By Alexander Post
In the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department and the wave of police violence that met protestors, cities around the country are thinking boldly. Minneapolis is considering disbanding its police department and rethinking public safety entirely. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed has called for partially defunding the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and reinvesting that money directly into San Francisco’s black community, and for replacing SFPD officers with unarmed trained professionals to respond to calls for help for non-violent matters, which make up the vast majority of calls for help.
For people who have not been paying close attention to police reform efforts over the last two decades, calls to defund the police may seem alarming. While most people recognize that something must be done to reduce police violence, some want to continue to invest in reform efforts, rather than seeking to reduce police interactions with the public. The impulse to reform policing is well-meaning, but such reforms are ultimately doomed to fail.
One need only look at the police maneuver that killed George Floyd, a type of chokehold called a “carotid restraint,” to see that the history of police reforms is a history of futility. As early as 1982, the Los Angeles Police Commission restricted the use of carotid restraints after the LAPD had killed at least 16 people with the move. In 2014, an NYPD officer killed Eric Garner using a chokehold, despite New York’s 1993 ban on that restraint. Following that killing, cities began questioning their own police departments’ use of chokeholds.
In 2016, following a Department of Justice (DOJ) report detailing 272 recommended reforms, the San Francisco Police Commission adopted a recommended ban on carotid restraints in an updated use of force policy. Last month, after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and protestors took to the streets, video emerged of an SFPD officer kneeling on the neck of a teenager who had been protesting police brutality. This outrage prompted Chief Bill Scott to update the existing use of force rules, because it was apparently unclear whether kneeling on someone’s neck was prohibited by the 2016 ban on carotid restraints.
This cycle is what Dr. Angela Davis refers to as the “treadmill of reform.” Police violence leading to calls for reform; new incidences of police violence leading to yet more calls for reform. All the while, police departments grow in size and scope. In 2016, when the DOJ issued 272 reforms for the SFPD to implement, the SFPD budget was $560 million. Now, four years later, the department has completed just 15% of those reforms (and, as the issue of carotid restraints demonstrates, “completed” reform does not guarantee effective reform), and its budget has ballooned to over $700 million.
We cannot combat systemic racism by making tweaks to the system, we have to tear out the old system, root and branch, and begin anew. Defunding the police will free us to invest in our communities and transform our city’s public safety architecture, beginning the slow work of building a city that invests in care rather than violence.
San Francisco’s leaders must rise to the moment and fully realize the Mayor’s call for defunding SFPD. Last year, SFPD responded to just over one million calls for service. Of those calls, only 5% were for incidents that involved violence. In other words, to fully implement Mayor Breed’s vision, we should re-direct 95% of calls for service to non-police responders. Most calls are for things like health and wellness checks (135,821 calls), traffic violations (227,219 calls), general patrol (206,030 calls) or nuisance complaints (28,142 calls). If non-police professionals, social workers, mental health professionals, and medics, answered those calls instead, not only would we see better outcomes for the people involved, we’d see a reduction in police violence based on the reduction of police-public interactions. By reallocating some percentage of the current policing budget, be it 95 percent, 50 percent or somewhere in between, these alternatives to policing could be fully funded and ready to deploy within months.
It is time to get off the reform treadmill and take the first real steps toward transforming our public safety infrastructure in San Francisco. Mayor Breed has set the goal: defund SFPD and build a new vision of public safety, centered on non-police professional services and investment in communities that have been ignored for too long. It is now up to her administration and the Board of Supervisors to fully realize that vision.
Alexander Post is a capital appellate public defender active in criminal justice policy, including as an organizer for the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.