Gabriela Bhaskar / The New York Times

Demonstrators protest the police killing of George Floyd and racism outside Barclays Center, May 29, 2020.

June 17, 2020

Defund or Reform Police? Cornell Experts Highlight Obstacles to Changing Law Enforcement

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Hundreds in Ithaca protested on June 3 in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many other Black people around the country. Among the demonstrators’ most prominent calls to action were demands to defund police departments — a once radical notion that is now picking up support nationwide.

The growing “defund” movement first began in Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was killed by the now-indicted police officer Derek Chauvin in late May. The city council unanimously passed a resolution on Monday that expresses support for dismantling its police department in favor of a new community-based model. The vote sets off a potentially year long process of developing a replacement, and likely will require voter approval.

Council members of other cities, like Los Angeles, Baltimore and Dallas, have not gone as far, but have discussed diverting some police department funds to community services they say are better equipped to deal with social issues than traditional law enforcement. On June 12, the New York City Council approved a plan that will cut $1 billion from the New York Police Department’s current $6 billion budget.

Although Ithaca politicians have yet to signal support for a drastic overhaul, calls to curb law enforcement spending have also gained local traction. An Ithaca News poll published on June 10 found that just under 50 percent of 106 area residents surveyed supported some measure of budget cuts or dissolution of the police department.

Source: Ithaca News Poll. (Last Update Jun 10)

Source: Ithaca News Poll. (Last Update Jun 10)

Ithaca’s adopted 2020 general fund budget is $62,700,250, money that represents discretionary resources not legally obligated to be spent on certain services. Of these funds, $12.8 million is appropriated for the police department, which, at 20.4 percent of the city’s budget, is roughly in line with other upstate municipalities.

Sources: From left to right — 2019-2020 Adopted/Proposed Budgets for Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, Ithaca, and Rochester

Sources: From left to right — 2019-2020 Adopted/Proposed Budgets for Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, Ithaca, and Rochester

Despite local calls to defund police departments, the national and state legislative conversation has largely emphasized reform over dismantlement . The New York State Assembly passed an anti-chokehold bill on June 1, named after Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after a police officer placed him in a chokehold.

House Democrats unveiled a reform package on June 8 that includes a chokehold ban, racial bias training, and a proposed nationwide registry for police misconduct. The bill is expected to face resistance from Republicans in the Senate, who are in the process of drafting their own reform bill. President Donald Trump himself signed an executive order on June 16 that creates a federal database of police officers who have a history of using excessive force.

A primary concern among activists is that existing political structures on a federal level have not met expectations for reform in the past. Instead, Prof. Ifeoma Ajunwa, law, said that successful change relies just as much on what happens within police departments themselves.

“Change is not just a top down approach, I think a huge part of it is training,” she said.

Police departments have faced criticism for lack of accountability in the past, making many people skeptical of reform policies.

“It took 74 days for Ahmaud Arbery’s killers to be arrested and charged. It took public outrage and protests before all four officers involved in George Floyd’s death were arrested and charged. Breonna Taylor’s killers have yet to be arrested and charged,” said second-year law student Sararose Gaines, a former employee of the Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative. “Clearly more needs to be done.”

For example, Chauvin had 18 previous complaints filed against him before Floyd’s killing — of which 16 were closed without disciplinary measures. “These murders reveal that police accountability is largely absent in the criminal justice system,” Gaines said on the deaths of Floyd and Taylor.

A large reason for accountability problems within police departments is unions. “Police unions, like many other unions, see their primary responsibility as protecting union members,” Ajunwa said. “The issue is when the union member is a problem to the community that they’re supposed to serve.”

A clause in many union contracts that has gained particular attention as an obstacle to reform is arbitration, when an employer and a union choose a third-party arbitrator to settle a dispute outside of court.

Prof. Dean Colvin, the dean of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said, “it’s a pretty standard principle of labor arbitration that, in general, you should be treated the same as people were treated in the past for the same issue.”

But critics argue that this reliance on precedent allows many fired officers the ability to get reinstated or receive little to no punishment.

If an officer was not previously fired for use of unreasonable force, it is unlikely that another police officer who commits the same offense will be terminated. In cases where they are, arbitration boards have often ordered reinstatements.

Danbury, Connecticut police officer Daniel Sellner was reinstated by a state arbitration panel in 2018 after using excessive force despite the city’s argument that Sellner had a history of misconduct.

“With police unions there has been a history of certain punishments for police misconduct, which people are now saying were insufficient. That’s where the criticism is. There’s consistency to what’s done in the past, but expectations have changed,” Colvin said.

Activists have also argued that union protection and lack of accountability make reformation difficult, especially against some police cultures fostered by “warrior” training and historical foundations in slave patrols and Jim Crow enforcement.

Many police unions have funds put aside for legal defense of police officers and some have a policy of paying a fee to officers who’ve killed on the job. Critics refer to this as a “bounty system,” while unions defend it as consolation for the officer’s stress.

Minneapolis implemented reform measures years ago, including body cams, de-escalation training, and implicit-bias training. But Floyd’s death despite these efforts underscores the difficulty in translating policy fixes to actual change.

“It’s not just about a one-time de-escalation training or a one-time racial sensitivity training. Those are merely band-aids,” Ajunwa said. “Instead of seeing the community as a negative force to be controlled or dominated, the police should learn to see the community as partners.”

On June 2, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office announced a similar position on Facebook, writing that “now more than ever, it is time for collaboration between law enforcement and the community we took an oath to serve and protect.”

But despite these overtures, defunding has continued to gain steam as efforts to reform are increasingly viewed among activists as insufficient to curb police brutality. Gaines, for instance, said that enhanced training and body cameras “clearly aren’t doing enough to bring … true reform that our communities desperately need.”

According to Ajunwa, “calls [to defund] are definitely coming out of the frustration that perhaps the culture of a lot of these police departments is so ingrained that it may be impossible to change.”

Announcing the Minneapolis city council’s decision on June 7 to dismantle the city’s police department, Councilmember Alondra Cano expressed a similar sentiment, acknowledging “that the current system is not reformable.”

The defunding movement also partly rests on the argument that communities would benefit if police officers did not serve as the first responders to addiction, mental illness, and homelessness, with funds instead redirected to social programs, education, and healthcare.

The Tompkins County Police Department had 11 responses that were drug related in the month of February, including possession of contraband, reports of suspicious activity, and one overdose. Additionally, two police responses took place in drug rehabilitation centers and one in a mental health facility.

“Rather than employing strangers with guns to act as first responders, crisis-intervention teams are an appropriate alternative,” Gaines said. “They are often led by highly trained community members, including social workers and medical professionals.”

While legislative changes may take time, Ajunwa encouraged students to nevertheless act within their own communities. “I think a lot of people can feel helpless at this time, but it’s always possible to effect change at your local level,” she said.

These channels for action include emailing representatives, organizing demonstrations and voting, but Ajunwa sees many more opportunities to help.

“It can be as simple as hosting a book club reading. It can be as simple as coming together with businesses to show films depicting the civil rights struggle in the U.S. You can donate to Black Lives Matter. You can donate to bail funds for people who are wrongfully arrested for peaceful protests. There’s just so much you can do,” Anjunwa said.