Why Defunding Police Is Tough To Sell
Minneapolis politicians are abandoning the idea. What will happen in Milwaukee?
Back in June a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis city council members pledged to dismantle the police department. But in the months since then council members have had second thoughts and are abandoning that pledge, as the New Times reported.
In Milwaukee the call for defunding police has been less sweeping, with Common Council members pushing for a 10 percent cut in the police budget and County Board members proposing a 25 percent cut in the Sheriff’s budget. But even these more modulated proposals may have a difficult time passing.
The move to defund the police is a response to the national plague of police killings of African Americans, which has triggered the Black Lives Matter protests. But from the beginning the term defunding caused a blow back, allowing President Donald Trump and Republicans to paint city Democrats as anti-law enforcement. Moreover, residents of cities want policing of their neighborhoods and typically that’s even more true of Black urbanites, as they are likely to face more crime in their neighborhood. In Minneapolis a poll “found that a plurality of residents, including 50 percent of Black people, opposed reducing the size of the police department,” the Times reported.
As Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas noted in an interview with WUWM, police officers are asked to solve too many of the community’s problems. “Despite our best efforts, we’re not trained to deal with persons in mental health crisis” or those with “addictive behaviors” or “juveniles with emotional issues,” he explained. “Yet, all of those issues collapse and fall on law enforcement, so we do the very best we possibly can.”
As former Milwaukee Police Chief Edward A. Flynn, nationally known for his theories on crime, once told Milwaukee Magazine: “in the poorest neighborhoods 80 percent of the calls are going to be social work… mediating family disputes, going to car crashes, dealing with barking dogs, noise complaints… We are the quality of life people, the anti-crying people, the child welfare people… the social agency of first resort for the poor.”
While police have always dealt with some of this, their role has grown as governments have cut back spending on social services and spent ever more on law enforcement. Across the state, municipal governments are spending a larger portion of their budget on policing, a study by the Wisconsin Policy Forum found. The Milwaukee Police Department gobbled up 62 cents of every city budget dollar since 2010, as Gretchen Schuldt reported. The sheriff’s budget rose by 61 percent from 2001 to 2011, or about twice as fast as inflation and has continued to grow since then, as Urban Milwaukee reported.
In Milwaukee the overlap between sheriff and local police work adds more costs for taxpayers, as Urban Milwaukee has reported.
In short, the move to reprioritize spending with less for police and more for other departments, is arguably about restoring a balance to how the taxpayer’s dollar is spent. But police leaders like former Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales, while he welcomed a discussion of a less sweeping mission for police in an Op Ed, opposed any budget cuts, warning that police would answer fewer calls for help and provide less traffic enforcement. Similarly Lucas warned that a budget cut could mean less law enforcement. In short, both were willing to have their staff do less, but not it if meant a significant budget cut. In fact, the Milwaukee Police Department submitted a budget request with a 6 percent increase in 2021.
Barrett, however, does propose one change that could reduce the police mission and budget: staffing the 911 operation with civilian employees (who would cost less in salary and benefits). “We have to find ways to civilianize more positions,” Barrett said.
It remains to be seen how Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley’s budget deals with a board of supervisors’ proposal to cut the sheriff’s budget by 25 percent. It’s likely there will have to be some cuts to both the police and sheriff’s budget (along with cuts to other departments), given that both governments face a huge reduction in tax revenue due to the pandemic. But reallocating any law enforcement spending to social services seems unlikely give the overall budget hole both governments face. And long-term the push to defund the police may need a tighter focus and better branding, a better slogan, if it is to succeed.
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