Law Enforcement: Defend or Defund?

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of extremes and balances but of constructiveness.  Welcome to a journey into a wondrous land limited only by the mind.  Your next stop: the Midmorning Zone

Dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo…

Their names are unimportant, so we’ll call them A and B.  These two people find themselves in an internet discussion, about what to do about law enforcement oppressing the public it claims to serve.  What’s more, A and B start from a position of disagreement about what is actually happening and what should be done about it.  

In the world you’re familiar with, such a conversation would consist of several hours of back-and-forth insults and contempt, ultimately leading nowhere.  A and B are different, though, and the conversation between our two traveling companions will lead us through… the Midmorning Zone.  

A: The police are abusing their power and need to be stopped.  I’ve sent you some links to examples of police oppression.  That should show why this is an important issue.  

B: I agree that we should make sure that police don’t abuse their power.  I may not agree with some of the specific examples you cited, but don’t need those examples to convince me, so there’s no point in arguing over them at this time.  I’m aware of enough other examples that I think it’s worth putting effort into stopping and preventing the abuse of police power.  What did you have in mind?  

A: Thanks, I appreciate that.  I think we need to dissolve the police, and put that funding towards more constructive community organizations.  

B: I like the idea of funding constructive community organizations.  I would support doing that regardless of what happens to the police.  

B: I do feel that the police serve a necessary purpose in preventing turmoil.  I don’t think there’s a way around that.  All large societies throughout Earth’s history have had some sort of law enforcement institution, so I am skeptical that they’re inherently oppressive.  

B: Now that I say that out loud, though, I guess that depends on how you view society in general and our society’s laws in particular.  Regardless, I agree that with better community support, crime should decrease and the police force may not need to be as large or powerful as it is now.  

B: Having other ways of responding to human emergency situations also sounds good.  I’d like to discuss what those community institutions should look like in a bit.  

B: First though, since it will probably always be important to be prepared for actual crime, I suggest we also figure out ways to promote ethics and accountability within the police as an institution in order to make sure that they don’t abuse their power.  That will also help as an immediate step while we’re setting up those other community institutions.  

B: If we could get the police to be reliably ethical, what would you expect that to look like?  

A: First, I would expect that police officers would put more effort and skill into deescalating situations.  Right now it seems like they don’t often try a diplomatic approach because they’re comfortable resorting to power plays.  They may see it as easier and safer, even if it’s more likely to lead to violence, and they can get away with it.  

A: It doesn’t help that people are expected to obey police orders.  In theory obeying law enforcement is important because it makes enforcing the law easier, but it’s a problem when people get used to being obeyed.  In many cases they can come off as contemptuous of the people they’re interacting with, like they’ve already decided the people are guilty of something but haven’t yet settled on what it is.  

A: Second, and related, I would expect them not to stop and question people just because they have a hunch the person might have committed a crime.  I would expect them to act like servants to the people, and not like nobles who can give commands.  

A: Third, I expect them to be held to stricter standards of responsibility.  Qualified immunity should not protect officers from failing to exercise good judgment and deal with people civilly.  When a police officer is found to have done something wrong, they should be held accountable and face consequences, so other officers know they can’t get away with it.  

A: The police also need to compensate those they harm with incidence of incompetence.  Maybe they’ll learn to double-check their methods if they have to fix their own mistakes.  

A: I understand it’s a dangerous job and they feel they have to look out for one another, but if an organization doesn’t hold its members accountable for doing a good job then it’s failing its mission.  Their duty to the public comes before their duty to each other.  

A: Fourth, we need to get rid of civil asset forfeiture, where police can take people’s money and property without having to prove it was earned illegally.  

A: Fifth, they should also definitely end quotas on crimes.  There’s no way police officers can look out for the wellbeing of the public if they’re also feeling pressure to find enough crimes to meet some number.  That means they have an incentive to make sure crimes don’t go down, which is the opposite of what they’re supposed to do.  I know that every profession has an incentive to remain necessary, but you don’t see the fire department telling people to leave greasy dishcloths on the stove.  

A: Sixth, and this may be a more controversial idea, I would also expect them to not bother trying to book people who are too poor to follow certain laws, like having their cars repaired.  The police should not participate in keeping people trapped in the cycle of poverty; those people have enough problems without being literally punished for trying to survive while being poor.  

A: All of that is a decent start, but there are probably more issues I haven’t thought of off the top of my head.  

B: Those sound good to me for the most part.  I’d like to get together to research how best to define and implement those policy changes.  

B: Regarding the last one, I can see that a person would feel resentful of law enforcement if it didn’t seem realistic to stay in compliance with all laws.  I think there are better solutions than just ignoring violations of the law, though.  We could change the law, if the law isn’t realistic in the first place.  Or we could figure out why people don’t feel they can follow the law and help change their situation to make it easier.  How does that sound?  

A: That sounds good, and I think it ties in with those community institutions we were going to come back to.  

A: Just off the top of my head, we should have counselors and mediators for addressing mental health and interpersonal issues.  Like I said before, if you expect people to obey you all the time, you might not put much effort into working with people’s emotions.  Even if police still go after crimes, keeping the peace should be done by a different set of people.  

A: I realize dividing what we think of as “police work” into two specializations means we’ll have to have a separate set of people covering the same areas, but I think the results will be worth it.  I’d like to see what we can really do when we make a serious effort to resolve disturbances of the peace without violence.  

B: That sounds like something we can experiment with in different communities.  That way we can learn how to do it effectively before rolling it out on a large scale everywhere.  We could test it right away by having a few peacekeepers go into “disturbance of the peace” situations with police hanging around as backup, and see how they do.  I’m on board with that.  

A: Great!  I think people who disturb the peace will also be less likely to escalate the situation if the person they’re talking to doesn’t have the option to arrest them or shoot them.  

B: I’m skeptical of that, but if people are willing to give it a test run, I think it’s worth a try.  If it doesn’t work, we’ll just think of something else.  

A: Peacekeepers, or whatever we’ll call them, aren’t the only institution that will help.  After all, people don’t only commit crimes of passion.  

A: Poverty is another huge driver of crime.  People often commit crimes because they’re trying to get more money than they could get legally.  Maybe in some cases they just want to be rich because consumer culture has taught them that material luxury is more important than community.  

A: In many cases, though, they actually need money that they cannot get, because they’re not receiving the support and training and opportunities they need to earn it.  Sometimes they deliberately commit crimes to get that money.  Or, as I mentioned before, they might incidentally break laws simply because they can’t afford to comply with all regulations as they try to stay afloat in their job and lives.  

B: So why aren’t they receiving the support and training and opportunities right now?  

A: Maybe prejudice is a factor. Maybe the education system has failed them. Maybe poor nutrition.  Maybe lack of community character and skill building.  Maybe the economy is creating artificial scarcity by concentrating jobs into a handful of overworked people and excluding everyone else.  Mostly likely a combination of all of the above.  

B: That’s a lot of things to fix.  

A: That’s why people are saying to use the money from law enforcement.  Why should we be spending so much more money on arresting people and incarcerating them than we spend on ensuring they don’t need to commit crimes?  

A: You already said that you were reconsidering the assumption that law enforcement wasn’t inherently oppressive because society’s laws weren’t inherently oppressive.  I’d argue that all societies big enough to use law enforcement were built by the powerful to keep the masses under their thumb, but we can discuss human history at a later date.  

A: Right now, in this country, if lawmakers and those who vote for them really cared about lifting people out of poverty, they’d be spending more money on it.  I believe they want people to remain poor and deprived of nourishment and education.  However, I’ll save my opinions about why they want that for when we start talking about how to influence lawmakers or replace them with ones who will invest more in ending poverty.  

B: It definitely seems like we’re not spending enough money on making sure children are set up for success.  I can see how that would lead to an oppressive status quo, which the police would then help maintain simply by doing their job.  

B: That said, I’d rather not remove the stabilizing influence of law enforcement and hope that the status quo destabilizes into something good.  Even though it will take more effort, I’d certainly prefer to make the whole system empowering rather than oppressive.  But if we try to spend money on ending poverty, how can we know if something we spend it on will help?  

A: Some approaches are obvious, like making sure schools are well-funded and well-staffed, and paying teachers more so that more skilled people will go into the profession.  As for the other ways we can empower children to succeed, we can test out proposals in different communities like we talked about doing with the peacekeepers.  Figuring out what methods to try is another conversation that people all over the country should be having.  

B: Sounds good to me.  I’d like to be part of that conversation as well!  

Me, your host: This conversation was brought to you by the Foundational Toolbox for Life, a system of basic concepts for framing problems and solutions constructively.  A and B just demonstrated its use here as part of the Visionary Vocabularies project to help people understand each other and work together to build a world we can all be proud of.  

As the Toolbox becomes more widely used, conversations such as the one you just read will become our reality, and lead the way out of the confused, belligerent, flailing dawn of humanity into a thoughtful, neighborly, confident 9:30 or 10 AM.  You, too, can be part of ushering in the end of humanity’s protracted and painful beginning.  Tell your friends about your visit here and let them know that the planet Earth is late for brunch… in the Midmorning Zone.  

Dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo dadee-dadoo…

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