What “Defund the police” really means

Police officers in riot gear and national guard shrouded in tear gas and smoke backlit by floodlights outside of Seattle Police Department East Precinct

Our police department, as we have seen last night and the night before, and the night before that, is using weapons of war on our own residents.

I heard reports last night of people being three stories up and not being able to breathe because of the gas. Last week we heard the story of the 3-month-old baby who was foaming at the mouth. We heard other stories subsequently of a 6-month-old baby sitting in the hallway with its parents trying to get fresh air.

These are stories that we must respond to, and we also have to recognize that we have a budget that allows us to maintain controls over this effort.

Source: Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda per KUOW

“I did not make up with the demand of 50 percent defunding of the police, that came from the community. … Any politician, whether they are in Minneapolis or Seattle who is telling you that police can be dismantled under capitalism is bullshitting you.”

Source: Councilmember Kshama Sawant per Periscope

There are inherent limitations of political imagination once you’re in office, but given the councilmembers’ own experiences on the barricades, their words, and their reasoning, it’s difficult to see how half-funding such an organization as they describe should be looked at as a positive result.

There hasn’t been a budget cut to the department since 2000, so I’m not sure what prior year a 50 percent reduction would take Seattle back to, but it’s likely that law enforcement was being brutal and predatory toward its most vulnerable residents at the equivalent funding level in 1999 or 1990 as well. “Defund” is not sophistry; it’s a demand because the status quo is radical and harmful to the people America has always despised.

I was not at any protests while people were being actively assaulted by the police’s chemical weapons, explosives, or maiming projectiles, but I have close friends who were, and I was observing via the livestreams of ground witnesses and upper-story neighbors as police committed those assaults. I was trying to help get information to people there about where was safest to regroup amid the explosions or to find a medical station that hadn’t been overrun and destroyed and experiencing terror for them in real time.

When I hear that the goal is fund police a bit less, it sounds something like I imagine it would to a Cold War-era East German hearing that the Stasi budget was getting slashed.

If in our own communities, a budget cut means we have fewer secret police—that is, undercover cops and armored officers covering their badges—on the streets, that is an improvement, but it’s not a victory. Having half as much poison gas that’s been banned in warfare to use on unarmed people in the community still means there’s plenty of poison gas to use on unarmed people in the community. Plus, bullets are still relatively cheap and so are truncheons.

Source: Teresa Mosqueda via The Urbanist

The most lawless things I’ve seen in Seattle in my time here have not been people unable to afford permanent shelter who sleep outside but the behavior of a bunch of (mostly) men, incredibly well-equipped, hiding their identities as they attack regular people for continuing to stand with umbrellas because those people not disperse when the armed and armored men said so. Yet if there had not been dozens of cameras and thousands of eyes on them, they wouldn’t have been on what was apparently their best behavior. One or two officers alone with one unarmed protester, those cops would have likely genuinely feared for their lives and used that as justification to brutalize that person or even kill them. And that’s not a hyperbole.


My union, SEIU 925, is having members forced to take furloughs due to a drop in revenue by UW Medicine. This is after being called “heroes” but being continuously underfunded and provided insufficient resources of personal protection during a pandemic.

It makes me sick to see what material resources and salaries these cowards in the Seattle Police Department have been given to misuse when the tool they actually need is respect for other residents of this city as equals.

I don’t think they’re capable of that, which is why they must be defunded and that money given to other organizations that actually make people safe from the violence of eviction, of not being able to afford insulin any longer, or of sleeping on the side of a highway in the rain because the hotel you can see from there that lights up “BLM” on the side doesn’t want to turn its vacant units into shelter for free and the government won’t force them.

King County General Fund
Source: https://kingcounty.gov/council/budget/budget_basics.aspx

I want to fund public safety, not exploding canisters. Which means, at the county level, I want to fund room, board, and medical care for people whenever they need it, not just when they’ve been arrested and sent to jail to be held against their will. Seattle police make for an easy villain because of their union, their fragility (they really tried to claim that reflecting their own floodlights back at officers with foil was a provocation), and their visibility in the city, but this is a much wider problem and Democrats everywhere are going to have to make choices about what rhetoric they’ve always meant on principle and what rhetoric was convenient to get them in office.

If someone told you two weeks ago Seattle police would abandon their Capitol Hill precinct entirely and leftists would be booing Councilmember Sawant for only promising to cut the police budget in half, you would have scoffed and called it ridiculous. So would I have. None of us should scoff now at literally defunding the police or first start looking for a way to compromise.

One more thing: A week and a half of people in the streets unwilling to compromise on the fundamental humanity of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color has done more to combat police militarization and their unaccountable violence than 30 years of Democratic governance, female, male, Black, white, gay, and lesbian.

Therefore, I support the protesters the way some people support the troops: I will not parse it between “good” and “bad” or “peaceful” and “looters”.

Demolitions are destructive, too. Dismantling the viaduct was destructive, too. If what we’re trying to construct is a better place where people are not executed for being deaf in one ear while woodcarving or executed for needing help during a mental breakdown while pregnant or abducted off the street for walking with a golf club as a cane, then we should count some broken windows and expropriated material from a department store as the controlled demolition necessary to get people’s attention where repetitive human suffering could not.

People literally risked their lives in the hope that a rubber bullet aimed in malice wouldn’t cave in their head or that panicking officers wouldn’t switch to live ammo to mow down a crowd holding rainbow umbrellas. In another week, people from those crowds and their loved ones will literally start to die from COVID-19, and they’ll die because they demanded their police not be equipped for war and allowed to kill them.

There is nothing unreasonable, immature, or impractical about being unwilling to accept half-measures for a cause so worthy that you risked so much for, and they’ll remember us for how we treat them and their concerns forever.

Let’s talk policy: how do we fix police brutality and increase trust in police?

If we want to fix law enforcement, we first have to fix what we’re asking them to do on a daily basis.

We do want law enforcement to catch murderers, to investigate sexual assaults, to follow-up on robberies and burglaries, and to enforce things like domestic violence court orders so that we don’t have to resort to essentially tribal family or neighborhood alliances to do so.

But very little of a police officer’s job is actually doing these sorts of things because we as a society use them for all sorts of activities that even the best examples of society would strain to do well, and we’re not recruiting the best examples of society to police us now.

1. We have to decriminalize drug possession and use.

I can’t think of any single factor that has made cops lazier and more disruptive in communities than the ability to invade people’s homes or vehicles and arrest them on possession charges.

It’s completely atrophied the skills of policing that an officer ought to have, such as keeping violence down and de-escalating interactions because the reward is that you find something that is in itself illegal. It takes a lot of work to solve and then prosecute most crimes. Even burglars with stolen items have to be tracked down and work has to be done to establish that what they have was acquired by illegal means.

Prosecutors who have the option of pursuing multiple charges often use drug charges as leverage, either dropping them to get a plea to something else or using them to get an easy conviction. Easy drug convictions have likewise skewed the criminal justice system toward facile bullshit that punishes the poor and people of color while not doing anything to actually combat drug addiction or its effects.

2. We have to divorce revenue-gathering from law enforcement. 

If asset forfeiture were no longer tied to drugs, that would help in itself, but especially with traffic stops, officers are doing it because they’re expected by their city to get a certain amount of money in fines and penalties.

Now, there is a legitimate interest in our roads being safe, including making sure drivers aren’t intoxicated or distracted and that vehicles aren’t broken in some way dangerous to others. But a rich person has nothing to fear from speeding, and would rather just take the ticket every few months and pay it off than not get everywhere as fast as they want. As is well known, it ends up being a burden on the poor, often forcing them to pay to private companies far more than they would have otherwise, and allowing police to arrest them on warrants for unpaid fines. A

s with bail bonds, fines should be based on a person’s ability to pay them, similar to the Norwegian system, and this would immediately solve the problem because wealthy people would not want police to have an incentive coming after them to make up municipal shortfalls. 

3. We have to invest in non-violent emergency personnel.

People call police for all sorts of things that they’re not trained to do. Whether they have guns or just clubs, they’re not necessarily going to be equipped to handle mental welfare checks or people overdosing on drugs.

It may be possible to train all officers better until they are able to do these things, but there ought to be an opportunity for people who are unable to handle a situation themselves to call a professional to help without having it on their conscience that those professionals are likely to abuse or kill someone. It would be a dangerous job, but so is lumberjacking and nursing. Humans are capable of surprising virtue.

4. We have to invest in afterschool and summer school programs, personal housing for homeless people, and mental welfare in general.

If children have things to do, especially those most at risk because their parents can’t afford to pay money to look after them while the parents are at work, it will have an effect immediately on the sorts of petty crimes bored kids get into and into the future because they won’t be getting arrested and pushed further into a trajectory of anti-social behavior or developing skills useful for crime but not so much putting on a resume.

If homeless people have their own place to sleep and keep their things, if they can have an address to apply for jobs, if social services can be concentrated on those areas in particular, you’re spending money up front instead of having police be called to ‘deal with’ people asleep in front of businesses or “causing problems”.

And relatedly, we want to spend money on people dealing with issues of mental health before they need to go to the hospital or we jail them for crimes almost by definition we know they aren’t responsible for committing.

5. We have to be OK with having fewer police.

We can train them better, compensate them better, and hold those we do have to higher standards, but there will be fewer bodies available to do work that’s not a priority. As it is, insurance companies rely on police to determine who was at fault in traffic collisions, but if no one is seriously injured, maybe police aren’t able to do that.

Police reports for burglaries might have to be filed online, and graffiti or vandalism probably won’t lead to an officer coming out. That’s already a reality in many areas for other reasons, but it would have to become the norm.

6. We need local civilian oversight and a federal bureau devoted to police misconduct.

If we can do the other things to make it easier for police to do their real jobs, then we should be able to much more strongly punish them when they step out of line.

For smaller events, local civilian oversight should be enough. Complaints about an officer’s tone or use of force in an arrest should not be internal matters where we expect police to do the right thing among themselves. They’ve demonstrated they’re not trustworthy in that. A civilian oversight board would be complicated in its own right, but should operate on a standard of guilty until proven innocent when it comes to complaints.

By that I mean, if there’s a complaint about you and you “forgot to turn on” your camera when the interaction happened, that should be taken as evidence of malfeasance in itself. Police officers need to be Caesar’s wife in these things.

But, for more serious accusations and offenses, it should be a federal investigation, likely through the Civil Rights Division and prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys, because they’re the absolute best in the country and not beholden to local law enforcement to make their cases or be re-elected. In an administration like this one, we wouldn’t be able to rely on that federal bureau, but that would still be a step forward from what exists at present.

In return for federal criminal justice funding, local agencies would also need to report police-involved shootings and homicides, and use of force statistics, as part of their Uniform Crime Reporting numbers. To make it meaningful, if it could be demonstrated that these numbers were intentionally skewed by local departments, they’d be on the hook for back-pay, similar to lying about your unemployment. 

That’s not going to solve everything, but it would go a long way toward re-orienting the incentives of the people involved away from violence and abuse of people in favor of public safety.

Law is obeyed of respect, power obeyed of fear

The other day, the Odessa American reported on the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute’s event on policing, and as reported, the featured guests said some troubling things.

First, both outgoing Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson and Odessa Police Chief Tim Burton suggested folks ought to comply with whatever an officer tells them to do in order to protect themselves.

Now, women in the audience might not feel completely comfortable following that advice if interacting with former police officer Salvador Becerra during a traffic stop or former deputy Alfred John Herrera once in jail.

Or maybe that’s not fair. Only rarely do peace officers sexually assault people they have in their custody.

Continue reading “Law is obeyed of respect, power obeyed of fear”

This is why people in Seattle go shop in Bellevue

I’m working another season in retail, selling games to people looking for ways to make their children smarter.

That’s the way the bitterest way to describe my job responsibilities. The more charitable and more common feeling is that people come in looking for ways to make happy the people in their lives, and it’s my job to understand the sort of thing they already enjoy in order to find them a new thing they’ll also be pleased with.

Doing my job right means I listen to or tease information out of people, have a good understanding of the products we have to offer, and demonstrate what I like about it well enough they can easily imagine the gift-receiver enjoying, too.

It’s fun. It feels like a net-positive to the universe. But it’s also a far cry from being a journalist.

Continue reading “This is why people in Seattle go shop in Bellevue”

How often are prison guards killed transporting prisoners?

Eight prisoners and two correctional officers died in an accident near my hometown last week when their bus went off the side of an overpass, onto a moving train. It made national news, and my former coworkers did a great job all day letting people know what was going on as information came out, and putting it all into context by day’s end.

When hearing about a fatal train/prison bus collision, many people made the obvious connection, because that’s how we expect things to work, but the culprit seems to be icy conditions and very bad luck.

I can’t explain why the eight prisoner deaths seem so much more tragic than the two guards. Continue reading “How often are prison guards killed transporting prisoners?”

Zatoichi is the blind swordsman from Japanese films

They say Justice is blind, but if that’s the truth, perhaps some of her other senses have become heightened to compensate.

In the case of former Winkler County Sheriff Robert Roberts, Justice has thus far demonstrated a degree of balance Zatoichi would envy, although we call it karma or maybe a cosmic poetry.

Continue reading “Zatoichi is the blind swordsman from Japanese films”

One day, someone will write a book about all of this

When Larry Neil White died at age 62, it hardly came as a surprise.

It was inevitable he would die, since birth at least. Since March, it was inevitable he would die without going to trial for the deaths of Abel Marquez, Arlie Jones Jr. and Scott Gardner, the three police officers he shot outside his home for no good reason anyone will ever be able to discern, or a jury of his peers will be able to evaluate.

Continue reading “One day, someone will write a book about all of this”