Why is there limited public support for defunding police despite widespread activism? The answer partly lies in the failure to demystify police. The image of police as the defender of social order, an institution that assumes tremendous existential risks on behalf of society has not been challenged.

There are two contrasting perspectives on “defunding” police. One perspective — espoused by some activists on the political left — holds that policing is fatally broken, cannot be fixed through any reform and ought to be cancelled through financial asphyxiation. The second perspective argues that policing takes an outsized and unnecessary share of government budgets. The latter aims to redirect cuts in police budget to social welfare services. This piece adopts the second perspective. This perspective recognises that in many police jurisdictions, particularly in the U.S. and Canada, a growing number of calls for emergency services relate to psychotic episodes, suicides, alcoholism, homelessness and other welfare-related checks. Police response to these issues tend to produce devastating consequences. A staggering “70 per cent of the people who died in police encounters struggled with mental health issues, substance abuse or both”.

Public support for defunding police has in fact been minimal, despite the reality that police officers spend a large part of their time on issues they are not suited to and often result in troubled citizens carted away in body bags. This is fascinating, given the swift decision to defund and reimagine policing in some jurisdictions, such as Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in June during global protests against police brutality finds that “73% majority say that spending on their local police should stay about the same as it is now (42%) or be increased from its current level (31%)”. There were racial disparities among the 4,708 adults surveyed. Only 42 per cent of black adults and 21 per cent of whites support reducing spending on police in their areas. People aged 50 and above were less likely to support reducing police funding.

Why is there limited public support for defunding police despite widespread activism? The answer partly lies in the failure to demystify police. The image of police as the defender of social order, an institution that assumes tremendous existential risks on behalf of society has not been challenged. Consequently, despite protests, police powers have increased in at least two provinces — Alberta and Saskatchewan — while some cities have adopted merely symbolic budget cuts. The non-response or negative institutional reactions to seemingly popular public agitations for defunding will continue until police and policing are demystified. Demystification means a deliberate attempt to make ordinary or mundane a domain of knowledge, practice or institution once considered esoteric. Therefore, through demystification, a sacred, legitimised institution becomes ordinary and open to objective critique. There are considerations in demystification, which may assist in efforts to reimagine and possibly defund police.

The nature of the policing task, its reality and development of constituencies (such as police unions, conservative media personalities, right-wing politicians, and their followers, etc.) have led to a familiar result in the sociology of organisation. The police have become a quintessential “permanently failing organisation”.


The Nature of the Task

The police are concerned with an empirical improbability — crime control. The idea that crime control is a policing myth is an established criminological fact. Nonetheless, police organisations soldier on. What can be reasonably expected of police is to keep crime to a level where social life can proceed with minimal unpredictability. That ensures, more often than not, most citizens will find their cars at the parking lot, although police cannot prevent or solve all cases of car theft. Appearance of order is therefore the realistic police task. The quest to create an appearance of order (in the name of crime control) has led to arrogation of tremendous power over time. As bodily expression of state force and priorities, police officers are imbued with power not accorded elected officials. For instance, a mayor in a liberal democratic state caught slapping a constituent on cell phone video is unlikely to keep his/her seat, while two or more fully armed police officers may beat a handcuffed citizen and yet go unpunished or escape with light reprimand. The nature of the policing task, its reality and development of constituencies (such as police unions, conservative media personalities, right-wing politicians, and their followers, etc.) have led to a familiar result in the sociology of organisation. The police have become a quintessential “permanently failing organisation”. As Marshall William and Lynne Zucker argue, this means actors that are dependent on the status quo focus on survival, rather than performance. Therefore, resistance against defunding the police ignores the fact that armed police intervention is not required in a growing number of calls for service. Defunding threatens their livelihood and erodes policing’s accumulated legitimacy.

Over-dramatisation and Exaggeration of Policing Risk

Peter K. Manning observed over 40 years ago that “policing was a masterful costume drama, a presentation of ordering and mannered civility that was also dirty work”. The police’s occupational culture is full of ritualism and symbolism to enhance the social status of an institution, which largely requires Grade 12 level education and provides six-month training for new recruits in Canada and the U.S. The quest for theatrics extends to adoption of appurtenances of policing. My collaborative research on adoption of electro-magnetic disruption technologies by police demonstrates that such accoutrements largely perform symbolic function — to bolster a police organisation’s claim to being “modern” or “progressive”, rather than any real utility. Besides, despite years of the much-trumpeted “community policing”, most police departments have remained largely unchanged in their mode of operation. One study concludes that in “many police agencies, community-oriented policing (COP) seems to represent a method of strategic buffering of a largely unaltered core police operation”. Community policing was adopted mainly as a mere trend and for accessing funding.

The dramatisation extends to the level of risk encountered by police officers. Policing is presented as an uber-risky occupation. It is. However, policing does not come near the top of the most dangerous occupations in Canada and the U.S. If you have ever taken a taxi, the driver actually faces far more risks than police officers. Apart from taxi drivers, coal miners, long-haul truck drivers and timber cutters all face objectively higher risks — aggravated bodily injuries and deaths — than police officers. The exaggeration of policing risk is a functional masterstroke. It produces a dichotomising tendency (“us versus “them” mentality) and portrayal of self-sacrificing, communitarian and selfless occupational specialists. The exaggeration of risk fosters occupational credibility, camaraderie and serves as a recruitment tool. It deemphasises the fact that policing in Canada and most parts of the U.S. is an incredibly well paying occupation, relative to qualification and length of training. Rookie officers in Vancouver and Edmonton earn nearly $70,000 per year. That is approximately the same amount earned by Banting Postdoctoral fellows — Canada’s most prestigious and highly competitive elite postdoctoral fellowship.

Policing is an unusual occupation, given its enormous power. This is precisely why it needs to be treated like any other job to ensure performance and end human rights abuses. Career-minded professionals should be recruited. Extremely patriotic, action-oriented warrior-like prospective recruits should be encouraged to join the military.

Maintenance of Adversarial Relationship With the Public

Maintaining an adversarial relationship with the public is an “occupational tenet” of policing, as Manning pointed out decades ago. This is a fundamentally textured phenomenon, as it does not universally affect the public. The focus is on relatively powerless segments of society — young people and minorities, particularly males. The adversarial relationship is crucial to keeping funding as it presents incontrovertible evidence of the breakdown of order. Therefore, those protesting police brutality and demonstrating in support of defunding police should endeavour to be peaceful. Evidence of looting, arson or other forms of violence will only advance the course of granting police more powers and funding. This is directly linked to government’s aversion for any sign of disorder in psychologically fragile societies.

Way Forward

Defunding police is unlikely to occur before its demystification. The latter involves awareness of the issues discussed above by both the public and government. Defunding police cannot happen without curtailing the activities of police unions, which have become a powerful “institutional sovereign”. Policing is an unusual occupation, given its enormous power. This is precisely why it needs to be treated like any other job to ensure performance and end human rights abuses. Career-minded professionals should be recruited. Extremely patriotic, action-oriented warrior-like prospective recruits should be encouraged to join the military.

‘Tope Oriola teaches criminology and terrorism studies at the University of Alberta, Canada. Follow Oriola on Twitter: @topeoriola

This article was first published by The Conversation.