What Would Defunding The Police Look Like? Two Boise Nonprofits Consider This Question
(This interview is the second of a two-part show about policing in Idaho. You can find the first half — on the history of policing and the laws that protect officers — here.)
Amid the protests against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people by police in the the past months and years, activists quickly formulated one central demand: Defund the police.
While this doesn’t mean law enforcement would disappear altogether, calls to ‘defund’ argue that the current system is broken and must be replaced by increased funding to social programs that address root causes of inequality in our community.
In this interview, Boise State criminal justice professor Bill King helps us understand the basis of the ‘defund the police’ argument. Then we take that theory and ask two leaders of Boise service-based nonprofits to consider what this would look like in practice. Interfaith Sanctuary Executive Director Jodi Peterson and Women’s and Children’s Alliance Executive Director Bea Black talk about the opportunities and concerns with defunding (or “reallocating”) police in Idaho's most populous city.
Read the full transcript here:
GEMMA GAUDETTE: Amid the protests against the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black people by police just in the past months and years and decades, activists quickly formulated one central demand: Defund the police. Now, while this doesn't mean law enforcement would disappear altogether, calls to deep fund argue that the current system is broken and it needs to be replaced by increased funding to social programs that address root causes of inequality in our community. We're joined right now by Boise State Criminal Justice Professor Bill King to talk about the basis of this 'defund the police' argument.
So Bill, let's just get right into this. In response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May, Black Lives Matter and other activist groups have called for the defunding of police departments, claiming that the system we have is broken right now. So, first off, can you talk about what they mean when they say the system is broken?
BILL KING: Sure. Thanks for having me on. My read is that the defund movement is a range of options. On social media I see people talk about disbanding the police. I don't see a lot of people talking about that. And then a lot of it is just less funding for law enforcement and incarceration. Getting police out of schools. Not criminalizing mental health and demilitarizing policing seems to be the reforms that funders are pushing for.
GAUDETTE: Well, with that being said, Bill, I mean, you know, there is part of it right there that when you talk about the idea of mental health and all of that, we know police officers have to take these mental health calls. They are not mental health experts. Right. I mean, that is not what they've been trained fully to do. So part of this argument is, you know, take some of that money and allocate it to social services and potentially have someone go with police. And does that seem to make much more sense? Because, you know, you can argue that police officers are also overwhelmed.
KING: Oh, certainly yes. A lot of the -- we rely on the police to handle a lot of tasks that other agencies or organizations can't or aren't willing to do. And isn't that the police necessarily wanted to take over handling mental health issues on the street. They have models for collaboration between either community mental health organizations and the police. There are programs, CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon has been doing this for over 20 years. Portland, Oregon, just created a response unit that's not the police, it's funded by the city. And other cities have done this, either they are a hybrid between police and mental health or their mental health and medics like Denver's new program that don't involve the police. They might be more ideal. They they still cost money and need a car and a van. You need to train and supervise people. But, yeah, it's an option for some places.
GAUDETTE: The word defund, I think can be a little scary or potentially even maybe misleading, because it's not completely accurate when we're talking about this idea of defunding the police. Is it fair to say that the word 'reallocate' would would fit better within this movement?
KING: Oh, certainly, yeah, yeah. Or maybe 'less funding if you were militant and on Twitter.' What one issue with police agency budgets is about 90% of their budget is for personnel costs. It's to pay for the employees, whether they're sworn or civilian employees. So there isn't a lot of -- you can't cut very deep before you start to hit the bone. And so if you're going to defund, you're talking about having fewer police employees. It's just, you can't get a bunch of money out of the budget unless you're not going to hire or you're gonna start to lay officers off.
GAUDETTE: We're going to stay with Boise State criminal justice Professor Bill King. We're going to keep talking about the concept of defunding the police. After the break, though, Bill will stay with us. We're going to continue this conversation and bring in two community organizations in Boise and get their thoughts on this idea of defunding. You're listening to Idaho Matters.
More Idaho Matters right now. We're continuing the conversation of policing here in Idaho and the newer conversation about defunding. So what would defunding actually look like in Idaho's largest city? Boise State Criminal Justice Professor Bill King is returning with us and he is joined by the executive director of Interfaith Sanctuary, Jodi Peterson, and the executive director of the Women's and Children's Alliance, Bea Black.
So, Bea, as I mentioned, you work for the Women's and Children's Alliance. This is an organization that works to protect and advocate for victims of sexual and domestic violence. So I want to ask you this question: What is the current role of the police in the lives of those that you serve?
BEA BLACK: Thank you, Sam [Gemma], and good afternoon. It's a really important role that they play. We consider them to be critical community partners. One of the most dangerous calls that a police officer goes on is a call that they receive about domestic violence or where there's interpersonal violence between two individuals that are living together. So we work very closely with them. We do training. We [inaudible].
GAUDETTE: Well, and then, Jodi, I wanted to ask you the same question, because one of the arguments that I think that's made by a lot of activists, and Bea brought this up right, with the training of police, with all these other things that they have to go on, these calls, is that police are expected to wear so many hats, and maybe too many, and then they're expected to respond to just so many things. So, Jodi, you work with Interfaith Sanctuary. This is a homeless shelter. What is the role that police play in the lives of the folks that you serve?
JODI PETERSON: So, I mean, we work so closely with the police department, particularly during the day, the bike patrol. We have an amazing community relationship and they know most of our homeless as well as we do and really try and use everything possible before they actually use law. And I think they're a great example of what we need more of. And I do think that they're asked to do certain things that just don't fall within their purview. And it would be easier if there was some different kinds of options for how we serve our homeless, that doesn't require calling a police officer.
GAUDETTE: Right. I mean, because Jodi I mean, you within Interfaith Sanctuary, you some of your guests deal with mental health issues. And, you know, I would say that -- and I mean and you are the expert on this -- when someone is having a mental health crisis, I mean, do they need a mental health expert or do they need, you know, that stereotypical police officer to come in?
PETERSON: And they definitely need a calming person to come and talk to them, and quite honestly, as much as we love our police force, there is something really daunting about a uniform and a gun. And when someone who is homeless and in our shelter who is experiencing either a mental health break or is feeling suicidal or has just taken too much substance, I don't think it's the proper thing to call the police. I think it actually makes the situation worse, not better. I think when we're able to sit down and quietly talk to someone with someone who's a mental professional, it's a totally different conversation and it's a totally different outcome.
GAUDETTE: You know, Bill, it seems like that's kind of a good example of this nuance that we have with this whole defund movement. So kind of from a theoretical perspective, can you talk about how the variance and how community groups rely on the police? And what I mean by that is, you know, like Jodi just mentioned, if you have someone suffering from a mental health issue or even like a mental health break, they need that calming influence. And I'm sure if an officer shows up, that can be more stressful. Yet, if you're dealing with a domestic violence issue and you have someone who is dangerous, you might need the police to arrive. So can you kind of talk in terms of, like, you know, just those varied needs of a community?
KING: Certainly, I think the issue is the people have generally always relied on the police to deal with problems, whether their crime or disorder or concerned about someone in my neighborhood who doesn't look like me, and especially with 911, we expect the police to come out and then they have to sort that out. Is a crime, is a disorder, does someone need service? So they've become our go to for everything, whatever the problem is, outside of our homes and inside of our homes. And we leave it to the police to sort those issues out. And you can see how sometimes conflict gets baked into these interactions.
GAUDETTE: So, Bea, we know that non-violence education early in life helps prevent some of the issues that you work to address within the WCA. So what sorts of reallocation do you think would be helpful in serving your mission?
BLACK: Well, I really think that it's a two pronged approach. I don't think it's an either/or, with respect to funding. I think our community needs to fund what it considers to be important. And if you ask any community member, what's the number one issue, they want safety. And I would say that is completely true about our clients. And as we work to be more out there with respect to preventive action. Absolutely. Hopefully things are going to change and we're not going to have individuals find themselves in so many abusive and dangerously manipulative relationships. But until such time as we can make good inroads there. And I think it also goes along with what Jodi was saying. We need to do the same with respect to funding more programs for individuals who have mental health needs. So I don't think you can do either/or. I think we need to continue to fund and educate and help to further provide partners to work with law enforcement, come alongside them in some of these really dicey situations while we also put more money into some of the things that are going to prevent homelessness, hopefully prevent domestic violence issues and hopefully prevent and help individuals catch them earlier if they're dealing with a mental health issue. I don't see it as either or.
GAUDETTE: And, you know, Jodi, I think Bea brought up a good point, right, about this idea of where do we put the money for services? And something really interesting happened at Interfaith over the last few months. Because of COVID-19, you actually had to move several of the most medically fragile guests into rooms at a local hotel. Can you talk a little bit about what you saw when it came to funding social services like housing and health care? I mean, maybe kind of starting with what your guest relationships with police were like before housing them?
PETERSON: Yeah, I mean, it's so dramatic what occurred when we were able to move our most medically fragile, who turns out as our most chronically homeless and have utilized emergency services so often because of their health and lack of places to be. You know, it's hard to be a senior and not have a safe place to be all day. And so they're exhausted and their health is just terrible. So when the city helped us to move this particular population into the hotel, I think the average calls for a 911 for this group and our shelter was at least two to three times a day. And since we've been at the hotel and we have not dialed 911 once. I have to change that stat [inaudible] because we did have a very sick guest that was picked up by an ambulance the other day. But literally we have not dialed 911, because they have a safe place to be, because we make sure that their medical care is updated, consistent, they're getting their meds and everything like that. And I can't even imagine what that has saved the emergency medical system. And just to speak to the mental health piece, you know, so often our homeless people are going to jail for being mentally ill and they're not getting served at all with what they need, which is stability and reduction in trauma and a safe place to be to get stable enough to start working on what's causing the health issue. So, yeah, funding into programs that really identify these specific needs would be, I think, beneficial to everyone, including the police.
GAUDETTE: Well, that is a real life example of this whole idea of of defunding/reallocating. That argument of if we can reallocate some of that to where it's truly needed, then police can focus on, you know, what they are hopefully being trained to do. I want to thank all of you for taking time out of your day. I know how busy you all are to come on and talk with us about about this issue. We have been talking with Bea Black of the Women's and Children's Alliance, Jodi Peterson of Interfaith Sanctuary. And Boise State criminal justice professor, Bill King about what the defund the police argument could possibly look like in Boise. Thank you all so much. Appreciate your time today.
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