OPINION: To Protect and Serve, Defund Police

by Carmen Rivera

I am the daughter of the first Puerto Rican police officer in the Seattle Police Department (SPD). He was hired when law enforcement organizations began fully implementing affirmative action hiring during the early 1970s, shortly after SPD did away with their height requirement. His police academy class was the first to train alongside women, all three of them. I was raised around Seattle Police officers and do not believe all cops are bad, and as an adjunct professor for the Criminal Justice Department for Seattle University, I know the institution of policing is problematic.

The institution of policing is less than 200 years old and has seen effective reform efforts be made for fewer than 50 of those years. Historically, police officers in the United States have been predominately white, cis males who were at the forefront of enforcing politically changing laws and maintaining what they saw as order. Though we can say major police reforms have been underway, they do not outweigh the excessive force and brutality experienced disproportionality by Black and Brown people. The murder of George Floyd and the protests that have followed rhyme with those of Michael Brown (2014), Rodney King (1992), The Watts Riot (1965), and numerous other incidents. These marked moments in history show us we cannot dismiss over 150 years of institutional racism and systemic oppression by simply saying, ‘we are doing better now.’ 

Mike Solan, President of the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) has strongly suggested racism is not a problem for the Seattle Police Department. When interviewed about SPOG being kicked out of the King County Labor Union, he simplified their reasoning stating, “They wanted us to say we were a racist institution.” Citing the labor council’s vote to expel SPOG was “an egregious attempt for political pandering,” Solan said in the same interview. This dismissive attitude and response by one of SPD’s leaders clearly shows how little policing culture has changed. 

SPD, as part of the traditional institution, is not immune to bias, prejudice, or racism. To say otherwise, blatantly ignores the very foundation policing in this country was built upon, its history, and the experiences of countless marginalized people. We are witnessing a dangerous polarization of Seattle’s politicians, parts of the community, and SPD. I empathize with how those who work for SPD may feel and how difficult it is to see or hear the constant hate against police officers. However, we must understand that it is a choice to become a police officer. A choice that comes with good benefits and a living wage. It is not a choice to be Black or Brown, and we cannot discount the very real experiences of bias, prejudice, and racism alive today. Both community members and police officers are fed up and frustrated. However, police officers have a duty to serve their community impartially and SPD has been falling short of this duty, especially as of late.

As we have seen crime decrease, there has been a consistent increase in funding for police departments. According to the Seattle Times and the 2018 crime report, Seattle has seen a decrease in crime rates. The movement to defund the police is not asking to take all police funding away, but to redirect funds from the police to other government agencies and community organizations funded by the city. This is a gradual process to strategically reallocate not only funds, but a responsibility as well, away from police and towards community-based models of safety, support, and prevention. 

Defunding the police is not only necessary but the first of many needed changes for criminal justice reform. Those against defunding the police argue we need the police and almost threaten the quality of policing will be the first to go. We use our criminal justice system as a band-aid for societal problems and, as a result, we overly rely on the police. They have become the first responders for mental health, substance abuse, housing, and other non-violent issues that could be handled by different organizations and resources if invested in the way we invest in police departments. Mayor Durkan’s $20 million cuts to SPD’s budget reflect this and show how we overly-value the institution of policing over others. With the additional cut, the SPD budget is still 3.7 times that of the Department of Education and Early Learning, as well as 1.7 times that of the budget for the Human Services Department

In order to see real reform of our criminal justice system and society overall, we need to illicit impactful change through what and how we fund. We do not need to default to the militaristic and overly-burdened system of policing. It is a necessary step to stop investing in police and begin reinvesting in education, human services, and restorative justice programs.  

Seattle City Council has voted to begin investigating SPD’s budget, with support to cut the budget by 50%. This is a scary number for some, especially when we are used to being dependent on the police for more than they are capable of doing effectively. Investigating the budget, with only the intention to make cuts up to 50%, is a precursor to the first steps we need in real reform. The challenge that comes with defunding SPD is what and where they choose to reallocate the funds. This will require an innovative way of thinking about how we serve and repair our communities in a way that reduces the causes of crime.  

Groups such as Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now may appear radical, and change is radical. We have given the institution of policing and its practices 200 years, and communities are still marginalized, brutalized, and killed. One incident, “one bad apple,” is still one too many. Recent reform efforts by the Basic Law Enforcement Academy (BLEA) at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (WSCJTC) have produced mixed results during one of the most funded eras in law enforcement history. It is time to try new ways of serving our communities. 

Carmen Rivera is an adjunct professor for the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University. As a passionate advocate for criminal justice reform, she believes in the power of knowledge and everyone’s right to education.

Featured image by Susan Fried.