What Will it Take to Stop Police Violence? Exploring the Divestment/Reinvestment Approach to Policing: an ACLU-WA Blog Series

Thursday, October 15, 2020
“Please I can’t breathe. … They’re going to kill me.” 
George Floyd’s words before Minneapolis police officers killed him on May 25, 2020.

The murder of George Floyd was a watershed moment. It has re-energized an ongoing nationwide movement and given new life to an urgent conversation about the role of policing in communities. In particular, there is renewed attention to the violence and loss of life police have been inflicting on Black and Indigenous people and communities of color for decades.
Washington State is certainly no exception. We must confront the question: what will it take to stop police violence and the taking of lives like those of George Floyd, Charleena Lyles, Tommy Le, Renee Davis, Antonio Zambrano, or Stonechild Chiefstick?  These are the names of just a few of the many in Washington and throughout the country whose families grieve the loss of their loved ones at the hands of the police. As an organization, we have been reflecting on the fact that despite reform efforts that we along with many of our community partners and allies have fought for, the violence continues to this day.
This blog series explores one approach: divesting resources away from police functions that have their roots in white supremacy and fueled the devastating loss of beloved community members, and reinvesting in support of communities that have been harmed by police violence.
There is voluminous evidence that the police violence we see today is historically entrenched and endemic to policing. To truly understand the history of policing, we have to go back decades. In the 19th century, the concept of modern policing took root under the establishment of “Slave Patrols” in the South. Slave Patrols served three main functions:
  • to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves;
  • to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and,
  • to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules.[1]
The racist roots of modern policing in the era of slavery cannot be isolated from the current violence. Police violence has never simply been a product of white supremacy, but rather an agent of it. 
The question to be addressed by this blog series is whether the divestment/reinvestment model can achieve safer communities for all, in contrast to the current state of police practices.
Divesting from the police and reinvesting in communities is not a new idea. The blog series explores in more detail what it might mean in practice. To illustrate, we will use Seattle’s budget, but the analysis could apply to many jurisdictions throughout the state. The budget analysis will examine how racially biased and harmful practices like mass incarceration and militarization could be ended, and money found for investments in the community that would remedy longstanding social problems and reduce the demands on the police.  Investing in affordable housing, health care, education, and food security, providing better access to mental health care, and creating robust violence prevention programs, offers a different vision for public safety than the punitive model that has led to ballooning police budgets. These issues will be explored with respect to the Seattle budget, but are by no means limited to one city in Washington.
The blog series will articulate why divestment and reinvestment is an important and necessary step to address the problem of systemic racism in policing. Each entry will explore a different aspect of the issue, including:
  • The outsize role of the Seattle Police Department in the City Budget;
  • Why the City budget matters for equity and how the budget process works, the various terminologies associated with the defund police movement and what they mean in relation to each other;
  • The Seattle Police Department’s ample reliance on overtime hours and why that should matter to Seattle residents;  
  • Our organization’s work at the intersection of immigration and policing, as well as our efforts to shrink the carceral state through depolicing and decriminalization efforts, in line with the mission of the defund movement;
  • The social costs of community policing efforts such as the Navigation Team;
  • How barriers to police accountability, police in schools, and the policing of immigrants and their communities have served to maintain and uphold the very systems of systemic oppression and institutionalized racism that have plagued communities since America’s inception. 
The problem is complex and the urgency is great. We invite you to join us as we explore reimagining public safety.
[1] Fichtelberg, A. (2019). Policing in America: The Early Years. In Criminal (in)justice: A critical introduction (p. 119). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
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