Calls grow to ‘defund’ police

Activists have been calling for Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to defund the city's police department for years prior to the death of George Floyd. (Photo: Facebook, Reclaim the Block)

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement continues to break new ground in their calls for police reform as the slogan ‘Defund the Police’ becomes a global talking point.

Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden has weighed in on the debate, deciding to distance himself from the divisive topic.

Meanwhile, Democratic senator Kamala Harris has spoken out in favour of ‘reimagining how we do public safety in America’, and offered some insight as to what such dramatic changes might look like.

Minneapolis City Council members have voted to dismantle the city’s police department (MPD) at a ‘Defund the Police’ rally, marking the most significant structural change to come from the recent BLM protests so far.

The decision was made only 13 days after the death of African-American man George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police sparked global BLM protests.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who had been critical of dismantling the department, has the power to veto council votes, though Sunday’s 9-4 decision reached a super-majority ensuring it was veto-proof from Frey’s office.

While exact details of what a dismantled MPD would mean are yet to be released, many advocacy groups have been working towards a police free society for years and can provide frameworks for some possible outcomes.

One such group is Minneapolis’ own ‘MPD150’, which released a report on the 150th anniversary of MPD’s founding, its violent history and offered suggestions for a police-free alternative.

The 2017 report gives many examples of how forceful police intervention does nothing to address, and indeed can aggravate, underlying social issues which may contribute to crime being committed in the first place.

“The war on drugs has been very effective in systematically criminalising communities of colour,” the report said, “locking millions of people up, and making billions for private prison corporations.”

“On the other hand, it’s been completely ineffective at reducing the availability of drugs or preventing the harm that can come from some drug use.”

Rather than criminalising people who are using drugs, MPD150 recommends defunding police departments and reinvesting in social programs aimed at drug rehabilitation.

The report also says a similar approach can be successful even when dealing with community violence.

“We can’t discuss how to respond to violence in our communities without acknowledging that police cause violence in our communities- directly, through beatings and shootings, and indirectly, through harassment and criminalisation,” the report said.

“What has shown to be effective are programs which give resources back to the community, empowering us to make our own decisions about how to keep our communities safe.”

The BLM protests have renewed longstanding calls for police reform in Australia as well, with much attention focused on the more than 400 First Nations deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Two officers are awaiting trial for the shooting of two Aboriginal men in separate instances last year, though, to date, no police officer has ever been convicted of murdering any Aboriginal people in their custody.

“There cannot be 432 victims and no perpetrators”, wrote Amy McQuire, Darumbul/South Sea Islander journalist, in this week’s Saturday Paper.

Melbourne-based Police Accountability Project (PAC) has been advocating for police reform since 2007, when it began responding to high levels of racial discrimination faced by clients of the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre (FKCLC).

CEO Anthony Kelly is following the case in Minneapolis closely, and is hopeful the current attention on policing can create real political will for change here in Australia as well.

“Governments in Australia should be on notice now, that blindly allowing police to have carte blanche powers and continually expanding their reach is just not acceptable to the wider community,” he said.

“It’s no longer viable to see police as a primary response to social problems. It’s a social problem in itself, policing is not a solution.”

The PAC do a range of legal defense work and public litigation, focusing on a range of accountability issues, such as racialised policing, use of force and the policing of family violence.

Kelly says policing, particularly racialised policing, actively causes social and economic harm to communities, when NGOs or community groups have a greater impact on levels of crime in a neighbourhood than policing – for a fraction of the cost.

A 2017 report published in the American Sociological Review, which sampled over 250 US cities with at least 100,000 people, found that for every 10 NGOs added to a city, the murder rate fell by nine per cent, and violent crime dropped by six per cent.

“‘Broken window’, or zero tolerance policing was shown to have have minimal, if any impact, whereas simply the presence of NGO’s were actually the most tangible factor in reducing crime,” Kelly said.

The PAC made a submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System in 2017, calling for police to no longer be the first responders to mental health call outs.

“Out of 48 fatalities in Victoria between November 1982 and February 2007, all but six of those killed had recorded histories of mental health problems,” the report said. “Police were found to be two times more likely to use pepper spray on those who appeared mentally disordered, even after controlling for other situational and individual characteristics.”

The FKCLC was among 56 Australian NGOs to make a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee tracking Australia’s adherence to the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.

Published in 2017, the contributors called on Australian state and federal governments to adopt measures to track and record racial profiling in Australia, and to establish an independent body for investigating complaints against police and deaths in police custody.

“Racially discriminatory policing continues to be a problem throughout Australia,” the report said. “Particularly concerning are reports of police using excessive force against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and ethnic minorities, the broadening of police powers to lock people up, and the disproportionately high numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in police custody.”

Neither of these requests have been enacted.