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Opinion: The purpose of police

As police violence increases in the US disproportionately targeting Black people, it is essential to reexamine their purpose and implement safer alternatives.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/edwinbai/" target="_self">Edwin Bai</a>

Edwin Bai

October 19, 2022

In 2021, 1055 people were shot to death by the police in the United States. On top of this mortifying figure, police shootings are one of the leading causes of death for young American men according to The Washington Post. Moreover, the spending on police reached $123 billion, as illustrated by Urban Institute, making the American police force the equivalent of the world’s third-most expensive military, above India and below China. Sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the effectiveness and purpose of police has been called into question, with some slogans like “All Cops Are Bad” and “Defund the Police” gaining traction in popular media. A police force has always been a core part of any society, but due to the ineffectiveness, high cost and unreliability of our law enforcement, it might be time we seek more practical alternatives. 

Despite the fact that our police surpasses all other countries in terms of man count, spending and quality of equipment, it is still grossly ineffective at apprehending criminals and bringing them to justice. In fact, there is even evidence to show that the police are a detriment to American society. As documented by PrisonPolicy, US law enforcement “kill civilians at much higher rates than other countries.” Just this simple statement points to the disservice of police to the American public. Whereas law enforcement in Canada and Australia kill under 10 people per 10 million, the United States triples that number, with an estimated 33.5 people killed per 10 million by law enforcement. This outlier proves that police killings aren’t just caused by “a few bad apples”; it’s an inherent problem within the system that leads to this morbidly high number of police killings. 

A piece of that problem lies within the racial bias apparent within American law enforcement. Ever since George Floyd’s murder, multiple reports about police bias have emerged indicating that law enforcement members tend to be more lenient on white people and harsher on African Americans. In fact, according to Nature, not only are Black men 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police, but they are also “significantly more likely than Whites to have not been attacking [law enforcement]” as stated by research article A Bird’s Eye View of Civilians Killed By Police in 2015. Although white men are more likely to attack police officers and twice as likely to have been armed compared to Black men, it appears that officers are more lenient towards them. Given the discrepancies between the rates at which white people and Black people are killed in proportion to their population, it can be clearly stated that law enforcement in America is racially biased against African Americans. An essential component of any law enforcement is enforcing equality before the law, yet the American police appears to be incompetent at upholding this core value. 

This incompetency is further demonstrated by the sheer ineffectiveness of police officers actually doing their job at apprehending criminals. According to an Alabama Law Review, “police bring less than 2% of criminal defendants to criminal accountability for major crimes.” This is an absolute mockery in comparison to the amount of spending put toward our law enforcement. Whilst American taxpayers put billions upon billions of dollars towards police spending, the results are piddling to what we would expect from a force that practically amounts to a quasi-military. These data prove it plain and simple: the police are vastly incompetent at doing their job. Not only does our police force fail to apprehend even a majority of major crime criminals, but it also disproportionately targets people of color. Coupled with the mockingly high police budget, it is evident that we should start looking for alternatives to the current police force.

Some people may argue that a police force is necessary to maintain law and order within a society, and although this is its intended purpose, the current American law enforcement is not completely capable of fulfilling this mission. As mentioned previously, the police are more of a liability to the American public rather than an essential component of society. When it comes to apprehending criminals, the police aren’t all that effective either. The Journal of Experimental Criminology claims that “the overall effect size for police force size on crime is negative, small and not statistically significant,” echoing the conclusions gathered from the aforementioned data. 

So if the police are ineffective at their job of preventing crime, who can do it better? 

According to a journal from The University of Chicago, the answer lies in redirecting funds from incarceration, which includes police spending, and into social programs. The estimated total reduction in crime ranges from 9.3% at the worst case to over 20% at its best. This study illustrates the viability and potential effectiveness of social programs targeting young Black males as an alternative to law enforcement, proving that there can be better options for reducing crime other than relying on the police. As such, if we as a community are to reduce crime, we should spend more on social programs addressing the root problem of crime rather than law enforcement, which is only a response to crime that is or has already happened and not a fix for its causation. 

Furthermore, we can improve crime prevention by addressing mental health crises, intoxication and substance abusers through social work. As stated by Vox, such “mobile crisis response units” have been proven to be remarkably effective at dealing with non-violent crimes, that otherwise would have been dealt with by law enforcement who are conversely ineffective at addressing such social problems. For example, the social work program, Cahoots, a collaboration between police and community services based in Oregon, has effectively dealt with non-violent police calls by rerouting calls involving homelessness, addiction, or mental illness to a trained team of specialists who deal with these issues. 

As a result, Cahoots has been proven successful in “[treating] those struggling with mental health issues with dignity and respect,” according to a recorded statement by Vox from an Oakland citywide council member. Furthermore, the program even saved the Eugene and Springfield police departments around $15 million a year, proving itself to be a vastly cost-effective program in comparison to modern law enforcement. Whilst the American police is overfunded and underperforming, social work programs such as Cahoot present themselves as highly effective alternatives to the expensive police force. 

As police spending continues to increase and crimes refuse to decrease, it’s clear that the current system of policing isn’t working as intended. Through its many unintended casualties, as well as blatant exhibitions of racism, the police force has shown itself to be pernicious. By not resolving issues of crime despite being heavily funded by taxpayer money, the police have proven themselves to be both costly and ineffective. By not properly addressing issues of mental health and homelessness, the police have demonstrated themselves to be incapable of handling non-violent situations in a respectful manner without throwing them into prison. What exactly is the point of the current system of police?

The police are not the answer to crime; it is a response and a lousy one at that too in America. When faced with a leaky faucet, one does not resolve the issue by holding a bucket at the end, one must address the problem stemming from the broken pipe. As Joe Biden seeks to increase police spending as part of his Safer America Plan, we have to ask ourselves: is this really the right move? Whilst we may not see a drastic change to law enforcement in the next decade, it’s important that we start advocating for police reform and promoting other practical alternatives to police.