Is ‘defunding the police’ a good idea?


By Bill Litsinger
Reader Contributor

Some might say that the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The camel in this case being many members of society, who, after seeing the video of his death felt that something historic had to be done in the way that police perform their duties and justify their actions.  

I, for one, agree that the video was hard to digest and could not for a moment understand how this incident took place while three officers stood by as if they were afraid to challenge the actions of a senior officer. 

The main questions so many have asked, including myself, are why on earth did this officer think his actions were justified? This was not the way he was trained, or was it? Did he think his actions would be overlooked by superior officers in the department? Was the lack of interaction by the other three officers tacit approval of what was being done to Mr. Floyd?

Law enforcement in Bonner County is extremely intimate. I know many of the deputies, two of the chiefs and some of our Sandpoint officers. That gives us a real advantage over bigger municipalities in terms of accountability. And I have seen accountability during the time I’ve lived here, beginning in 1994. 

Intimacy brings law enforcement and the people to a more personal level. I know this because I worked for a law enforcement agency that had 10,000 sworn officers. In a community and agency like that, not only is it difficult to get to know the people you serve, at times you barely know your partner.

Historically, city police departments have been governed by a city council and the mayor. They set policy, determine minimum standards for hiring and retention, and set the policy for conduct while on and off duty. This is good. I applaud local control because those in control are put in office by the voters. 

Reform or change in police work is an ever-evolving process, and I believe  there is a necessity for some reform or change. But any change in policy or training should be made at the local level.

The secret to success in any movement is finding a balance between what changes are going to take place and what effect these changes will have on overall organizational performance. 

Law enforcement officers are commissioned with a great deal of authority over the populace they serve. There is not much of a choice by the citizens of any community when their lives or property are in danger of being injured or destroyed. You might say law enforcement agencies carry a monopoly over the people they serve.  

My experience tells me that change does not come easy in police work. There seems to be a built-in resistance to change. 

That being said, the police have to evolve along with society. That makes it incumbent on all involved — the community, elected officials and the departments themselves — to periodically review policy, training and standards used in the hiring process. Building a successful police department is much like constructing a multi-story structure: You have to have a solid foundation with those you hire and those that manage in order to continue on the upper floors.  

Some change is massive, some not so much. 

Before we fly off the handle and throw the baby out with the bath water because of a few bad cops, massive media coverage, a great deal of justified community outrage and more than a fair share of lawlessness by a few in the community, we must sit down with all involved and put on our thinking caps. We must not act in haste when evaluating such a strategic service to our community.  

As long as state statutes are adhered to, policy must be made by individual departments. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach in determining policies across the board. What works, or would work, for the Sandpoint Police Department may not be so for the Idaho State Police. Community mores, geographic location and community needs must be taken into account.  

This “defund the police” and “dismantle and rebuild” approach is knee-jerk, unnecessary and extremely counterproductive. It reeks of anger and anti-police sentiment, and that solves nothing.

When deciding what change — if any — is going to take place, consider the conditions under which police work. They often don’t have the luxury of a “wait-and-see” perspective. They often have to make a split-second decision. 

Don’t take away the tools they need to do their jobs professionally — after all, they are the community’s first line of defense.

Bill Listinger is a retired Los Angeles police officer and formerly taught in the Justice Studies Department at Lewis & Clark State College. A Bonner County resident since 1994, he hosts “The Voice” radio talk show, which airs Tuesdays at 12:10 p.m. on 1400-1450 AM and 97. FM.


By Luke Baumgarten
Reader Contributor

As “Defund the Police” has come to occupy a central place in American discourse, I’ve seen a lot of people acting dazed. Like it came out of nowhere.

While it’s new to the center stage of American politics, the movement to rethink policing has been around for a long time — not just because of the rate at which people of color die at the hands of police. 

In his 2017 book, The End Of Policing, Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale makes a forceful argument that the horrifying abuses that go viral online are the tip of the iceberg. Just the most blatant, visible tip of a much bigger problem:

We ask cops to do too much. 

Violent crime — the stuff that fills seasons of CSI and Law & Order — is less than 4% of a cop’s job. The rest is a mix ranging from civil infractions like traffic tickets to petty vandalism to minor possession to theft to mediating interpersonal conflicts between intimate partners to responding to front-line mental health crises.

We ask police to do these things without specific or adequate training; we ask them to do even the least dangerous things while carrying a sidearm, and we give them a narrow list of possible final outcomes in any situation: give someone a warning, a ticket or send them to jail. 

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We don’t ask carpenters to be psychiatrists, but we do ask cops to be couples therapists.

Historically, politicians — including and perhaps especially sheriffs and elected prosecutors — have been afraid to incarcerate fewer people for fear of being labeled weak on crime. Then coronavirus happened. 

In response to COVID-19, Spokane County, where I live, reduced its jail population from a daily average near 1,000 to closer to 600. Spokane Police COMPSTAT stats show crime has not meaningfully risen. 

The Spokane County Jail budget is close to $40 million per year and officials estimate that on a cost-basis, one cop’s salary and benefits can buy you two social workers.

Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and county commissioners have bemoaned for more than a decade that the jail is the county’s largest mental health facility — but never express willingness to build mental health capacity elsewhere.

Let’s trade in some of our hammers for saws and drills and — God forbid — maybe some lumber and concrete so that we might actually build something new, something lasting, something that might actually heal people and get them back on their feet.

In the end, what good is a locked box of broken nails?

But because we aren’t actually talking about hammers and nails, we can’t stop at jail. In law enforcement, the hammer is actually a gun — and since the mid-2000s, military surplus weapons and vehicles. 

The reality is that social workers, health care workers and mental health workers do their jobs day-in, day-out without the use of weapons. De-escalation is the point. Keeping people safe when they’re at their absolute lowest is the point. 

Diversionary programs like community and drug courts have proven incredibly effective. In the roughly 10 years since Spokane began its community court more than 70% of participants have completed the program and never reoffended. 

Jail certainly doesn’t have that kind of success rate.

But because we spend so much money on policing and incarceration, we have little left to make these programs more than pilots. Seeing these successes, there’s a growing national reform movement advocating for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). It’s a promising way to create buy-in among officers within the system we have, but many community leaders feel it’s too little, too late. 

Especially because the most strident opponents of even basic reform are police guilds themselves — a topic that would require a whole other column to unpack. 

So I’ll end with this: my parents taught me it’s what you do when people aren’t watching that matters.

If law enforcement was serious about reform, agencies would have invested in LEAD before George Floyd, before Philando Castile, before Otto Zehm and before everyone had a video recorder on their hip. 

They would have changed before Rodney King. Before that Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., 1965.

Certainly before the entire nation exploded in revolt over the increasingly videotaped murder of unarmed civilians, jumping above the baseline radiation of a system that polices too harshly and over-incarcerates everyone, but especially people of color. 

Decades of calls for reform have fallen on deaf ears. 

Is it any wonder the demand is now to defund?

Luke Baumgarten began his journalism career at the Reader in 2004, followed by a long, award-winning career at the Pacific Northwest Inlander. You can find his latest media project, RANGE, at range.substack.com.

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