Tuesday marks one year since George Floyd walked into a store to buy cigarettes and ended up dying at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Immediately afterward, people nationwide pushed for defunding the police.
But now with gun violence up, LA’s police budget is going up too. The LA City Council voted last week to hire about 250 more officers, which is the opposite of what activists have been demanding for the last year.
The new hiring is an effort to maintain police officer ranks following a slate of retirements over the last year, says LA City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson.
He argues that a significant amount of money has also been diverted to new programs to handle non-violent cases, and it will help reshape the scope of policing in LA. He says there are also plans to reimagine traffic stops and remove police officers from handling those situations.
“I think over time, you can unpack the police department [and] the scope and scale that they play in our lives. I think you can reduce that in a way that is responsible, which will result in defunding. I am not a supporter of saying, ‘Well, it's this much now. So let's make it less.’ I don't think that improves conditions for anybody or even gets at what activists are asking for.”
Following more crime across different communities, there’s been pushback against the idea of defunding the police, says Andrea Headley, a scholar of racial equity and criminal justice policy at Georgetown University. But she points out that law enforcement only spends about 5% of its time responding to violence crime.
“In a way, that [argument] tries to take attention away from the importance of investing in prevention and investing in health and housing and the economy and things like that,” Headley says. “I think we have seen cities across the country kind of rough wrestling with that dilemma of responding today to the violent crime, versus thinking about ways in which to prevent violent crime in the future.”
Higher gun sales and accessibility
Harris-Dawson says LA’s increased homicides over the last year is connected to higher gun sales.
“The media did a really good job covering the rush on toilet paper, less attention was paid to the rush on firearms. And so we have a lot of firearms on the street. Firearms are for firing, and so we have many more victims shot and hit. We have many more victims shot at and missed. And we have many more homicide victims.”
He adds that boosted police budgeting is due to an assumption that law enforcement can solve all the problems in a community.
“The reason why police funding has skyrocketed in this country is because people believe police are the solution to everything. … Even the police will tell you that there's not much they can do if almost everybody has a firearm and firearms are so accessible,” he says.
Headley says she agrees that there isn’t much police can do once firearms are in a community, but she thinks the problems lie deeper than just person-on-person violence. There are systemic issues and socioeconomic disparity that exist in communities with higher incidents of violence.
“With regards to housing, education, social support, substance abuse, economic opportunities, and so forth, [it’s] those devastating conditions that the pandemic exacerbated for communities of color [in] urban cities, combined with the access to guns, that I think led to this issue.”
Focusing on trauma, care and prevention
Harris-Dawson says uplifting neighborhoods themselves is key to changing the conversation around policing and maintaining safer neighborhoods.
“We need to begin to deal with people's trauma in a systematic way and treat that as a public safety investment. We need a police force that is focused on violent crime, and that has a reduced scope and scale and intrusion into our day to day lives. The closer you get to the community, the more clear the answers come.”
Harris-Dawson notes that a shift in policy and policing will also take time. “You've got to build a whole system. It isn't as simple as one day deciding, ‘We're not going to do what we're doing yesterday. We're going to do something different tomorrow.’ An entire system has to be built around a community of care and a community of prevention.”
Headley adds, “It's not something that we're going to have necessarily tomorrow, but it's something that we can for sure put the groundwork in to have those systems in place and moving, to be able to respond.”