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The doctrine of qualified immunity has been used to protect police from civil lawsuits and trials. Here’s why it was put in place.

USA TODAY

In an era of persistent racial and economic inequality, we still spend far more on criminalizing people than we do on helping them.

I live in New York City, where spending on police has increased 18% in the past five years, despite the fact they arrested fewer people than ever in that period.

The annual budget for the New York Police Department now exceeds $11 billion. That’s $11 billion less for public schools, affordable housing, accessible health care and other core services required to build a city that’s fair, equitable and safe.

With the economic fallout of the pandemic, the stakes are higher than ever. According to the Economic Policy Institute, state and local governments face a $1 trillion shortfall by the end of 2021. In what is sure to be a protracted period of austerity, high unemployment and fraying health care and public welfare systems, our communities deserve better and need more than outsize spending on police.

In an era of persistent racial and economic inequality, we still spend far more on criminalizing people than we do on helping them. Nationwide, cities allocate around a third of their general funds to law enforcement. At all levels of government, spending on the apparatus of mass incarceration — including $115 billion annually for police alone — is double what government allocates for public assistance to poor, disabled and low-income Americans.

Despite this massive spending disparity, Americans are wary of calls to “defund the police.” In fact, according to an averaging of polls by FiveThirtyEight, 58% say they oppose it. Why?

For one thing, the “defunding” rallying cry of protesters doesn’t encompass the range of nuanced positions of people in the movement, from total abolition to more moderate calls to divest from police budgets and invest in Black communities. But there is more to it than that.

Most arrests aren’t for violent crimes

Americans have been led to believe that we spend a lot of money on law enforcement simply because the amount of violent crime requires it. Put differently, most Americans believe there are more robbers, so we need more cops. They’ve been misled.

Police don’t spend much of their time catching people who have committed violent offenses. In fact, a recent analysis by The New York Times found that police actually spend only 4% of their time responding to violent crime. More than half is spent on traffic calls and noncriminal matters that can and should be handled by other agencies.

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With calls for police reforms across the U.S., instructors, researchers and lawmakers say officers lack sufficient training on how and when to use force, leaving them unprepared to handle tense situations. (June 12)

AP Domestic

Of the astronomical 10.5 million arrests made each year, only 5% are for violent offenses. Eighty percent are for nonserious, low-level offenses that are often linked to homelessness, mental illness, substance use or poverty. Our communities don’t need more people to be arrested and jailed. We need real assistance and community support.

And too often, enforcement of nonviolent “crimes” escalates into deadly encounters for Black people when police get involved. One need only think of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile or George Floyd, whose interactions with the police began with selling single cigarettes, failing to signal while changing lanes, driving with a broken tail light and passing an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill.

This reality — an overabundance and overuse of police, overreach in Black and poor communities, and overcriminalization — is intentionally obscured by proponents of the status quo who benefit from a credulous public worried about crime spikes. Such fear-mongering is among the oldest tricks in the book.

Today, we see President Donald Trump using it to send federal forces to target “violent” protesters in Democratic-run cities. We hear police leaders — union and brass alike — pointing to misleading short-run statistics to justify expensive, militarized police forces while crime is near historic lows. All that separates “us” from anarchy and depredations of criminals, the argument goes, is a thin blue line. And the effects of this campaign are felt more keenly in Black and brown communities than anywhere else.

Police ill-equipped to meet needs

As a result, the call to “defund” fails to resonate with many Americans, and we are left with police as default first responders, handling crises related to substance use, mental illness and family discord; targeting people experiencing homelessness; and supervising schoolchildren. All things even the police say they’re ill-equipped to do.

There’s a better way, but it requires more imagination than we’ve had before — and political courage.

Across the country, we’re seeing green shoots of this approach with trained, unarmed civilian responses like the violence interrupter programs in Baltimore and New York City, or public health responses in Eugene, Oregon, or Olympia, Washington.

In these cities, community-based support and resources are the answers, not investigations after shootings or jail time for people suffering from a mental health crisis. In June, the Minneapolis City Council, recognizing that years of incremental reform had failed to protect the community, cast a historic vote to dismantle the city’s police agency, scale back its responsibilities and pursue public safety through means other than law enforcement.

Now is not the time to chip away at the edges of policing reform. What we need is a new paradigm of public safety: one that’s about more than crime control, in which arrest and incarceration play a smaller role, and in which cities invest more money and trust in communities — particularly communities of color — instead of policing them.

Nicholas Turner is the president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice.

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