50 Years of Failure: The End of Policing
Bill Mefford

Bill Mefford

Executive Director

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This week is National Police Week, another time in DC when each party tries to outdo one another in their public show of support for law enforcement. House Republicans will introduce worthless and even harmful bills and then shove under the rug the fact that they have repeatedly turned their collective backs on Capitol Hill police who were battered and beaten by January 6 insurrectionists. But President Biden had already refused to be seen as “soft on crime” when he turned his back on DC home rule and vetoed the unanimously-passed DC Council legislation which reworked the DC criminal code and actually made the code better while at the same time upholding public safety.

Both parties get an F on this issue.

Of course, anything these days can and will be politicized. And there are hard questions being asked – that should be asked – about the role of police in society today. In a truly excellent book, The End of Policing, Alex Vitaly writes of both the history of where the police came from and why reforms continually fail. I cannot recommend a book more than this one.

Through careful research Vitaly shows that the police, which was first formed as slave patrols in the South to recover runaway slaves and return them to their plantations, have always served as “a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo.” (p. 15) While many will point to some members of law enforcement and challenge the assertion that all current police are inherently racist (a point I would agree with), there has to be, in any honest discussion, an admission that the police have deeply oppressive and racist roots. And where we came from impacts who we are. This does not necessarily have to damn whatever roles the police may play in society currently, but to completely ignore the deep harms and trauma this history has had on people of color only does more damage. Acknowledging history is a necessary step towards any kind of healing and progress, no matter if Ron DeSantis likes it or not.

There was an opportunity for the country to acknowledge the harms law enforcement have committed when, in response to the rise of urban rebellions in the 1960s, President Johnson formed a commission headed by the former Governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner to study what needed to be done. The Kerner report essentially stated that the nation was moving towards two nations, Black and White, separate and unequal. The Report called for significant investments in education and employment, but President Johnson had other ideas.

Johnson felt that Black people owed him. He had engineered tremendous gains in civil rights legislation to be sure, but he failed to truly understand the extent of hundreds of years of oppression and marginalization and so he went the exact opposite way from what the Kerner Commission recommended. President Johnson instead thought the best way to deal with uprisings was with overwhelming force (we have heard this since then, huh?) and so he oversaw the passage of the Safe Streets Act in 1968 which “primarily granted funds in large blocs to states…[and] the result was a massive expansion in police hardware, SWAT teams, and drug enforcement teams – and almost no money toward prevention and rehabilitation.” (p. 14)

Thus, the arms race began. Since 1968 the easiest way to score political points – by both parties – is to pour literally billions of dollars into law enforcement. Is there crime? We need to pour TONS of money into the police and arm them! Is drug addiction rampant? We need to pour TONS of money into the police to lock up drug dealers! Police brutality? We need to pour TONS of money into the police and retrain them!

We have done everything in our national public safety conversation except acknowledge the fact that over 50 years of pouring money into law enforcement has not worked! It has indeed been 50 years of failure with devastating results.

So, before we jump into the “defunding the police” policy debates, which tend to be screaming arguments, I want to reluctantly tell you one thing I have done. I am reluctantly telling you because I don’t think what I do is always an answer for others. But I do feel, in this case, that we are stuck in a never-ending debate that has become politicized and I feel that there are spiritual disciplines that can get us unstuck.

Yep, I said it. I do think spiritual disciplines can take us out of unnecessary politicization and lessen our constant need to look to the police for safety.

In the late 1990s, while I was living in a poor community and working in urban ministry, I saw regularly how the presence of the police almost always brought harm to local communities, exacerbating tensions with no one happy when they finally left. It wasn’t necessarily the fault of individual members of the police (though sometimes it plainly was); it was just the role society has unfairly and unwisely asked them to occupy.

So, I privately vowed to never call the police. It has been well over 20 years and besides having to call a couple of times due to insurance claims when things were stolen from the Festival Center (and that makes me wonder why the police fulfill that kind of administrative role anyway), I have never needed the police. Not calling the police has forced me to think through various situations I have encountered, forcing me to rely on relationships or other resources, but the truth is, when you lessen your need for the police you find that you actually do not need them and you can live peacefully.

Yes, I have been broken into numerous times, had weapons pulled on me, and experienced other forms of danger of various kinds, but in all of the situations, I knew that calling the police would not be helpful and was something I was committed to not doing.

Refusing to involve the police is one option for public safety. I am not advocating for this for all people in all situations, but imagine a world where people watched out for one another, where neighbors knew the people in their neighborhoods, and where disputes, when they inevitably happen, are handled one on one between people directly impacted because they care more about resolution than about winning. That’s a world I want to live in and because I want to live in it I am committing myself to the spiritual practice of living as if it existed now. I do not need Congress to pass a law to lessen my need for the police. I just do not need the police.

No, not calling the police is not a one-size-fits-all answer for all people. But we’ve been trying a one-size-fits-all answer through pouring TONS of money into law enforcement and all we have for it is 50 years of failure.

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