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Defund the police’ is losing steam. Good. Genuine reform was always the better idea.

Chicago Tribune

Thursday, October 14, 2021  |  Editorial  |  EDITORIAL BOARD

Police (28)

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the words were ubiquitous, scrawled on pieces of cardboard held aloft at protests, written on banners unfurled by legions of demonstrators, painted in large letters on city streets.

“Defund the police” became the clarion call for Americans sickened by the indifference toward decades of police abuse meted out against Blacks and other people of color in our nation’s cities.

The phrase has come to mean different things to different people. To some activists, it means nothing less than the dismantling of police departments. A more widely accepted interpretation has been not the wholesale replacement of police, but a measured rollback in spending on police, and a reallocation of those saved taxpayer dollars toward alternative approaches to the root causes of urban violence — everything from violence interrupters and ramp-ups in mental health services to affordable housing and job training.

Calls to defund police swept through most major American cities. Progressive aldermen in Chicago called for cuts in police spending, and in the fraught summer of 2020 the Cook County Board of Commissioners overwhelmingly passed a symbolic measure stating that the county should “redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement that promote community health and safety equitably.” Officials in Austin, Texas, shut down police cadet classes and slashed $150 million from its $434 million police spending plan. Los Angeles also imposed sizable cuts on its police budget and discussed the possibility of laying off nearly 1,000 cops.

More than a year later, the defund movement has lost traction. “In cities across America, police departments are getting their money back,” The New York Times recently reported. The Los Angeles Police Department boosted its budget by 3% last spring. Austin restored funding to its 2021-22 police budget, pushing up spending to $442 million and resuming cadet classes. And in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed 2022 budget ratchets up police spending to $1.9 billion, from $1.7 billion in 2021.

Cities are realizing that while real, lasting police reform can and must happen, the last thing violence-wracked neighborhoods need is a diminishing of police resources. The lack of appetite to defund law enforcement in Chicago was recently made clear by a survey of residents conducted by the Harris Poll and the MacArthur Foundation. The survey found that 58% of residents polled opposed the defund the police movement. According to the survey, 65% feared that defunding police would lead to a rise in crime in their neighborhoods, and 62% said defunding would not help rebuild ties between police and the communities they serve.

At the same time, fraught relations between police and predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods will never improve if comprehensive police reform doesn’t accompany beefed-up police budgets. Chicago has the right road map for that reform: the federally mandated consent decree aimed at overhauling police training, supervision and accountability. Since the decree took effect in 2019, the Chicago Police Department has consistently been far too slow to meet deadlines for implementing the document’s mandated reforms.

Earlier this month, former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey, the independent monitor tasked with ensuring CPD’s compliance with the consent decree, issued her fourth report on CPD’s progress. A key finding in that report: the department has yet to set up a new foot pursuit policy, a critical piece of reform that took on new significance with the fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in March. A Chicago police officer shot the teen after a foot chase. At the time, Lightfoot called on police leadership to adopt a foot-pursuit policy.

That’s right, Chicago didn’t have one when Toledo was killed. Making critical police reforms shouldn’t be a back-burner priority. And it ought not take the death of a Little Village kid for urgent, overdue change to happen.

Now is also the time to find ways to ramp up funding for non-police answers to the scourge of violent crime. Violence prevention programs rely on street outreach workers, many of them former gang members, to connect with and counsel young men at risk of either killing or being killed. Those programs have proven track records for curbing violence, and should be expanded. Also needed are efforts to build up mental health services and job training in neighborhoods struggling with violence.

Relying solely on law enforcement will never resolve the tragic, steady drumbeat of shootings in Chicago’s South and West side neighborhoods.

But neither will the push to take officers off the streets, to draw down police presence in communities besieged by gangs and gun violence.

George Floyd’s murder cast a desperately needed, unblinking spotlight on the need for police reform, on deep-seated racism found across all echelons of American society. It’s easy to understand why the call to defund police took hold so viscerally. But it’s clear the idea can only do much more harm than good — and it’s reassuring to see cities across the country embracing that realization.