Amara Enyia: Chicago must defund—not just reform—the police

Amara Enyia

Gray wisps of smoke emanating from dark concrete. That’s what I remember from the sliver of video of the police killing of 16-year-old Laquan McDonald. I couldn’t watch the actual shooting—my familiarity with Black death wouldn’t allow it. But I opened my eyes just as those thin wisps began to dissipate in the cool of the night air;  wisps from gunshots—16 of them—emptied into the body of a youth failed by almost all of our societal systems. He lost his life at the hands of a state-sanctioned actor who couldn’t care less.

Defund the police.

I get why the phrase elicits such visceral reactions and pearl-clutching in certain corners. “What do you mean, defund?” some people say. “Isn’t reform a better way of phrasing it?” Reform is a perfectly warm, comforting blanket. It is comfortable and sedating. But it also smothers.

Protectors of the status quo, including many Democrats, want to lull everyone back to sleep with calls for reform instead of accepting that “Defund the Police” is exactly what organizers and activists say it is. They said what they said.

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Chicago has nearly tripled per capita police spending since 1964, data show

For activists and city leaders calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to cut the police budget, it’s clear that the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Moreover, “Defund the Police” is not solely a declaration of what we don’t want (more police spending). It represents our ability to imagine higher and better uses of those resources in ways that build stronger, more resilient individuals and communities, such as investing in things like education, public health, housing, and equitable economic growth opportunities.

Chicago plans to spend at least $100 million on a new police training facility, but it would take less than that amount for the city to invest in a stronger community/block club infrastructure that empowers residents in their own neighborhoods and also diminishes the need for police presence.

There is no reason that an institution that obtains the lion’s share of our public dollars  could fail so miserably at the very task it is charged with carrying out—“To serve and protect.” Yet, it is all too easy to lay the blame solely at the feet of police officers, when in fact, their failings reflect the broader public policy failings of our elected officials year in and year out. After all, budgets are passed with the consent of the governed via the representatives that cast their votes on the policies that govern our lives.

In Chicago, police misconduct settlements were ushered through City Council as cavalierly as small talk about the day’s weather—no questions asked, no deeper analysis—until the grisly video of Laquan McDonald’s murder was made public in 2015 (a video that then-mayor Rahm Emanuel, vociferously fought to suppress). An appalled public began to wonder why and how such a devastating case was so quietly settled. Subsequent deep-dives into the data revealed that between 2004 and 2016—little more than 10 years—the city paid $662 million in misconduct settlements.

According to data released from the city’s Law Department, the city paid out a whopping  $113 million in lawsuit settlements in 2018. In 2020 alone, the city has already set aside $153 million in the budget to cover misconduct settlements. The notion of continuing to fund police at existing or higher levels is bizarre when considering that in the recent past, the city was borrowing millions of dollars to cover basic operating expenses like fleet management and bills—even spending borrowed money on landscaping and new flower planters. It’s like borrowing $100 to buy groceries but taking out a $1,000 loan to have a private chef prepare your food.

It just doesn’t make sense.

An analysis from Injustice Watch found that Chicago has nearly tripled per capita police spending since 1964. In real dollars, Chicago will spend about $600 per resident on policing in 2020.  This increased spending is in spite of the fact that violent crime citywide has actually declined since its peak in the 90s. Interestingly, the Injustice Watch study also emphasized that the percentage of murders solved in Chicago has also declined drastically since the 1990s.

Alongside the increase in spending on public safety to the tune of 40% of our operating budget, we have seen drastic cuts in services that support strong individuals, families, and communities.

In the same city where the administration wants to pay a minimum of $100 million for a police training facility, teachers were forced to initiate an 11-day strike for basic needs like social workers, nurses, and counselors in schools. Chicago Public Schools pays the Chicago Police Department $33 million for in-school police officers, yet many of its schools on the south and west side lack libraries and up-to-date textbooks. Over the years, Chicago has eliminated its entire Department of Environment, while communities have faced public health hazards like exposure to diesel particulate, toxic dust from demolitions, and soil contaminated with neurotoxins. The city also shuttered six mental health clinics in high-need areas leaving many residents with no access to care.

Violence is a symptom of our public policy failings and stark disparities we have created in economic investment, housing, education,  public health, environmental justice, and so many other areas. It is no coincidence that these are the same areas where the budget ax is used most liberally. Policing is not the solution to violence, so increasing funding in policing will not solve our violence issue.

Think about it—after all the billions that have been spent on policing over the years, we still landed in a place where—in the middle of cataclysmic civil unrest—commercial corridors were left vulnerable and in many cases, destroyed, while police officers chilled and popped popcorn in a Congressman’s office.

At some point, we have to figure out that we must change our priorities as reflected in how we allocate our resources. We have to force ourselves to stretch our imaginations beyond the limitations of what we’ve been doing for so long. It’s good that people are grappling with the notion of defunding the police. It’s actually a good thing that people are beginning to imagine a world where police could become unnecessary.

We fund the police. Our dollars pay their salaries. Our dollars pay their lawsuits. Yet, our dollars can equally be spent proactively investing in mechanisms that build stronger individuals and communities. Or we can continue spending our money in ways that have not worked—like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it, while the body count of those killed by police continues to rise.

The choice, truly, is ours.

Amara Enyia, Ph.D., works at the local, national, and international levels as a social impact and public policy strategist with a background in community organizing and advocacy. She’s also a former Chicago mayoral candidate.