A few weeks ago, the notion of defunding the police existed primarily on the fringes, among academics and a handful of activists. As the George Floyd protests swept the country and we all focused on the abuses of law enforcement, the idea has become mainstream. The Minneapolis City Council is poised to defund its dysfunctional police department. In Durham, Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson took up the banner on NPR’s All Things Considered last weekend. President Trump, meanwhile, has sought to tie the slogan around Joe Biden’s neck, thinking it will assist his sagging campaign. 

To be clear, defunding the police isn’t so much about eliminating any mechanism of public safety so much as rethinking our relationship with law enforcement and rechanneling the money we spend on cops into programs that will seek to head off violence in the first place. It’s also about demilitarizing the cops and prioritizing mental health, among other things. 

Short of defunding, several lesser reforms are being floated. Last week, Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin signed on to former President Barack Obama’s challenge to reevaluate the city’s use-of-force policies. Several Durham officials, meanwhile, have signaled support for the 8 Can’t Wait campaign, a series of policies aimed at reducing police violence. And Democrats in Congress have unveiled a bill that would limit officers’ immunity from lawsuits and ban chokeholds on the federal level. 

There’s one element to these efforts that’s missing, I think: In North Carolina, there is almost no police transparency. Internal affairs investigations and officers’ personnel files are closed to the public, which means we’re supposed to trust the police to police themselves. Never in the history of law enforcement has this been a good idea. 

Whatever the next thing looks like, what we have isn’t working. If it were, you wouldn’t see tens of thousands of people in the streets protesting in every city in the country. It’s not just George Floyd. It’s the fact that marginalized communities have long been overpoliced, that Black men have been locked up at disproportionate rates, that Black families have been torn apart by our carceral policies. 

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com. 

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