The debate over defunding police has become part of a broad ideological battle over how and when law enforcement should face public accountability. Police Accountability Report hosts Taya Graham and Stephen Janis examine this debate in the context of their own reporting on police overreach and abuse. The pair breaks down the flaws in the anti-defund argument by revealing how law enforcement partisans have successfully avoided substantive oversight and public accountability.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Stephen Janis
Stephen Janis: Hello, this is Stephen Janis, I’m the host of the Police Accountability Report. And I’m here with my reporting partner Taya Graham. Taya, how are you?
Taya Graham: I’m good, thank you. Thank you for having me, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: So today we wanted to have a discussion, not necessarily show a video, but have a discussion about a concept that we feel has been completely, to a certain extent, distorted, but also is reflective of the true nature of policing and what we’re always talking about in our show, the system that makes bad policing possible. And that idea is the idea of defund the police. It has, of course, burst on the scene in 2020 after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police, and has since become a rallying cry, not just for activists who want to reform policing, but also for politicians on certain ideological sides who want to maintain or expand policing, and also, to a certain extent, discredit any type of accountability for police at all. Taya, am I summarizing defund the police correctly? Is that your perception of it, before we get into the details of how we’re going to analyze it? Do you have a different take on what defund the police means?
Taya Graham: I think defunding the police in a lot of people’s eyes is simply reallocating resources. Resources that have been overwhelmingly devoted to policing as the primary form of public safety. Instead, communities want to reconsider how that public safety money could be used in other ways, whether it means rec centers, making sure kids have something positive to do after hours, whether or not it means that they increase mental health services in the community. There are a lot of different ways that defunding the police simply means funding other supports that can help a community be healthy, strong, and safer.
Stephen Janis: But through some twist of American ideological political souffle, the idea of defund the police has suddenly become another example of either wholly embracing policing without any accountability, or somehow tearing policing down in ways that really I don’t think the idea was intended to suggest. And that rhetoric has taken the idea out of the realm of accountability and turned it into a sledgehammer, an ideological sledgehammer. Right, Taya?
Taya Graham: Absolutely. The way that the rhetoric of the discussion on defund the police has been shaped, it’s as if mainstream media, and I think quite a few politicians have fed into this idea, and that is, you cannot want to have good policing and community safety and to defund the police and allocate taxpayer dollars elsewhere. You can’t hold two thoughts simultaneously. It’s if they think the American public cannot think about public safety and having good police at the same time saying there needs to be police reform and that there can be a reallocation of resources, as if we can’t hold both thoughts in our minds simultaneously. And I think that’s really insulting to the American public.
Stephen Janis: Yes, you’re right, it’s insulting, but also it’s important because we’ve always talked about this on the show. That if you said to me, if I was a taxpayer or a resident of a city, you either support the department of transportation, sanitation service, or you’re against it. You can’t look at it and say, is it effective or efficient? [crosstalk]
Taya Graham: Right, that’s so absurd. So let’s say we wanted to do a fiscal analysis of our department of sanitation to make sure that they had enough funds and that the funds that they were using were actually going –
Stephen Janis: And getting results.
Taya Graham: …Getting results. That your trash was actually getting picked up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And that if I chose to question that, not only would I be shouted down, but my patriotism would be questioned. I mean, that’s absurd.
Stephen Janis: It’s absurd, yeah. And it’s absurd to think about that in any other question, in any other public service that we look at or any other governmental institution. Which raises a question, of course, why? Why is policing, and to a certain extent, our military militarism, in this exceptional space where… I’ve always wanted to do, as a reporter, break down the efficacy of policing. We’ve seen some studies over time that say the police do help prevent crime, but mostly it’s a wash. And I think, especially in cities like Baltimore that devote a large portion, twice more in policing than education, it’s a critical question. Also in communities like Milton, where we have seen, what, Taya? I mean –
Taya Graham: Well, let’s think of it like this. For example, you mentioned Milton but I just want to say for Baltimore City, if paying police departments more were a guarantee of public safety, my God Baltimore City would be one of the safest cities in the United States. And what we’ve seen, for example, like you mentioned Milton, and a small town like Milton has roughly 2,500 people in it – I know high schools that were bigger – That their police department receives $1.2 million a year, and that this budget has inflated dramatically since 2016. I have to wonder, are the residents of Milton, are these taxpayers actually getting twice the public safety? Do they feel two times safer? Are crimes being solved at two times a higher rate? Are things really better with their police department budget swollen so much? And I would argue the Milton residents that have reached out to us, the emails we have read, the Facebook messages that we have read, the residents of Milton that have reached out to me don’t seem to think so.
And in fact, this swelling of the police department budget has led to really aggressive policing, almost a form of over enforcement. And let me give you an example of that. One resident who reached out to me told me that he’d been pulled over nine times in the past year and a half. And for very small things like a tail light being out, just very minor things. The person said, because I have a beat up old car, I’m pulled over all the time. Was that actually making the community safer, having this person have to pay fees and fines? Is that actually helping anyone or is it just squeezing residents for more money? I think that’s a fair question.
Stephen Janis: It’s a great question, and it brings up the idea that we were going to talk about, which is how policing is a type of governmental institution that is subject to this idea that we’re going to talk about on this show and another show that’s called the policy of exceptionalism. And the idea came from both of us when we were covering bill reform here in Maryland. As you know, Taya, Maryland, a couple years ago, the judiciary approved new guidance for judges saying that a person should not be denied bail because they can’t pay, or not be denied freedom prior to trial because they couldn’t afford it. It was an edict to judges to not impose onerous bail on people who couldn’t afford it.
And one of the interesting things is you and I started looking into the statistics about bail. Because if you just watch the mainstream media, you get a total picture that people are jumping bail all the time, and people aren’t showing for trial, and murderers are walking around the streets. But what we learned was at that time, 94% of the people who had bail showed up for trial, and that during the period of time when they implemented the bail reform, that number actually went up slightly.
Taya Graham: Right. Didn’t it actually go up to 96% of people actually showed up for their court date? So I think that begs the question, is this sort of bail reform effective? Well, I think it says yes. But what startles me, and I know we’ve had discussions about this before, Stephen, is how the mainstream media has approached this. Because as opposed to looking at the 96% of people who are actually showing up –
Stephen Janis: Which you wouldn’t really know unless you read the reports.
Taya Graham: Right, that’s true. You have to dig into the numbers. But instead of focusing on the 96% of people who are actually showing up for their court date, they’ll find the one person, the one person who didn’t show up or who was released on bail and committed a criminal act.
Stephen Janis: Yes. In other words, it’s called policy by exceptionalism. It’s a concept I see quite often in criminal justice. You can look back to the Republican era of the Willie Horton case, where at the time presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, who was a governor in Massachusetts, had implemented this program that allowed inmates who had served most of their time to be released on weekends to work, something like that. Willie Horton got out and raped and killed a woman. But there were thousands of inmates who benefited from the program. It was a horrible thing, horrible, horrible, horrible. But it became policy by exceptionalism. And ever since then, even our own Democratic governors like Martin O’Malley would never approve bail on parole for anybody. And in fact, one of the legislative efforts is to take the governor out of that, because the politics are so strict. But the politics are one case.
One case is tragic, but one case you can’t make good policy on a single case. So the question becomes, why is policing subject or beneficial to this policy of exceptionalism where you take one case that strikes tremendous fear in people’s hearts and gets legislated? Now contrast that with a thing like healthcare where you and I have reported consistently on people who can’t afford their diabetes medicine, or people who have gone bankrupt because of this healthcare system, and you will not find legislators assembling. And in fact, Congress, because it could not pass in the Build Back Better the government’s ability to negotiate prescription prices, they just passed a bill that would simply target insulin. So the same ability to manipulate the political process and make policy based on exception doesn’t exist for other facets of society, it only seems to exist maybe in policing and maybe in military.
And why is that? And I think the reason that I think that we have come to some conclusion about, or a reason we want to suggest and we would love to hear people’s opinion on this, is that these institutions are firmly ensconced in the economic inequality that defines this country. They are firmly in the hands of the elite, benefit elitism, and benefit the people who need to force people to work at low wages and in difficult conditions, or live in difficult conditions, and not have the political efficacy to change those positions. I think when you see institutions like policing or bail reform that are quite malleable to this idea of political exceptionalism or policy by exceptionalism, they tend to be firmly ensconced in the inequality that defines our system, Taya.
Taya Graham: Stephen, I have to agree with you wholeheartedly. That underpinning this is that this supports the status quo, and the status quo supports, essentially, a millionaire, multimillionaire, billionaire class of people who want their power and their money and their property protected. But there are two other things that feed into this. There are two prongs that lead into the great mouth of the river of inequality, and that is the media discourse and the political rhetoric. And the media discourse – And I will give mainstream media a little bit of sympathy on this – Is that they seek out the exception, they seek out the person who jumps bail. They don’t report every day, this person had their bail removed, or didn’t receive bail at all, they were able to leave on –
Stephen Janis: Save their family thousands of dollars.
Taya Graham: Exactly. They were able to leave on their own recognizance, they showed up to their court date successfully, and everything went fine. The mainstream media’s not going to report on that every day. They’re going to report on the one time that something went horribly, tragically wrong by the same token on the other side of that. And I have to say, I have some sympathy because people, believe it or not, don’t want you reporting on good news, people don’t stick around for that, unfortunately. And that’s what a lot of media organizations have been taught.
The second half of that is the political rhetoric. And there are a lot of legislators, a lot of politicians who want to find a way to make their name known. They want to have a soapbox they can stand on, they want to have a way to be able to raise campaign dollars, and they will find that exceptional case and use it as a way to say how they’re tough on crime and how they’re going to keep you safe. And they will use that one case of someone not doing the right thing when they were not given bail, and they will use that to make their political career. So we’re being manipulated on more than one side here, but it all serves the political elites, as you said.
Stephen Janis: I think it goes back to the fundamental original, let’s say, origin story of policing, which goes back to Sir Robert Peel, who was a prime minister of Britain in the 19th century – Or of the United Kingdom. And the reason that he started the professional police force was because his father was an industrialist whose mills kept getting destroyed by angry workers who –
Taya Graham: Miserable, angry workers.
Stephen Janis: …So he starts a police department, he comes up with these Peelian principles and you can look him up online, but a lot of them professed for transparency. And because people are like, no, we don’t want this force. But from the beginning, they had to come up with a way to sell this to people, because really it’s not in people’s best interest. And I think, Taya, one of the things that we’ve seen consistently over time is that one of the main focuses of urban policing or policing in poor communities is to decrease the political efficacy of the population. I mean, the people that we talk to in places like Milton who know they’re getting screwed find it very hard to fight back against the government because they’re constantly under the government’s thumb. Like you said, nine tickets here, 10 tickets, they’re getting pulled over for every little thing. After a while you become entangled and you become a person who can’t really exercise their rights in any efficient way, they just say you’re a criminal.
Taya Graham: You’re right. What it does, if it wasn’t the goal to steal people’s political efficacy, it’s certainly the result. And I’ve actually read studies that have shown that when people are pulled into the criminal justice system, their political efficacy is truly damaged. They don’t feel that their vote makes a difference, there are so many different ways that they feel that they don’t have –
Stephen Janis: They’re almost afraid to.
Taya Graham: Right. They don’t have any influence or any power over their own government which is supposed to serve them.
Stephen Janis: Well, what’s really twisted about it is we don’t allow inmates to vote, and we oftentimes, in many states, will not allow people to get their right back to vote unless they finish probation or parole or pay their fines like in Florida. And then in rural communities where these people are stowed away, gets the population to determine their representation.
Taya Graham: So there’s this huge amount of people walled away behind cages that have had their right to vote taken away, but yet their political power is still being used. I mean, honestly that sounds unAmerican.
Stephen Janis: Well, and the thing that’s interesting, when I read the biography of Sir Robert Peel because I was interested about the formation of policing, one of the things they talk about is that he had a real tough time selling it. People really were scared that a professional armed force of police would do nothing but turn on the people they purported to serve. And it’s always been a dilemma of policing, because you can understand, you see the way justice is administered in this country. Poor people or working-class people, let’s say working-class people, have a much tougher time fighting the system. And I think that’s what we encounter throughout our shows, working-class people who end up in situations… Like a person, one of the cop watchers we’ve talked about, Otto the Watchdog, who gets a very simple charge of disorderly conduct for holding a sign that people found offensive. And the next thing he knows he’s being charged with felony child endangerment because he went camping, to be able to show up at trial.
Taya Graham: So that makes me think of Joseph Davis, who’s a person who we recently did a PAR episode on, and he’s a person who paid his debt to society. He admitted he made a mistake and he’s been turning his life around. And he had the misfortune of walking down a street that didn’t have a sidewalk and had a police officer pull him over. And when he pulled out his camera to record the encounter, I have to say that it seems that escalated it with the police officer. And that the police officer became more aggressive when he pulled out his cell phone for his own protection.
So imagine you’ve worked hard to turn your life around, you’ve already lost a few years of your life to the criminal justice system, and now you’re really doing your best to take care of your family and you’re on the right track. And all of that is jeopardized in one moment by a police officer pulling you over for walking down the street that didn’t have a sidewalk. And to me that is absurd, that that puts his freedom at risk. It put his family at risk, it put everything that he’s tried to build back up in his life at risk. So we have to ask ourselves, are we really allowing people to pay their debt to society and giving them a second chance? I mean, don’t we all deserve a second chance?
Stephen Janis: Well, I think it shows, fundamentally, how uncomfortable the elites of this country are with the notion of freedom, especially the Constitutional rights that have been outlined that are quite limited, but have been more limited and overwhelmed by modern policing. I think it’s quite clear that the Fourth Amendment has gone by the wayside when you have things like asset seizure, forfeiture, which technically you can have your property taken away before you’ve been charged with a crime, and you can still lose it even if you’re never convicted of a crime.
So I think that there is a tremendous amount of what you call democratic anxiety with the elites because I think to a certain extent they know they’re screwing over the working class and it causes a lot of anxiety. I don’t know if you saw it, there was just an email from an Applebee’s executive extolling the virtues of inflation, he’s saying that it would bring workers back because poor people or working-class people are much more subjected or much more affected by inflation. And people just quit en masse because he was saying… And I think some of the similar aspects of that work their way through the criminal justice system.
Taya Graham: That’s so interesting. He said the quiet part out loud, you’re not supposed to say, wow, our economy is punishing people. That’s going to help me.
Stephen Janis: Right. And similarly, we’ve dealt with people like… Another thing about Otto the Watchdog, he had to wear an ankle monitor for two or three years, it cost him several hundred dollars a month. I mean, several hundred dollars a month to a working class person like myself or you is a significant amount of our income. And there are so many people who, we were just talking to someone who will be on our future show who, they issued a warrant because she hadn’t paid a fine. You know what I’m talking about, right?
Taya Graham: Right. They issued a warrant for her because she hadn’t paid a fine in relation to an arrest for, I think it was not obeying a lawful order. What was that lawful order? The officer told her to be quiet. That is why she was taken away to jail. He basically didn’t like the fact that she kept talking. And might I add this woman was not yelling, screaming, using profanity, pointing her fingers in the officer’s face, no. She simply had the audacity to have her camera phone up and to tell the officer that she didn’t agree with what he was doing.
Stephen Janis: So I think the takeaway here is that we have to be very careful when we look at how policy is made regarding things like policing. We have to be careful about the discussion surrounding defund the police. We should resort to things like, we want to hold police accountable, or accountability in spending, or we want to know where our dollars are going, we want to know if it’s effective. I understand defund the police as a catchall phrase, but the people who want to succeed in this battle for public resources and for a better community have to fight back against the rhetoric. And what we’re trying to do here is declaw the underlying imperative that the working class is suffering because of this, because of these policies by exception. I really wish it worked for healthcare, for example.
Taya Graham: It surprises me, because so often we hear from our politicians about how we need to be fiscally responsible. That if we work hard, put our money away, save for our retirement appropriately, then we will have that American dream, the chicken in every pot, 2.2 kids in the house and the garage, and things are going to work out for us. And they tell us to be fiscally responsible. But as soon as we turn around and say, hey, we demand a little fiscal responsibility and accountability from your government services, from your agencies, we’re suddenly told to shut up.
Stephen Janis: Well. And so that’s why we’re discussing this. I think we should always look at these types of institutions, see if there’s a policy of exceptionalism, and then think about the underlying imperative that drives that institution and question this process that is bringing us unaffordable healthcare but plenty of police cars. And so, Taya, we have our next episode coming up next week about Rebecca, and we’re going to be doing podcasts like this where we talk about theoretical concepts that we think of in regards to giving people tools to analyze policing and to fight back against some of the rhetoric that police… Because I can say truthfully after being a member of the more traditional mainstream media, police have a lot of access to us in a regular newsroom, and so we want to help as much as possible. And as you can hear in the background, our own Baltimore police –
Taya Graham: Our own Baltimore police are at work.
Stephen Janis: Yeah. So I want to thank you, Taya, for joining me, thank you.
Taya Graham: Thank you so much. And Stephen, I just wanted to say, your points were absolutely so necessary. We really just want to give people the tools to be able to analyze this and to be able to push back. Because, just like Stephen said, police departments have incredible access to mainstream media organizations, they also have press information officers, people who sit around all day thinking about how to craft a narrative that is going to put the police apartment in the best light. And it can make it difficult to break through that wall of information to see what’s really going on. So we hope that these conversations are going to be helpful, and of course we want your feedback too.
Stephen Janis: Yeah. And so this is Stephen Janis for the Police Accountability Report and The Real News Network. And Taya, I’ll let you take it out.
Taya Graham: Absolutely. Thank you so much for joining us. And remember, please be safe out there.