currently have no incentive nor appropriate methods to address them.

Instead, if we wage a war on crime, or a war on drugs, then the incentive for police is to ensure the war never ends. Or even see the war expand, and with it police budgets, resources, and salaries. This is why war is always the wrong metaphor to evoke when dealing with anything other than war, which is not something we should ever want to deal with.

Under no circumstances should a (democratic) society ignore its problems or threats. However violence is so rarely an appropriate response to any of them, that we should not be allocating the vast resources we do to institutions that are empowered to engage in violence.

We innovate and disrupt almost every other sector in society, why not policing? Why not dig into the vast and fascinating fields of sociology, criminology, anthropology, law, philosophy, etc, and come up with alternatives to our existing violent approach to law enforcement?

Metaviews member and long time friend Josh Hehner has written in the past about the concept of a “disarmy”. An organized and disciplined force committed to non-violence and conflict resolution. It’s a brilliant idea that I cannot myself claim to accurately convey or represent, and so Josh, if you’re reading this, I invite you to author a guest post here for our #metaviews friends.

The point however is that there are alternatives. There are ways in which communities can protect themselves and respond to existential threats, whether coronavirus or criminal. Perhaps the reason we do not entertain these alternatives is due to the intimidation and violence perpetuated by police? What if the only way we can move past our current predicament is by defunding current law enforcement organizations to create new ones?

What do you think?

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