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Thursday January 20th

'It doesn’t literally mean zero police': An academic approach to police reform

A Chapel Hill Police Officer stands guard at the Chapel Hill protest hosted by Black Congress on Friday, June 15, 2020.
Buy Photos A Chapel Hill Police Officer stands guard at the Chapel Hill protest hosted by Black Congress on Friday, June 15, 2020.

Following nationwide protests against police brutality and calls by activists for police reform, the idea of defunding the police has begun to receive mainstream attention, leading cities across the country to reevaluate their police budgets.

Sudhanshu Handa, a professor in UNC's public policy department specializing in social and inequality policy, said the idea behind defunding the police is to move resources from police departments to social services that have tools to deal with situations in ways police are not equipped. 

“The idea is that it doesn’t literally mean zero police," Handa said. "The first step is to take a hard look at the budget of the police versus other services."

Frank Baumgartner, a professor in the Department of Political Science, said with the current police system in most cities, police are called for a large breadth of incidents, many of which they are not trained for or do not have the tools to handle.

“One of the issues with the police is that their tools include handcuffs, jail time and a gun, and sometimes those just aren’t the tools that we need for every problem," Baumgartner said. "The police have become the go-to agency to call to fix any problem, and that’s not always appropriate." 

Baumgartner added that the idea of defunding the police is to put money into organizations or services that are better equipped to handle these situations.

“Even within police departments, I think there is concern that the police should not be the agency that gets called on for every circumstance for our lives, in particular for mental health circumstances, drug addiction,” Baumgartner said. “Sometimes it is appropriate, like if your house has been robbed, you call the police, because they’re the only appropriate group to call, but if your son is having a drug or alcohol problem, it would be nice if you could call an alcohol treatment specialist and have them come help you with that problem.”

Chris Blue, chief of the Chapel Hill Police Department, said even though he trains his officers to be compassionate, he agrees police may not be the best equipped to handle some calls, like those related to homelessness. 

“Regardless of if the police budget changes in the future, we need to put money into social services that have been underfunded in the past because they do serve a great need for our community,” Blue said. 

The proposed Chapel Hill town budget for 2020-2021 would allocate $13.95 million, or about 21 percent of the town budget, to the Chapel Hill Police Department, a choice spurring over two hours of public comment at Chapel Hill Town Council's June 10 meeting.  

Handa said that in conversations about how to defund the police, it is important to look at data surrounding police interactions with citizens to gauge how police departments are using their budget.

“To those people who would be against defunding the police, say, 'What is it you want?', and to show and to demonstrate that you’ll still get that, and that right now you’re actually paying for a lot of stuff that you don’t want and you’re actually not getting good value for your money," Handa said. "If you can show that in terms of value for money you’re paying for all this stuff and it's being used 10 percent of the time, is that efficient, is that good public finance, is that good public management?"

One city that has already announced plans to defund its police force is San Francisco, whose Mayor, London Breed, sent out a press release on June 11 outlining new police reform policies. 

The reforms outlined in the press release included demilitarization of the police, and working to divert calls related to non-criminal activity away from the San Francisco Police Department to other non-law enforcement agencies. 

The press release also said some police force funds would be redirected to racial equity initiatives. 

Blue said that every police department is different and many departments, especially those in smaller cities or towns, do not have the military equipment or riot gear that is used in larger cities and often depicted in the media. 

He added that although the Chapel Hill Police Department can always improve, Orange County's law enforcement officials have done a "good job" of listening and changing with resident feedback.

“Each department adapts and grows on its own to serve the needs of its own community,” Blue said. “And I know in Chapel Hill, and surrounding areas like Carrboro and the Orange County Sheriff's Department, we have done a good job of listening to our citizens to implement equitable practices that may not be in place in other areas.”


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