Defund the Police: Part I, The Instigation for the Movement

Defund the Police: Part I, The Instigation for the Movement


Howard Adelman

Reforms in policing were proposed in Ferguson, Missouri following two weeks of protests and riots that began on 10 August 2014, the day after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Just as these days, curfews were instituted and police squads were deployed to maintain order. Just as these days, that “uprising” raised questions about the relationship between the police and African-Americans in Missouri and the rest of the country.

As the Washington Post observed this past week, a consensus has now emerged concerning the existence of systemic racism in American policing and other facets of American life. Long time organizers of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement are trying to extend its momentum beyond the popularization phase. Activists sense a once-in-a-generation opportunity to demand policy changes that once seemed far-fetched, including sharp cuts to police budgets in favour of social programs and greater accountability for officers who kill civilians.

25 percent of blacks shot and killed by police in the U.S. in 2015 over six months were in the midst of a mental health crisis. “It’s now something where the Mitt Romneys of the world can join in, and that was something unimaginable back in 2014. That is the result of six years of hard work by people who are in the movement and have put forward so many discussions that really changed people’s hearts and minds,” said Justin Hansford, who was an activist in Ferguson, Mo., during the unrest after the police killing of an unarmed black teen there.

What was different in 2014? The incident of the shooting was not captured on videotape. Further, the rioting and vandalism took place in response to 150 officers appearing at the peace protest in riot gear; the militarized police overshadowed the peaceful protest. In the confrontations, innocent protesters were fired upon, journalists were harassed, tear-gassed, shot at with rubber bullets, their cameras destroyed. Video captured a SWAT car rolling up to an Al Jazeera team and taking them down, refuting the claim that the police had simply asked them politely to move.

There was a third major difference. President Barack Obama was in office. He issued the following statement: There is “no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests, or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.” In 2014, the president was on the side of the protesters yet the police repression was far worse and instigated the conflict. However, the central difference was the rise of routine videotaping of police brutally beating black men.

The BLM movement, that had been sparked by the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, got a singular boost because of the aggressive response to the Ferguson protests in 2014 and then a powerful heave upwards with the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis in May of 2020.

In 2014, Wilson claimed that he had confronted Brown following an assault and robbery of a convenience store. In the struggle, Brown was wounded and fled. Wilson gave chase. When Brown turned to confront the police officer, the latter shot and killed him. Bystanders claimed that Brown had turned, raised his hands to surrender, said, “Don’t shoot,” and was then shot. A grand jury refused to indict Wilson. More protests and riots followed in the week after that announcement on 24 November. The Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded that Wilson shot Brown in self-defence. However, in their investigation of the police department, the DOJ concluded in March of 2015 that the Ferguson Police Department had engaged in systematic discrimination against African-Americans.

In Milwaukee on 30 April 2014, Dontre Hamilton was killed by police officer Christopher Manney. Manney was not charged, but he was fired. Further, thereafter, Milwaukee police were equipped with body cameras. Dontre Hamilton was mentally ill and sleeping in a park when he was confronted by Manney who tried to frisk him. Hanney purportedly began to wrestle and claimed that Hamilton got hold of his baton and began hitting him on the neck when he shot him. He hit Hamilton 14 times. Peaceful protests followed.

In the single year that followed, 29 unarmed African Americans were killed by police in America.

Date 2014NameAgeCity  State
11 August  Ezell Ford                         25Los AngelesCA
20 November Akai Gurley28BrooklynNY
22 NovemberTamir Rice12ClevelandOH
2 DecemberRumain Brisbon34PhoenixAZ
30 DecemberJerame Reid36BridgetownNJ
8 JanuaryArtago Damon Howard36Union CountyAK
4 FebruaryJeremy Lett28TallahasseeFL
15 FebruaryLavall Hall25Miami GardensFL
28 FebruaryThomas Allen34WellstonMO
1 MarchCharly Leundeu Keunang43Los AngelesCA
6 MarchTony Robinson19MadisonWI
9 MarchAnthony Hill      27DeKalb CountyGA
12 MarchBobby Gross35WashingtonDC
19 MarchBrandon Jones18ClevelandOH
2 April  Walter Scott50North CharlestonSC
15 AprilFrank Shephard41HoustonTX
22 AprilWilliam Chapman18PortsmouthVA
25 AprilDavid Felix24New YorkNY
5 MayBrendon Glenn29VeniceCA
15 JuneKris Jackson22South Lake TahoeCA
25 JuneSpencer McCain41Owings MillMD
2 July   Victor Emanuel Larosa23JacksonvilleFL
12 July Salvado Ellswood36PlantationFL
17 July Albert Joseph Davis23OrlandoFL
17 July Darrius Stewart19MemphisTN
19 July Samuel DuBose43CincinnatiOH
7 AugustChristian Taylor 19ArlingtonVA

Of course, deaths of black young men at the hands of the police do not only take place when the young men are being arrested. Death and torture take place when they are so disproportionately incarcerated. Between 1972 and 1991, at least 125 black Chicagoans were tortured by police officers in the Area 2 precinct building on the city’s predominantly black South Side. (Laurence Ralph, The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence) Shackled to steaming hot radiators, beaten, electrocuted by means learned in Vietnam and raped with sex toys to extract confessions that help send them to prison and even death row, beating and torture became part of the police culture in Chicago. Torture had been inflicted routinely, particularly at the hands of a Viet veteran, Commander Jon Burge, until he was fired in 1993. As a result of the 2009 Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, and in spite of the “ostrich approach” of many police officers who did not participate in the torture but were inevitably part of the cover up, this pattern was acknowledged in the 2015 reparations legislation for those victims, with claimants in line currently numbering 543. 410 miles to the northwest of Chicago we find Minneapolis.

Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police that was videotaped, very large peaceful protests took place around the world for at least three weeks with some rioting and looting, especially in New York City, in the first few days. There was not only an insistence by the multi-racial crowds that, “Black Lives Matter,” but there were also calls to defund the police. For some this meant dissolving the police department altogether and replacing it with other institutions.

Most of the BLM activists have lobbied for the last six years, not to dismantle police departments, but to spend less on policing and more on housing, health and social work, such as in Sweden, where funds were shifted from the police department to a mental health ambulance service, or Scotland where funds were shifted to a violence reduction unit with officers deployed to defuse conflicts. The activists wanted to shift funds from the police department to other agencies that were better trained and equipped to deal with family disputes, domestic violence or mental illness and stop the trend towards the militarization of police departments.

Three choices for change face police departments. They can attempt reforms that will enable the removal of “bad apples” and the prevention of excessive force, such as the use of chokeholds. Police departments can also be subjected to investigation by independent bodies so that the regulatory process is applied impartially without favoritism. Second, funds can be shifted to other departments more suited to performing functions like intervening in family disputes, dealing with substance abuse and mental illness. Third, Police Departments can be disbanded to get around the stranglehold many police unions have on efforts to instigate police reform and regressive racist and bullying culture that has infected some police departments.

When Senator Kamala Harris wants “to reimagine how we do public safety in America” and defunding the police, she does not mean abolishing the police, but taking funds that total almost one-third of municipal budgets and reallocating those monies to educational, social welfare and health resources. On the other hand, Joe Biden is an advocate of police reform rather than financial reallocation, arguing that police need more funds for better training and for equipping police with body cameras. He would allocate $300 million more to police departments nationwide.

Donald Trump, while paying lip service to reform, is not only opposed to all three types of changes, but insists on characterizing the reform and defund movements as efforts to dismantle police forces. Public safety would otherwise be endangered. “Our police have been letting us live in peace, and we want to make sure we don’t have any bad actors in there, and sometimes we’ll see some horrible things like we witnessed recently, but I say 99.9 — let’s go with 99% of them — great, great people, and they’ve done jobs that are record-setting,”  This is based on the claim that there is no systemic racism in police forces in America even though two-thirds of Americans are now convinced that there is, up from one-third at the time of the Ferguson protests.

This is not and has not been just an American problem. This past month alone, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an indigenous black Canadian woman in Toronto on 27 May of 2020, Chantel Moore, an indigenous Canadian woman in Edmundston New Brunswick on 4 June 2020, and Ejaz Choudry, a 62-year-old man with schizophrenia in Mississauga Ontario on 24 June, all were shot and killed at the hands of police in Canada. This past week, though his brother, Christian, was acquitted, Toronto police officer Michael Theriault was convicted of an off-duty assault in the brutal 2016 beating with a metal pipe of black 19-year-old, Dafonte Miller, who lost an eye as a result of the beating. In addition,  Dafonte also suffered a broken orbital bone, bruised ribs, a broken nose, and a fractured wrist.

Which of the four options described above do you support – a few symbolic acts, some substantive reform, reallocation of police budgets or dissolution of police departments as they currently exist and replacement with police services with a different culture? Alex Neve and France-Isabelle Langlois of Amnesty International advocated a mixture of the last two options, “All of this requires broad and time-bound consultations about community-led proposals that reimagine and propose new, transformative approaches to upholding public safety and setting and apportioning police budgets in ways that end racism and uphold human rights. Now is the time to advance this agenda of change.” Which direction would you choose? To answer that question, it might help to have a deeper knowledge of the philosophic roots and longer history behind the debate.


One comment on “Defund the Police: Part I, The Instigation for the Movement

  1. Cornelia Baines says:

    Not pleasant reading but very informative. We have known Howard for decades – he has almost daily blogs which can feature movie reviews, comments on politics, or exegesis of the old testament. He was a philosophy professor at York, now in his 80s. Has been silent for about 6 months due to illness but he seems back to normal now. Cornelia Cornelia J. Baines MD, MSc, FACE Professor Emerita, Dalla Lana Faculty of Public Health, University of Toronto.


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