Romario R. Ricketts is a Macaulay Scholar and Political Science student at Lehman College/CUNY. Most recently, he interned at the ACLU and Brennan Center for Justice, where he worked on a broad range of pressing civil liberties issues, including voting, immigrants’, and prisoner’s rights. The aspiring public interest lawyer has a strong interest in criminal justice reform and how existing policies affect racially and economically marginalized communities. Ricketts is a native of Jamaica and currently lives in East New York, Brooklyn.
May 26 started as a typical Tuesday morning. I rolled over, checked my overnight notifications, and then opened a video a friend shared on Facebook. What greeted me, however, I could not have prepared myself enough for. A Black man laid helplessly on the ground while a White police officer knelt on his neck. He cried, “I can’t breathe” once. I immediately closed the app and tossed my phone to the other side of the bed. I thought to myself, “Are we really going through this again?” To this day, I haven’t watched the video past the first cry. Only through the news, I later learned the ordeal lasted 8 minutes and 46 seconds and that 46-year-old George Floyd used his last breath to call out for his late mother. “I can’t breathe” was enough for me. Those were also the chilling words Eric Garner cried 11 times as an NYPD officer choked him to death on a sidewalk in 2014. “I can’t breathe” were words I invoked as often as I discussed police violence. I never thought I would hear another Black man cry those words again, but I was forced to relive the trauma on that May morning.
In the weeks following Floyd's killing, “Defund the police” emerged as the rallying cry of protestors and Black Lives Matter supporters across the country, myself included. In response, cities painted “Black Lives Matter” on streets, White actors announced they will no longer play Black characters, while politicians are (yet again) promising symbolic reforms that fall short of addressing the actual problems. The truth is, no amount of training, oversight, and body cameras will prevent police from killing unarmed Black men. In fact, if the last decade has taught us anything, it is that cameras, whether belonging to the police or bystanders, are not a sufficient deterrent to police violence. The shootings of Jason Harrison, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and most recently Floyd, were all caught on cameras, and they are all dead. The problem, therefore, lies with policing itself. And to solve this problem, we must defund the police. That is, we must gradually and strategically shift resources and responsibility away from law enforcement and toward community-based solutions that will address the root causes of social issues and provide the support communities need. This is what we mean by defunding the police.
Politicians needlessly spend astronomical sums of American taxpayers’ dollars on policing yearly. Despite sharp decreases in violent and property crime, policing budgets have tripled since 1977 and continue to expand. In 2017 alone, state and local governments handed over an alarming $115 billion to fund police departments, outfitting them with military gear andand equipment. To do what exactly? Fight ‘crime.’ The irony is that the U.S. spends twice as much on law enforcement as it does on social welfare. This arrangement leaves very few resources for poverty prevention, one of the leading causes of criminal activity. The conclusion here is that this nonsensical approach to public safety continues to treat the symptom, but not the problem itself. This is why we must defund the police.
But make no mistake, the problem is not exclusive to welfare. Over the past decades, law enforcement presence on school campuses has increased drastically, creating more problems without solving any. School-based policing siphons money away from essential services such as teaching, counseling, and intervention programs that actually make schools safer and improve school climate. Today, 14 million children go to schools with police patrolling their corridors but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker to attend to their record levels of depression, anxiety, and trauma. Furthermore, there is no evidence to prove law enforcement mingling with students on school property makes schools safer. Instead, by doing what they are trained to do—detain, handcuff, and arrest—the police funnel children out of classrooms and into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems for often trivial infractions. The educational outcome of millions of poor children and Black and Brown youth would be far different had qualified mental health experts—school psychologists, counselors, and social workers—tended to students’ social and emotional well-being and not the police whose expertise is in law and order. This is reason enough to defund the police.
Nevertheless, the deployment of police officers in schools is emblematic of a bigger problem: too often, law enforcement is asked to solve problems for which they are not best suited. Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old Black woman, for example, was shot and killed in her own home last October because the Dallas Forth police turned up at her door to perform a welfare check. The same fate met Jason Harrison, an African American man whose mother sought help to get him to the hospital. Harrison suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and needed treatment. The police came, but Harrison was taken to the morgue instead. The police shot and killed him within 10 seconds of the front door being opened. Harrison failed to drop a screwdriver he twiddled between his fingers. Jefferson and Harrison should still be alive today, but sadly they are not. Why? The first responders to community crisis are the people who are least equipped to handle them. Defunding the police promises free up resources to change this.
A world where mental crisis and welfare checks are addressed by a highly trained team of mental health professionals, addiction specialists, nurses, social workers, and people with de-escalation and conflict resolution training is what we imagine when we call for a defunding of the police. A world where communities of color are not singled out for harassment, “knee-to-neck” murder and unnecessary contact with law enforcement is what we demand when we call for cuts to police budgets and savings reallocated to community-based alternatives. I am confident that this world we dream of is possible because it has always existed for White communities. As ACLU’s Anthony D. Romero puts it, “White communities are also more likely to see significant investment in community resources that are purposefully and programmatically used to maintain safety, health, and stability, all without police intervention.” By divesting funds from police departments and reinvesting them in community-based services, we will shrink police responsibility, make good on racial equity, and build healthier communities and safer classrooms.
The fear young Black men like me live with is that we could be the next George Floyd crying out, “I can’t breathe.” Defunding the police is the first step in ensuring this does not happen.