EDITORIAL: Defunding Police is False Choice without Policy Change

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20210304_150110(APN) ATLANTA — To defund the police?  To not defund the police?  That is the question that has been presented to us for over the last year, and which is becoming a major issue in the 2021 City of Atlanta Mayoral Election.

 

Last night, I received a telephone call from a polling firm with a misleading survey apparently commissioned by Antonio Brown, the Mayoral candidate and District 3 Councilman who last year sought to cut the Atlanta Police Department budget by fifty percent.

 

One of the false choices presented in the poll was: Do you support cutting the police budget or keeping it the same?  You could only choose one or the other.  

 

I said I support cutting the police budget only if we change our policies by reducing the number of victimless crimes on the books that we expect police to enforce.  

 

The polling firm then misleadingly recorded my response, dichotomously, as support for cutting the budget; however, without making any note of the condition of policy change which I stated was necessary.

 

I refused to finish the survey, insisting that my answers would not be used to mislead people.

 

But criminal justice reform is not that simple: Until we complete the policy reform work that is required of us, reducing the number of laws that we expect police to enforce, then cutting the police budget would simply result in having fewer officers to enforce the same number of laws, which would make no sense and lead to less police response to violent crimes – that is, crimes that actually have victims.

 

Currently, we task our police with enforcing a panoply of laws, many of which actually promote public safety, and others which merely exist to criminalize and terrorize homeless people. 

 

Chapter 106 of the Part II of the City’s Code of Ordinances is filled with the latter – so-called Quality of Life crimes or “Miscellaneous Offenses”.

 

kwanza hall 2In 2017, then-Councilman Kwanza Hall (District 2) introduced an ordinance to repeal Chapter 106 in its entirety.  It was supposed to prompt a review of each provision, starting a policy conversation.

 

The Law Department, at the leadership of Senior Attorney Amber A. Robinson, recommended that about a dozen provisions be removed because they were preempted by state law or because of other legal reasons.  Robinson’s recommendations were limited to only those laws on the books that were legally problematic; and the Council approved.

 

ivory the greatestAlso in 2017, the Council decriminalized cannabis at the municipal level, at the leadership of the now-late Council Ivory Lee Young, Jr. (District 3), removing the possibility of jail time for minor cannabis possession and instead instituting a monetary fine.

 

However, following the 2017 Municipal Election, our elected officials turned back into pumpkins and they generally forgot about the policy work we had started as a City.

 

Councilman Hall, who had run for Mayor, was no longer on the Council in 2018.  Councilman Young was struggling with cancer and was unable to carry forward the work, until he passed away in late 2018.

 

bond surplus propertyActually, Atlanta Progressive News helped to fill the void.  The present writer, with the help of Councilman Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large), kept the policy change conversation moving forward.

 

In 2019, the Council passed City of Atlanta Ordinance 19-O-1208, repealing the so-called crime of merely being physically present in a “known drug area” within a Drug-Free Commercial Zone.  APN’s News Editor drafted the ordinance and it was introduced by Councilman Bond.

 

fb301Then, also in 2019, the Council passed 19-O-1288, which repealed Chapter 106, Sec. 106-88, the now-former law that had made it a crime to move household goods at night in the City of Atlanta!

 

We were literally arresting two people a year on average for moving household goods at night!  Our police couldn’t respond to a murder because they were busy micromanaging the timing of our movement of household goods.

 

APN’s News Editor had drafted the ordinance, which passed.

 

But there is still more work to be done.

 

We have tasked our police with patrolling the streets at night, looking for minors.  We have tasked our police with looking for children that they can introduce to the prison system.

 

And yet, not every teenager who is outside between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. is outside for the purpose of victimizing others.  Many of them are homeless.  

 

Atlanta continues to struggle with a homeless youth population and a lack of adequate shelter and housing for homeless teens.

 

antonio screenshotBut when APN asked Councilman Brown whether he would introduce an ordinance creating an exception from our curfew laws for teenagers who are homeless or emancipated, he said no.

 

Councilman Brown, instead, wants APD to continue arresting homeless teenagers so that the teenagers can end up in “Homeless Court”, because he believes that is the only way to get homeless teenagers off the street and into shelter.  This, because he urges that there are sexual predators on the street.

 

Meanwhile, while Councilman Brown is out marching in the streets accusing police of being murderers who ought to be defunded, he somehow also wants our police to double as social workers (with half as much funding and staff, and even though social work is not their area of expertise).  

 

Notwithstanding the fact that our homeless youth population could be assaulted, raped, or otherwise harmed in jail, Councilman Brown feels they are safer in jail than on the streets.

 

So, at the end of the day, the people who are calling to defund the APD have failed to put forward a policy reform agenda that would make that possible; and, at least in the case of Mr. Brown, are literally opposing the reforms that are needed to make budget cuts possible.

 

Right now, the people of Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood are up in arms over their perception of an increase in crime and are even talking about seceding and forming a new City of Buckhead.

 

But on both sides we are missing the point.

 

Part of the reason that as taxpayers we are not getting the public safety results that we’re paying for is because we’ve tasked our police with doing too many things that are unrelated to our public safety priorities; and we failed to establish which of these laws are enforcement priorities.

 

And that means, as long as police are tasked with arresting homeless people for asking for money in a tourist area; tasked with arresting homeless teenagers for existing between the hours of 11p.m and 6 a.m.; tasked with arresting homeless people for public urination when what we need are more public restrooms, then the secessionists need to realize that seceding will not solve the crime problem either.

 

Policy change is our only way of of this vicious conundrum.

 

To be sure, fighting over big, gelatinous concepts like Reimagining Public Safety is desirable, but only as a pathway to real change.  “No justice, no peace!” is a worthy sentiment.  But in a way, it’s the easy part.

 

The work of reviewing our criminal laws as a city, and determining which ones continue to serve us and which ought to be repealed – is the hard work that we must complete to get out of our false dichotomy, truly reform criminal justice, and to truly heal the divisions in our community.

 

No false choices will exempt us from the steps we must take in life.  Put that down as my poll answer.

 

(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2021)

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