There is a major disconnect going on in the national conversation around policing. That disconnect is the role of the police in society. News publications report on policing as though the goal of the police was to improve public safety. Academics focus on evidence-based policing practices that would improve public safety. Software developers create programs for police departments to use to improve public safety. Politicians (and voters) call for police reform to improve public safety.
The problem is that the goal of the police is not to improve public safety. Their goal is to maintain social hierarchies. When the police are given more resources, whether that means new technology or new best practices, they will use these for their own goal. It doesn’t matter if the original intended purpose of the resources was for public safety — the police will subvert them for their own means.
Maintaining social hierarchies involves bestowing some semblance of order onto communities. This order is mischaracterized as public safety because sometimes there is overlap. In some cases, order maintenance does involve quelling violence or stopping car break-ins. But it is critical to keep in mind that the Venn diagram of order maintenance and public safety are two distinct circles. They are not the same.
In some instances, maintaining social order can directly inhibit public safety. Violent crackdowns on protestors create an unsafe environment for citizens and police. Mass arrests for minor drug violations targeted at specific communities harm those communities.
Too often, people assume that because a law exists that the enforcement of that law is good, proper, and in the interests of public safety. But it isn’t just policing that is devoted to maintaining social hierarchies, it is the entire criminal justice system, including the legislative processes that wrote all these criminal codes. Citing someone for misdemeanor possession of marijuana does not make anyone safer. It adds a burden to the individuals being charged, burdens which just so happen to be racially disproportionate. It adds a cost to the taxpayer — a cost, again, that is not for public safety, but instead is for social order maintenance.
What we spend on policing is not the same as what we spend on public safety. Calls to defund the police are not calling to defund public safety. They are calls to increase public safety. They are calls to create a new public safety system in our cities that actually works for the people instead of against them. The government is not supposed to be in an antagonistic relationship with its citizens, but that is exactly what our system of policing does.
People who want to reform the police are saying they want to give more resources to the system of social order maintenance, not public safety. They want to provide more money and more training to a system that isn’t broken. They want to continue to support and maintain a system that promotes racial inequities and causes direct damage to communities. They want to fund this system at the expense of other proven social services and programs that can actually help people and improve public safety.
Every so often, the police overstep their bounds a little, and communities push back. Riots in LA in 1992, Cincinnati in 2001, Ferguson in 2014, and all over the country in 2020 (just to name a few examples). If the pattern continues (and by all accounts, it seems it will), police departments will receive more resources as a result of these outbursts, and the cycle of violence will continue.
Until voters start being aware of the disconnect between policing and public safety, until news media starts properly reporting this fact, this will not change. Politicians will not risk being voted out for being soft on crime by an electorate that has precious little understanding of crime. Police departments have no incentive to change because they are fulfilling their intended goal and being rewarded for it.
Police reform — which is simply giving the police more money to address a problem that they don’t even recognize — is dangerous. It is antithetical to public safety. Improving public safety will only come when we start pursuing practices that are founded directly on the idea of public safety itself, and not the goals of white supremacy.
This post was previously published on Equality Includes You.
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