Dear Mayor Durkan: Defund the police

Since our mayor, Jenny Durkan, marched with Black Lives Matter yesterday here in Seattle, but still shows no sign of meeting the organizers demands, I wrote her again.

Dear Mayor Durkan,

Yesterday you marched with Black Lives Matter through my neighborhood, silently, in support of them. However you have not committed to what they are asking for. Instead, you offer that you’ll find around $100 million to go to community support – housing, jobs, mental health – for black and indigenous and other communities of color. But you aren’t committing to removing the use of police and defunding them and that will undermine the good from any new investment (assuming you can even find that much money during a budget crisis).

Even if you waved a magic wand tomorrow and all police officers became scrupulously unbiased, always obeyed the laws themselves and never lied or misled, we would still be harming black and indigenous and other non-white people disproportionately. That is because we use the police – armed officers – for problems they are not suited for. As a specific example, people in the Seattle area that are homeless or unstably housed are disproportionately black and indigenous. Many police calls are related to the discomfort of the housed in seeing homeless people near them. The city even intentionally uses police during official removals of homeless encampments. Each one of those calls is a chance of force being used which will by necessity fall more on black and indigenous people because they are a greater share of the population being policed this way. Even if the police do not use force, the best case for most of these calls is to make a person move a long after fearing that worse could happen to them. Often we arrest people without homes for minor “crimes” against property like entering empty buildings or littering or doing drugs the housed do quietly in the privacy of their homes. Again, this will disproportionately harm black and indigenous people here in Seattle, no matter how professional and well-trained the police are.

Armed police are the wrong way to handle social problems related to homelessness. They are the wrong way to handle nearly all problems they are asked to handle. Every time we send an armed cop trained to use violence into a situation – and the vast majority of the time there is no active violent crime in progress – there is a non-zero chance of death or brutalization. In the best case scenarios, people are made to feel unwelcome in their own city and typically will not have any of their needs met, be it housing, drug counseling, food, mental or physical health, etc.

We spend over $400 million a year on policing and $100 million spent in other ways will not offset the harm the police do by their very presence. The only way to remove the harm of sending armed people trained to arrest people is to not have armed people trained to arrest people.

Marching with Black Lives Matter means very little if you are unwilling to truly consider their demands which start with “Defund the police”. 

What defund the police means

I’ve not been great at writing much about anything lately, except to write to elected officials. So here’s what I wrote to the city council this morning about this issue. Our over-policing harms everyone but because of the way society operates and the reality of racism, overpolicing harms black people and anyone perceived as too different more.

Good morning councilpersons (and staff)!

I can’t call this morning and at this point I assume you’re just tallying!

Anyway defund the police sounds scary but what it really means is to take out of the hands of the police (and justice system and jails & prison) problems that don’t make sense for armed people to work on.

As an example, in January 2019, 6+ cop cars showed up to the Living Computer Museum. I work near by and saw the swarm of cops and wondered what could possibly be so dangerous there.

It turns out it was … a sleeping man who had broken in to find warmth. He was no danger and his “crime” was incredibly minor. We permit corporations and businesses to get away with far worse every single day. Nonetheless he was booked into jail and presumably charged with a crime. I doubt it helped him improve his life — and it could have gone a lot worse than it did. What if he had, when sleepy, moved in a way that any of the cops present had felt was threatening? He could be dead.

Cops are not social workers and are not the best choice for the vast majority of problems we use them as the primary presence of authority and social “leadership”, from homelessness, mental health crises, to drug abuse, to traffic enforcement and even gang activity.

So I stand with the demands of the protesters that we at least start with:

– Removing 50% of SPD’s budget. I believe an examination of what person hours are used on are overwhelmingly devoted to social problems that do not required armed agents of the state to address effectively.
– Redirect that money to community solutions like housing, health care access, trauma services and so on.
– Finally, the folks protesting must not be punished for their protesting.

Thank you,
Rachael Ludwick
Beacon Hill

Thanks for reading and write or call your city council (if in the United States) to ask them to reduce the scope of police work and bring more accountability. If you need a fairly quick read The End of Policing by Alex Vitale is a thorough but fairly short book. It’s a free ebook right now. You can get a quick taste in this NPR interview or this podcast episode.