The idea of defunding the police has both gained traction and been severely skewed by a right-wing campaign against police reform during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. But many are unsure about what tangible effects that would have. To defund the police is not to abolish law enforcement and let all hell break loose; instead, money from bloated police budgets would be reallocated to preventative and better-trained agencies who properly handle much of the non-crime fighting work police departments do and improve the communities those police are patrolling through smarter spending.
Across America, police departments hoard tax money under the guise of public safety without making the communities safer. In America’s largest cities, cops are a constant at grocery stores, public spaces, poor neighborhoods and, abhorrently, schools. While situations involving the police are not as bad here in Athens, police still make up the largest expenditure of the city’s budget, despite a lack of violent crime. Between 2004 and 2019, the Athens Police Department responded to an average of zero homicides, two shootings and 11 robberies per year.
In fact, of the 10 situations Athens police respond to the most, very few can arguably warrant the potential for necessary violent force. Even when police are reasonably necessary, in the instance of theft, for example, very rarely are they moving forward with formal reports for any of these claims. As for convictions, the overwhelming majority are nonviolent.
The vast majority of police interactions are nonviolent. A traffic infraction should never turn into a situation where anyone’s life is on the line. The same goes for noise infractions, damaged property and, most tragic of all, mental health crises.
Just last week, a shooting made national headlines when police responded to a call involving a 13-year-old boy with autism suffering a mental health crisis. Rather than calming the boy down and de-escalating the situation, the police murdered a child. There’s no rational reason this has to happen and no logical defense for it.
Unfortunately, the same could happen here in Athens. A police officer’s job is to investigate crimes, not handle something as complex as a boy with autism in distress. To make matters worse, Athens and Athens County is one of America’s most underfunded regions across the board.
Education, health care, employment, internet access and even food security are severely underfunded, but every year, the Athens Police Department takes up the largest portion of the city’s budget. Keep in mind: this is a small city with not one but three active police forces: APD, the Ohio University Police Department and the Athens Sheriff’s Department. APD receives nearly $1 million more than any other category in the city’s expenses and totals more than $4 million in annual expenses with several small grants.
Even a small portion of this money could be focused on community development that provides a safer and more beneficial alternative. Money could be spent on social work, mental health experts and education rather than guns and police cruisers. Drug crimes could be handled with proper treatment instead of a vicious cycle of incarceration. Police are necessary in some instances but not in the capacity they currently serve.
An unfortunate example of this is rape investigations. It’s no secret that police departments notoriously fail victims of sexual assault and mishandle these incredibly delicate situations. Having social workers or mental health experts present to assist in gathering information from victims and ensuring their well-being remains a priority would allow police to handle what they’re trained to do: investigate and arrest those accused, even though they fail to prosecute rapists in the overwhelming majority of cases.
The largest problem with APD, like all other police forces in the country, is racial bias. A group of Athens community members decided to look into police data and monitor how racial bias affects policing in Athens. The result was Athens Cop Watch. Its findings do not only track APD, but all police departments in Athens. The data shows a troubling presence of racial bias. Black Ohio University students are more likely to be pulled over; police are more likely to use force on Black people.
Heavily armed police officers across the country are increasingly becoming a threat to public safety. Athens should not wait for its own George Floyd incident to take preventative action. Police have a role in communities, but if cops truly joined the force to “protect and serve,” they should strongly consider what that role is moving forward.
Noah Wright is a senior studying strategic communication at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk to Noah? Tweet him @NoahCampaign.