Proponents of “defunding” the police claim to be seeking justice and equality for minority communities. It’s the right goal, but the approach risks moving our country in the opposite direction.
Economic empowerment is essential to tackling racial disparities. The line between economic opportunity — the ease of finding a job, opening a business, accessing loans — and the ideals of justice and equality is straight and direct. Earning a living gives people a voice and a means of participating in the life of their community.
But economic opportunity requires the peace and security that effective law enforcement provides. The stories of so many who live in neighborhoods destroyed by rioters in recent weeks are evidence of how violence, destruction and theft destroy a lifetime of meaningful work. Nobody would call the dashed hopes and dreams of an urban business owner justice and equality.
Prior to the coronavirus shutdown, we were seeing evidence of a more inclusive economy: black unemployment had hit record lows, incomes were rising at a faster rate, and the gap between the unemployment rate for black workers and white workers had fallen to just 2 percentage points — the lowest on record. Much room for improvement remained, but strong job creation and a demand for workers were steadily chipping away at stubborn inequities in economic outcomes.
Participation in the marketplace is a powerful way to narrow racial disparities in our country. It doesn’t merely translate into a higher material standard of living, but it also provides the resources to champion charitable causes, support candidates for office, help neighbors in need, and build better schools, more vibrant churches, and more effective nonprofits.
But the kinds of interactions that make local economies work are not possible without peace and security. Property that’s not protected won’t be improved and used. Customers won’t travel to stores when that trip may put life and health at risk. And banks and other financial institutions won’t be viable where storefronts and parking lots are unoccupied.
Reformers calling to “defund the police” may be getting affirmation on social media, but businesses are hearing ill-defined plans that could put safety, property and hard-fought investments at greater risk.
For police reform to truly advance justice and equality, it must offer a credible path to the peace and security on which employers, entrepreneurs and investors depend. That doesn’t rule out bold reform, but it does rule out bombastic rhetoric detached from a clear, credible, logical explanation of how the proposed changes can address the full set of needs that communities have. Calls for “defunding police” have fallen well short of that standard.
It’s clear that many communities are mired in conflict, plagued by an absence of peace and security, and as a result lack the economic opportunity necessary to pursue justice and equality. It’s important to understand how changes in policing could be helpful in those contexts, and then act to make those changes. But where police reform is warranted, it needs to be specific about how the solution addresses both injustice and security.
Embattled communities need policing that treats everyone with equal dignity and that delivers the security and stability that underpins the opportunity to build a livelihood. Justice and economic vibrancy aren’t at odds with each other — they depend on each other. The more we can keep these principles together in our national discourse, the more tightly we can unify Americans around police reform that fosters peace and expands opportunities for everyone.