Defund, Divest, or Abolish, No Matter What You Call It, We Need to Reform the Police in Virginia

One Halloween night a few years ago, a couple of friends and I were leaving a party when my completely sober friend accidentally drove his car into a ditch. We were dressed as zombies and covered in fake blood, shivering in the dark when the county police showed up. A confused cop got out of the car to assess the situation. After determining that we weren’t injured and my friend was sober, the cop called a tow truck to get my friend’s car out of the ditch.

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Another cop showed up in a paddy wagon and offered to let us keep warm in the paddy wagon until the tow truck showed up. My friends and I debated it for a minute. “Hell no, I’m not voluntarily going in a cop car,” I remember saying. But as the time dragged on and the temperature dropped, we piled into the back of the police van, swearing we would never tell anyone.

The situation worked out for us––BECAUSE WE WERE WHITE. Imagine if a group of Black friends was in the same situation. Would it have turned out the same? I doubt it. What would have happened if the cops had called a tow truck for Rayshard Brooks and offered to hang with him until he sobered up? He may still be here today. 

That Halloween night and every day of our lives, my friends and I were protected by our white privilege, which exists because of enduring white supremacy and racism. Our criminal justice system is racist, harassing and punishing people of color more than white people. If watching George Floyd taking his last breaths while calling out for his mama didn’t convince you of that, then I think you need to check your grip on reality.

 Police Have Too Much Power

In the wake of the murders of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Brooks, and many others at the hands of police, there’s a national groundswell of people taking action to demand a dramatic change in the role that police play in public life. Police have too much power in our society––so much that they are almost always immune to accountability when it comes to taking the lives of Black people.

In response, the Movement for Black Lives has targeted reducing police budgets, which are outsized with a lot of taxpayer money going toward the militarization of police forces. I mean, do police departments really need tanks, flash-bang grenades, camo gear, and assault rifles to do their jobs?

So, a principal demand is the defunding of the police. But what exactly does that mean? It’s not like what all of the rightwing reactionaries are screaming about where we will completely empty the coffers of police departments and eradicate their role in society. It’s about reimagining the role police play in society by reducing their budgets and size of their force and reallocating their funds to other places like social services, anti-poverty and housing programs, and education.

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What Does Defunding the Police Really Look Like?

By shifting money away from punitive solutions like police and investing in communities, we can prevent crime from happening in the first place because people will have access to services that can help them before the police get involved.  We can overhaul our model of policing to create stronger, safer communities when Black Americans and communities of color can live freely and securely. 

A report shows that 21% of law enforcement time is spent dealing with people with mental illness. Imagine if a person with mental illness could get the treatment they need so their situation doesn’t deteriorate so much that cops have to become involved? Or instead of calling the police to help someone in a mental health crisis, a licensed professional could be called to assist the person?

Virginia Police Have Inflated Budgets

Let’s take a closer look at some of the police budgets in Virginia by focusing on police departments in the urban crescent: Fairfax, Richmond, and Virginia Beach. For 2021, Fairfax County is spending $215 million on its police department. Fairfax is the largest county in the Commonwealth and its police force shows it. It’s known to use its SWAT team to serve warrants and is facing heat for a white officer kneeling on an unarmed Black man’s neck after tasing him. It’s beyond time for a change.

Fairfax County’s Health Department only received $65.6 million in the 2020 budget. If the county cut its police budget in half, it could spend that money on getting people mental health treatment or reallocate those funds to its Community Development Budget, which accounts for only 1.3% of the county’s total budget.

Our next locality is the city of Richmond, where I live. Apparently, the Richmond police force didn’t get the memo that cops are under extra scrutiny right now because they have continued to act with impunity the past couple of weeks. The city’s police chief resigned after police tear-gassed peaceful protesters 30 minutes before the city’s 8 pm curfew, drove an SUV through a group of protesters, and shot rubber bullets at nonviolent demonstrators.

Recently, members of Richmond’s City Council have called to  defund the city’s $100 million police budget. Activists are calling for the implementation of a Marcus Alert, named after an unarmed Black man in a mental health crisis who was shot and killed by Richmond police in 2018. The Marcus Alert would bring mental health professionals to de-escalate situations involving people in mental health crises, not cops with deadly weapons. Currently, Richmond’s health and social services departments only get $60 million combined. Imagine how many social workers and therapists we could pay for if we reallocated, say, $40 million from Richmond’s police budget! 

Not only do cops have to deal with a lot of people with mental illness, but they are also our society’s responders to homelessness. Can we all agree that people who are homeless need housing, not handcuffs? Homelessness isn’t a crime. People often end up on the streets because of circumstances beyond their control. Virginia Beach spends $234 million on its police force, yet designates only $80 million toward its housing department. If Virginia Beach cut the funding of its police force, it could invest in building many affordable housing units or job training programs to help homeless people get out of poverty.

Let’s Take Care of Each Other Instead of Calling the Cops

This isn’t rocket science. Countries in Europe are already defunding police and putting money toward social services––SUCCESSFULLY. I can think of more than one thing that European countries do better than us, and one of them is universal healthcare, but I digress. We’re at a moment when calling for reforms in the police system, like better training and body cams, isn’t enough. 

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Defunding the police is just the first step. We need to envision a country where we take a holistic approach to tackling our problems, not slapping on band-aids that lead to more Black people being murdered or funneled into the prison industrial complex. Email your legislator and demand they stand up for Black lives!