by Nicole Martinez-Martin, JD, PhD
Many organizations that are working to end police brutality (the #BlackBioethics Toolkit provides a list of many relevant resources) advise that just reforming police policy is insufficient to address police violence– there need to be sustained efforts for cities to restructure and reprioritize how social services and crime are addressed. ‘Defunding the police’ is a proposal focused on reallocating police funding towards people and services in marginalized communities. While the idea of “defunding police” can seem radical to some, many people have also been shocked in recent days as they realize the outsized budget portion that most cities’ police departments consume. New York City’s police budget is $6 billion. Chicago’s 2020 police budget was $1.8 billion, 46% of its budget. At the same time, spending on education, parks and recreation, transportation and social health services have been slashed by cities.
The issue of police funding overlaps considerably with key concerns of the bioethics community. Prioritizing police over public investment in children, education, transportation and health services raises issues of health equity and distributing justice. Reviewing city budgets drives home that choices are being made to direct money away from a social safety net for communities in favor of policing. Even public services like parks and recreation, which may not seem to serve immediate public health goals, do have an impact on the health of Black communities, considering the role of green spaces (which are often lacking in communities of color in U.S. cities) and children’s after-school and summer programs in reducing stress levels, and improving education skills and overall mental health. Overzealous policing practices in Black communities contributes also contribute directly and indirectly to health disparities.
A further problem is that the scope of police activities has been expanded to domains that are arguably better served by those with actual expertise in health, education, and other social services. Police departments have become the go-to agency for performing a broader and broader array of social and public health activities. This mission creep is an issue to which many had become desensitized — it can seem normal that the police regularly are sent to address people with mental illness or patrol schools, in addition to performing other health and social services. This expansion of the role of police has gone hand in hand with the criminalization of issues that are arguably medical or matters of public health, such addressing addiction and substance abuse primarily as crimes, rather than medical and public health issues. The failure of the “war on drugs” (unless the goal was primarily to put people of color in jail) is a major example of the problems with centering police in the response to a health and social problem.
As budgets for mental health services in cities are reduced, police have been increasingly placed in the role of responding to mental health crises. Race and disability intersect when it comes to police violence. There have been a number of cases of wellness checks by police resulting in police harming the person in need of help– a third to half of people killed by police have disabilities. There are examples of effective collaborations between police mental health services and police, but it remains important to question which agencies and expertise are most appropriate for effectively addressing specific social and health issues. The underfunding of health and social services and the concentration of funding in police departments has been to the detriment of the health of Black people and other marginalized groups in the community.
Bioethicists, as well as medical professionals and public health, have a role to play in establishing the need to re-set cities’ budget priorities in order to reduce police violence and better support the health of Black and other marginalized groups. On an individual level, people can consider participating in local conversations and contacting local leaders regarding defunding proposals (defund12.org is a site that provides templates for e-mails to local leaders). Discussion of defunding proposals should also acknowledge the continued need to address racism and bias in health and social service institutions. Bioethicists can contribute to the public discourse regarding defunding efforts – explaining the critical need to reallocate funding away from the police and towards providing social workers, mental health counselors, nurses (and so on) to serve and protect the health of Black communities.