Why defunding the police is not a radical idea

prevention Jun 15, 2020

In Social Value practice our allegiance is to outcomes not job descriptions.

The death of George Floyd has been seismic in the conversations around our justice systems and how best to achieve social equity. It has bought into sharp focus the systemic privilege that some in our societies have enjoyed, while others unfairly struggle and sometimes find themselves at the mercy of brutal police and “corrections” services.

As a white woman, I am very fortunate, and would like to acknowledge that I have not experienced discrimination based on the colour of my skin.  I was saddened and incensed to learn about the death of George Floyd and the nature of his killing, and I can only imagine how scared, angry and exhausted those in the Black community in America must feel.  The price he paid is also symbolic of the discrimination experienced by people in the justice systems in two countries that mean a lot to me: The United Kingdom and Australia.

In both these countries we need to do and demand better outcomes from criminal prevention and justice programs. There is a large body of literature showing that socio-economic status is a determinant of both the likelihood of personal offending (putting aside institutional crimes for the moment) and the likelihood that you will have contact with judicial systems including the police[1].

Unfortunately, ethnic minorities are also over represented in both UK and Australian low socio-economic status indicators and in prison populations. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for example, make up 3 per cent of Australia’s population but 29 per cent of the prison population[2].

Defund the police

There has been a flurry of calls to “defund the police” in the last few days.  This is to root out and refresh a culture of racism in police forces.  But these ideas are not far-fetched or extreme.  They build on a healthy movement of practice and research into crime prevention.

The idea does not mean replacing the police, but simply reducing their role and giving them proper support.  Put simply, this is about re-allocating resources towards safety and away from punitive responses to crime.  It is about raising up underprivileged groups and addressing the determinants of crime.

In emergencies this would look like a mental health worker or mediator attending a public disorder situation triggered by someone having a mental health crisis.  A shelter provider might guide someone homeless to a safe place when they are obstructing the streets. Or it would be providing youth clubs for young people who may be vulnerable to delinquent behaviour.

Commission outcomes not services

Too often social programs like these are designed based on guesswork and assumption rather than evidence.  For example, it is assumed that the police are best placed to respond to all emergencies even if they do not require force or detention.

Government commissioning documents are normally riddled with prescribed activities and outputs based on how things have been done in the past. The thread of evidence on what works is often lost.  This further undermines trust in vital social structures like the police, and frankly, it is a waste of money.

There are two easy things which commissioners and anyone designing or delivering a social service can do to improve their effectiveness at the point of commissioning:

1.     Identify delivery success factors (activities or approaches which have been proven to create impact elsewhere) for example:

a.     ex-offender reintegration programs including five community buddies;

b.     or diversion programs to be family-based rather than only engaging with the individual[3].

The evidence base for these factors should be available from a systematic review of similar programs at the point of design.  There is a strong evidence base for many crime prevention programs, but you may need to undertake the review yourself.

2.     Identify intended outcomes: commissioners should request outcomes (not outputs) and evaluate service success based on these.  For example: “a reduction in re-offending” rather than “100 hours of rehabilitation activities per ex-offender”.  The service design to achieve the outcomes can then be left open to the provider.  A Theory of Change showing how and why the service will achieve this outcome (and other outcomes) over several years should then be provided in the tender response.

Co-produce services

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

– Lilla Watson (as part of an Aboriginal activist group, 1970s)

Co-production is an acknowledgement that service professionals (like the police) need the communities they serve as much as the communities need the services.  It is about citizens and professionals sharing power.

I love the quote above from Lilla Watson  because it reminds me that a good and free society is a social contract between all of us.  The idea of co-production puts this into practice by getting service users to work in partnership with those who have helpful skills (professionals) to design, deliver and evaluate better social services.

In the 1970s, the Chicago police approached Nobel prize winning economist, Elinor Ostrom, to help them understand why crime increased on the streets when the police spent more time in their patrol cars and less time walking the streets.

She coined the term “co-production” to explain why police who were constantly in contact with the community were more effective.  They were more available to and trusted by the community. They were also able to use the knowledge and skills of the community to better achieve safety, for example, by sharing and distributing information.

Co-production was more recently popularised in the UK by the New Economics Foundation[4].  This call for deep meaningful engagement matches wisdom in the Social Value space as involving stakeholders is the first of the Social Value principles.

If we want our safety and justice services to be fairer and more effective, then we should combine commissioning for outcomes with the principles of co-production:

·       See people as assets: service users are partners not burdens on a system

·       Build on people’s capabilities: focus on what people can offer not their problems

·       Develop mutuality: design services which are distributed and embedded in communities not centralised and detached

·       Blur the roles between producers and consumers: we need service users to contribute to their safety, it is not “delivered” to them

·       Grow networks: strong peer networks transfer knowledge and build trust.

The Don Dale Youth Detention Centre example

Shocking abuse of the young people in custody at Don Dale Youth Detention centre sparked a national Australian outcry against police brutality in 2016 and triggered a Royal Commission inquiry. Two years ago, I was able to meet some of the young people still in the centre as part of some work I was doing in Darwin.

When I spoke with the young people, the overwhelming message I heard was their desire for “respect”.  It is an important concept in local Larrakia culture, and in this context, it is about being seen and valued by professionals in the criminal justice system.  When respect is given, it is also reciprocated.

The young people often came from chaotic family backgrounds, but regular encounters with white police officers reinforced their feelings of being misunderstood and marginalised: they were “another white person telling them what to do”.

Instead, they talked of elders and community role models who had “good lives” and would “be nice” to them.  These were the individuals who were able to listen to their problems, the individuals who would encourage them to make “wise decisions” and set goals.

We also spoke to the police who are the entry point into custody.  They said they would like less involvement in the young peoples’ lives and acknowledged that they made more progress through school visits than interventions on the street.

A major turning point in the antipathy between law enforcement and the local Aboriginal population was a partnership with the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation.  The Corporation were funded to better protect local people and they set up an outreach patrol.  The patrol can be called instead of the police in instances of intoxication, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour and homelessness.

The patrol response team have no official power, but the community trust them.  Young people related how they had helped them find safer living environments such as relatives’ homes, or they had transported them to the YMCA and other youth centres at night instead of hanging out on the streets.

The new prison management were also exploring different services.  After an attempted break-out, they invited community and guards to engage in a joint mediation with the young people involved.  They had approached community services who could connect the guards with the young people through traditional methods like Yarning Circles and music.

Both the police and the prison were beginning to integrate co-production and focusing more on outcomes.  They stopped assuming they know the right way to deliver services and invited the community to help them build up responsible young people.  This helped both the police and guards have more positive interactions with the young people, which was founded on “respect” for the young people and their community.

Final thoughts: why “defund the police” is not a radical idea

It makes sense to defund bloated police departments that have lost the trust of their communities and instead fund upstream preventative social services.  It is a systemic approach that will go some way to addressing centuries of unjust privilege.

The Black Lives Matter campaign is teaching us the importance of putting the people who are affected by social harms at the centre of  solutions.  I mentioned my whiteness at the beginning of this post because I cannot claim to know what it feels like to walk in the shoes of someone who is marginalised as a result of their skin colour or ethnicity.  That does not mean professional like me should step back, instead, we should lean in as facilitators and hold space for those most affected to co-produce more effective social outcomes with us.

[1]Newburn, T., 2016, Social disadvantage, crime and punishment, LSE Research Online, available at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/68133/1/Newburn_Social%20Disadvantage%20and%20Crime.pdf

[2]Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020, 4512.0 - Corrective Services, Australia, March Quarter 2020

[3] Farrell, J., Betsinger, A. and Hammond, P., 2018, Best Practice in Youth Diversion, The University of Maryland School of Social Services, available at: https://theinstitute.umaryland.edu/media/ssw/institute/md-center-documents/Youth-Diversion-Literature-Review.pdf

[4]New Economics Foundation, 2008, Co-Production: A manifesto for growing the core economy, available at: https://neweconomics.org/uploads/files/5abec531b2a775dc8d_qjm6bqzpt.pdf

Alison Freeman

Alison is a specialist and trainer in social impact and sustainability valuation. She is a leader in EY Australia’s impact measurement services and has published, chaired and spoken widely on impact.