By Gianeen Magno, CDF-Texas Intern
The murder of George Floyd at the knee of a White police officer sparked a national reckoning. Protestors came together in cities and small towns across the country with one shared demand: defund the police.
That demand is rooted in a simple truth: policing exacerbates inequality and reduces our overall quality of life. In fact, America’s policing system developed to control working class immigrants in the North and slaves in the South. It evolved to maintain the nation’s racial hierarchy by using crime to mark immigrants, Black Americans, and the poor as biologically inferior, unskilled, and uneducated. Today, our communities continue to rely on detainment to manage our most vulnerable populations. People of color, those experiencing homelessness, domestic violence survivors, and people with mental illness are more likely to be stopped, detained, and killed by law enforcement.
Police interventions fail to address the root problems these groups face, and instead perpetuate discrimination, foster stigma, and create more barriers in their path to well-being. Yet every major city in Texas continues to fund its police department far more than any other public service. As health advocates, we must also recognize that every dollar that goes towards the police is a dollar that can’t be invested in city initiatives that support the social determinants of health: the conditions that influence differences in health risks and outcomes. By redirecting police funds to public health, housing, or transportation, cities can empower their residents to live happier and healthier lives safe from the cycles of distress created by law enforcement violence.
There are harsh consequences if we continue to rely on police officers as the first point of intervention for an array of social issues they’re not trained to resolve:
- When police perform encampment sweeps, the homeless may lose all their belongings and receive tickets they can’t afford. If left unpaid, these tickets can lead to arrest warrants, creating criminal records that prevent people from qualifying for housing, employment, and loans.
- Victims of domestic violence often don’t contact law enforcement, fearing that police will escalate the situation, detain their abuser, or even kill their abuser—when they simply want the violence to stop. In 2018, only 47% of 847,230 known incidents of intimate partner violence were reported to the police. Fear of reporting makes it harder for victims to secure proper treatment for injuries and psychological abuse. Data also shows that criminalizing domestic abuse neither lowers rates of intimate partner violence nor makes it less severe.
- Jails and prisons currently hold more people with mental illness than hospitals do. Rather than connecting these individuals with treatment, 2 million people annually are charged with petty crime and low-level felonies tied to their mental illness. These individuals spend roughly four to eight times longer in prison than people without mental illnesses for the exact same crimes. It costs about $31,000 annually to keep someone in jail but only $10,000 to provide community health services.
- Incarcerating people for drug offenses not only fails to treat substance abuse disorders, but also perpetuates racial inequity. Though white and Black Americans use recreational drugs at comparable rates, Black Americans are six times more likely to be arrested for possession.
There’s another key public institution that disproportionately relies on police: schools. Police officers are called on to handle student outbursts—often escalating the problem, and without carefully considering whether students actually pose a threat. Police presence is disruptive to the educational experience, particularly for students of color. Black students are twice as likely to be referred than all other students. And while students with disabilities make up only 12 percent of school enrollment nationally, they make up 28 percent of law enforcement referrals in a single year.
Those are a few of the reasons CDF-TX joined other advocacy organizations to call for the Houston Independent School District to divest from policing (for which it spent over $18 million in the 2016-2017 academic year alone). At a time when school districts are facing budget shortfalls, these funds can instead be put towards hiring and training social workers to address bullying, disruptiveness, harassment, and other non-violent, commonplace student behaviors.
Cities too can divest from police departments and re-invest those resources in community-based, data-driven, and prevention-focused interventions that can improve the social determinants of health. Doing so requires experts versed in public health—not policing. That includes social workers who can connect people who are displaced with appropriate housing and supportive resources. It includes community workers who can provide culturally appropriate and trauma-informed outreach. It includes restorative justice experts who can mediate situations while ensuring every participant’s safety. And it includes emergency personnel who can be the first to respond to drug offenses and connect people to rehabilitation programs.
Studies show that shifting from criminalization to a primary prevention framework leads to improvements in educational attainment, employment rates, socioeconomic outcomes, and short- and long-term health outcomes. It’s also cost-effective: doing so provides people with resources, and reduces their need for costly law enforcement interventions. Using restorative justice in school settings has led to reductions in suspensions, expulsions, and law enforcement referrals. Providing permanent housing to those vulnerable to homelessness has reduced crisis interventions and improved social and health outcomes for that population, while saving money for cities. Community-based organizations have more effectively connected survivors with counseling services while de-escalating their crises. People facing mental health and substance abuse issues are less likely to be detained when they have access to the counselors they need. The evidence is impossible to ignore.
We have a great opportunity to join this movement in the state of Texas, where the largest cities continue to give the highest portion of funds for a single department to law enforcement. In Austin’s 2019-2020 fiscal year, City Council reserved 39.9% of the general fund for the police department. They allocated only 7.9% of funds for Austin Public Health, and the smallest portion to Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, at 0.7%. In San Antonio, 37.5% of its general fund went to police, followed by 36% in Dallas, and 33.1% in Houston.
Defunding the police isn’t just about the police—it’s about reassigning the current responsibilities of our officers to more qualified experts. History has shown that our law enforcement system maintains a racial hierarchy, locks marginalized groups out, and deepens inequity. And our social science evidence has repeatedly pointed to the need for public health interventions instead. As health advocates, we must join this call. We must ask our cities and schools to re-invest in the social determinants of health—and in the very resources that keep people safe from police violence.