Recent calls to ‘Defund the police’, in the interest of social justice, have been misunderstood; and this, in part, goes to explain the refusal of City Councils to meet those demands. That we should remove the Police Departments and have nothing in their place, is a frightening thought to some of us, who are accustomed to that Department and would feel their loss as we might the loss of a limb. But this is not the intended meaning of that demand.
The true meaning of ‘Defunding’ the police, is to re-direct their budget from militaristic weapons and enormous, inefficient, menacing vehicles, to a new curriculum of police training, devised to teach them rather to ‘Protect and Serve’, after their former motto, than to intimidate the public, in their present manner of operation.
What must be altered, above all, is the essence of police training, or rather the attitudes it cultivates. The present training, whether intentionally or otherwise, inclines the majority of police officers, and indeed of police departments, to think of themselves as the sole force for “Law and Order”, in a hostile world: i.e., to imagine themselves as a sort of Round Table or peerage of Paladins, embattled on all sides; and to perceive the rest of the world, as a reservoir of unruly sub-humanity, ready to overflow and contaminate the clean world beyond. This incorrect perception, is typical of many persuasions, including, but not limited to religions, racisms, exceptionalisms, nationalisms, and political activisms of every kind, and of police departments no less. It is in some sense the cause of most police manslaughter of civilians; and if corrected by a better attitude, may reduce the incidence thereof.
Fortunately, we already have a model for the police to imitate, in the form of the Fire Department.
The Fire Department is a public service, perhaps even more essential than the police, and in some ways better organized. Firefighters, like police, are large, strong, and generously built; they drive wherever they will, even against traffic regulations, in enormous trucks; they are equipped with the latest technology; they are trained from childhood, and supremely disciplined; and yet, they are not feared, but admired. Every urban child hopes at some time in its life to be a firefighter; every parent and neighbor is happy to see the firefighters pass by, even off-duty, and gladder still to see them arrive at an emergency. Firefighters are courageous, even heroic, and yet gentle and chivalrous; and not by accident, but because they are taught to be so, from childhood. Their whole apparatus, purpose, and trade are superficially similar to those of the police-department, and yet, firefighters are admired, while police are feared. Where, then, lies the difference?
It is for the police-departments, not only of this county but of the entire world, to study that difference, and learn from it, and model themselves on the fire-departments, from this year forward. Some may consider it impossible. But to change one’s ways, is to remain relevant to society, and thus in some sense to retain one’s identity; and the police departments, though they may set themselves above the laws they inconsistently enforce, are as subject to that law, as any other human beings.