Until the early 1800’s, most of the United States relied on scheduled night-watches to keep the city safe at night. Volunteers would sign up for a certain day and time to watch over parts of their town. The earliest records of the night-watching system began in Boston in 1636, followed by New York in 1658 and Philadelphia in 1700.
Night-watch officers were not high class people, per say. According to Gary Potter, a crime historian from Eastern Kentucky University, many upper class citizens would pay someone to do the night-watch for them. Often officers did not wear badges because “these guys had bad reputations to begin with, and they didn’t want to be identified as people that other people didn’t like,” said Potter in an interview with TIME Magazine.
Throughout the country the early beginnings of police (the night-watch officers) had different jobs depending on the location. For example, in St. Louis police were founded mostly to protect people from Native Americans who were thought to be dangerous. Also, many night-watches and very early police forces in the South were meant to serve as slave patrols. In 1704, the colony of Carolina created the first slave patrol which served to “maintain the economic order and assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property,” wrote Potter in A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing.
The night-watch system was unsustainable and unreliable for a multitude of reasons. People who were put on watch duty often slept or drank throughout their shift. Community members could also be placed on duty as a form of punishment and ironically the upper class would enlist criminals or community thugs to do the night-watches for them. Ultimately the biggest reason for moving into more organized police forces is increasing urbanization, more people moved into urban areas causing communities to grow too large for the night watches to control.
As a result of industrialization, many people flocked to cities hoping to find steady employment, particularly in factories. In addition, a large wave of immigration brought millions of people to America’s urban areas. As populations grew, public disorder and mob violence- usually directed at immigrants or African Americans- became an issue. As bigger populations became too difficult to manage with the formerly used night-watch system, cities had to institute publicly-funded, organized police forces.
In 1838, the city of Boston established the first American police force. During this time, the Port of Boston was experiencing economic growth due to the increase in commercial activities and manufacturing, as well as the influx of immigrants and new railroads. Many locals made money through maritime commerce in the Port of Boston, and businesses hired citizens to protect their goods and oversee their transport. These businesses then chose to reallocate their funds towards creating and maintaining a public police force that would have full-time officers with continuous employment. In 1845, New York City established a municipal police force, followed by Albany and Chicago in 1851, New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1853, Philadelphia in 1855, and Newark and Baltimore in 1857. By the 1880s all major U.S. cities had municipal police forces in place. These police departments had set rules and regulations and were accountable to a centralized governmental authority.
The development of policing in the Southern states followed a different path, as police forces originated as slave patrols, which served the purpose of catching, apprehending, and returning runaway slaves to their owners, as well as to deter slaves from revolting. Although the Civil War abolished slavery in the Unites States, policing institutions in the South continued to target Afrrican Americans by controlling freed slaves who became laborers and by enforcing Jim Crow laws.
Vollmer believed strongly that police need to protect their community and separate themselves from the unprofessional activities they had done before.”
— Daniel Glossenger
Beginning in the 1920s, there was a push for police professionalization. This push was led by then Berkeley police chief, August Vollmer. With this professionalization came new technology such as automatic weapons, lie detectors, eugenics and fingerprinting.
“Vollmer believed strongly that police need to protect their community and separate themselves from the unprofessional activities they had done before.” Glossenger said. However this national movement professionalization didn’t solve the problem of corrupt policing. Throughout Prohibition police took bribes from the upper class in exchange for doing their bidding. They also continued their pattern of violence against the lower classes. This was done through a heavy focus on vice laws regarding alcohol, cannabis and prositution. These laws primarily targeted lower class people, furthering the cycle of violence and oppression towards them.
“I can’t breathe.” These words, uttered multiple times by a 46 year old black man named George Floyd right before his death from having his neck pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee, took the nation’s attention and echo on the surfaces of Black Lives Matter posters, murals mourning Floyd’s death, T-shirts that NBA stars wore during pregame warm-ups, and in the minds of countless individuals around the world.
As Floyd’s brutal murder made it to the headlines, the nation erupted into outcries against police violence, the circulation of #JusticeforFloyd hashtags and many other posts dedicated to victims of police brutality on social media, and controversial riots.
Floyd’s death, which occurred on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, led to a massive movement that reflects the first international uprising of anti policing perspectives that spurred six years ago after the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri.
For Ferguson’s 3rd Ward Councilwoman Fran Griffin and St. Louis Post Dispatch photographer David Carson, the Ferguson protests became their daily lives.
Carson had taken a multitude of Pulitzer Prize winning close-up photos from different perspectives of the protesters holding their hands up, looters breaking into convenience stores and police officers tear-gassing rioters at Ferguson riots.
“On the first day [at the riots], I had no idea how large this would become,” Carson said, “I was out there, covering the events in my community, because that’s what I’ve been doing for years. And that’s what I continue to do. As it turns out, Ferguson was known around the world, and that’s something I never thought I would do. Ferguson is 10 miles from the front door of my house. I’ve been out there over the years covering other things. It [the Ferguson uprising] kind of took on its own life on social media and I was there to document it along the way.”
For Fran Griffin, the Ferguson protests were even more personal. Griffin, a black woman who formerly worked full-time as an office manager for a health and dental clinic and a mother of three, had lived in Ferguson since 2005. Griffin looks back at the events that led to her becoming heavily involved in the Ferguson protests in 2014, BLM activism and her later involvement in politics.
Before moving to Ferguson, Griffin had lived in Canfield, Missouri, where she would later return to mourn the death of Michael Brown Jr. with other residents.
Even in a time of us just grieving together, we were trying to figure out ways to address it”
— Fran Griffin
“The place [in Canfield] where I was raised was the same place where my mother and her siblings were raised. My grandfather had owned that house for years … So for me, the neighborhood was very family, family oriented. We were the type of community where you could literally go on anybody’s porch because everybody had grown up with everybody,” she said. “And so when I moved out to Ferguson, for me, it was different. That sense of a close community was not there. And when I went to Canfield in 2014, which was the day after Michael Brown was killed, I felt that for the first time, I felt the sense of community again. I mean, even in a time of us just grieving together, we were trying to figure out ways to address it without even knowing who it is that we should be addressing because a lot of it just simply weren’t active in the community. We were living there, but we weren’t active and having conversations with each other, and realizing that some of the things that we dealt with in terms of the police — it wasn’t something that we were just simply experiencing ourselves. Everybody in the community was experiencing the same things. And so from that point, like, we really really started coming together as a community for the first time, which was out of a tragedy. But the sense of belonging, the sense of connecting and the sense of us coming together as one was really, really strong.”
Griffin reflects on how these conversations led to an attempted sit-in at the police station and a protest march from Canfield Road to West Florissant that the police attempted to prevent with riot gear and batons.
“I saw the police line open up, and a police car literally just drove through the crowd [of protestors]. And as they drove through the crowd, people jumped out the way and just picked up whatever they could. And from that point, it just went from zero to one hundred,” Griffin said. “The police started shooting rubber bullets at people we took off running. My daughter who was seven at the time was so scared. We were running hand in hand and she literally broke away from my hand to run around the building to get away from the shock of what was happening for her. I’ve always raised my kids not to fear anybody, to always speak the truth, and to stand up for what’s right. And so in my mind, if I couldn’t do anything else, it would be to keep my body [protesting]. I literally came out the very next day and the day after that, and the day after that, because I refused to go inside.”
As the Ferguson protests reached national headlines and more Americans began to see what protestors like Griffin and photographers like Carson were witnessing first hand, Carson became more aware of how important it was to capture the nuanced relationship between the Ferguson movement and the police force.
“You can’t define a protest as one thing, because in one moment, a protest can be both joyful and tragic. And I think you have to be aware of that, as a newspaper photographer that people will base their opinions on what these events look like based on your photographs,” Carson said. “So, I tried to capture that full range of emotions … because, you know, these social movements are complex … As a local newspaper, we would be negligent if we didn’t report on these events. It was one of the most surreal things of the world, though, to be out at some of these events the night before and then sitting in my living room and hearing President Barack Obama talk about them on live television. Yeah, it was crazy. I was right there and I knew that the president and all these people were seeing these photos and that were helping shape their perspective of what was going out there so I felt that responsibility to really do a good job.”
Not only did the murder of Michael Brown and other instances of police violence appearing in the media cause a massive upheaval in Black Lives Matter protests, but it also resulted in a surge of African Americans, including Fran Griffin, turning to politics for reformation.
Griffin, who found out through the Ferguson riots that the issues such as the extensive amount that she was ticketed by police officers during her 20’s and her inability to pay off her warrants until her 30’s were not problems that only she faced, but also in predominantly black neighborhoods around the country.
Determined to learn about and eradicate the systematic racism in the city’s legislature, Griffin joined the Neighborhood Policing Steering Committee (one of the organizations that were established after Ferguson signed the long term Consent Decree which implements plans to reform the unconstitutional racial bias in policing, municipal court practices, and increase community engagement) and began attending city council meetings.
“We saw that there were people in those seats that were supposed to represent us but were not trying to put money into certain parts of the community. I knew there was something I needed to do in terms of being able to represent people without voices,” Griffin said.
In 2016, Griffin ran for councilwoman with a write-in campaign dedicated to addressing the community’s needs. Even though she did not win, she gained the support of many community members that she met during the campaign. In 2019, she ran again and won.
“I’m not your average politician,” Griffin said. “You’re not going to see the, you know, the collar and everything because I told myself that if I’m going to do this work, I have to be as authentic as possible. I can’t pretend to be something that I’m not and then try to get other people to believe in me when what I’m showing is not who I really am. So I told myself, I have to be authentic in it, you know, and I’ve stayed that way. I will stay that way. I’m definitely not considered a traditional politician. I don’t even consider myself a politician. I consider myself a public servant. Because that’s what my responsibility is: to serve the public.”
Since she became a councilwoman, Griffin had worked with other council members under the Consent Decree to reduce the number of police officers in Ferguson (a city with a demographic of almost 70% black residents), increase diversity within what originally was a virtually all-white police department and offer police training designed to restrict the force used by police officers during arrests and increase policing accountability.
“If we have a community that is predominantly one particular culture, everyone knows how to communicate. There’s no language barrier, there’s no culture barrier, and not only that, they [police officers] also know what an oppressive system does to a community, because they’ve experienced it themselves, so they’re a little more tolerant on how to deal with the issues,” Griffin said.
Griffin has also been trying to move Ferguson forward economically and socially with plans of providing more social services to assist financially and emotionally troubled community members in order to reduce crime and arrest rates as well as more businesses.
“Originally, they [the city] were generating revenue off of fines and fees. Now that those are no longer in place, we need to deal with the economics of our community. In order to keep Ferguson Ferguson, we need to generate revenue, so that comes with businesses in the area. We got two streets in the city of Ferguson–South Florissant and West Florissant. If you go down South Florissant, you see nothing but businesses. You go down West Florissant and it’s a desert. If we can put businesses on both streets, then that means more revenue for the city. More sales tax that goes towards our community, our school districts, taking care of basic needs like keeping the grass cut and maintaining street lights,” Griffin said.
She also adds that she and the other council members are working on forming a reparations committee consisting of individuals with educational background in Black History, the City of Ferguson or economics to design a comprehensive plan that creates and lays out the structure for economic development within Ferguson for the next twenty years through a “racial equity” lens.
As political demographics and the general public’s view on policing have continued to shift since the Ferguson uprising and the death of George Floyd, David Carson exhibits optimism for more understanding and equity in the future.
Michael Brown’s name has taken on a whole symbiology of its own”
— David Carson
“Michael Brown’s name has taken on a whole symbiology of its own. His father has an entire organization called Chosen for Change that is dedicated to keeping
the memory of his son alive … If you do some research on this [Trayvon Martin’s murder], I think you’ll see that Black Lives Matter was barely a blip on social media prior to Ferguson. In a way, Michael Brown’s death breathed life into Black Lives Matter. For me, Ferguson itself was the second civil rights movement … and while I think the country still has a very long way to go to rectifying this, change is only going to happen through some tough conversations and at least there are some going on now. Hopefully, we will start to see some more solid changes.”
Councilwoman Griffin also demonstrates hope for the younger generations’ ability to eradicate systemic racism in higher institutions.
“My daughter, my 7-year-old, was the one that stuck with me like glue the whole time … so she saw a lot. She experienced a lot. Unfortunately, it took a toll on her, as far as the trauma that she saw as a young kid. But, it definitely made her a much stronger person,” Griffin said. “Those babies that came out on the streets saw what we saw, I knew that when they became of age … yeah, you’re talking about some fighters. They [police force] did not know what they created by doing what they did. And so now we’ve got a whole other generation of strong leaders in the making that I am so proud of. Like, I am so proud of them because they’re not willing to give up either. They’ve seen from a very early age, the reality of what happens in our communities. They got a quick lesson and they are refusing to back down just like everybody else. So I know this change is going to happen in my lifetime. I feel it.”
Police departments are mostly funded by municipal tax money, but state and federal taxes also provide departments around the United States with funds. However, sometimes taxes do not provide as much money as the department or the city wants. This leads police departments to seek out other sources of revenue, like ticket quotas.
Whether police quotas are real or not has been debated for years, and while departments do not give their officers quotas, some set “productivity goals.”
An example of quotas was used to increase police revenue is the Ferguson Police Department. According to the Department of Justice’s Report on Ferguson, the city did have some emphasis on profit gains. The focus on profit gains ultimately had an effect on the Ferguson Police Department’s law enforcement practices which made profit collection a higher priority than complying with the citizens’ safety needs.
In 2010, Ferguson’s Chief of Police Thomas Jackson was notified by the City of Ferguson’s Finance Director that if ticket writings did not have a large increase by the end of the year that “it will be harder to significantly raise collections next year… Given that [they] are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall.” (DOJ).
Again, three years later in 2013, the City Finance Director contacted the City Manager and said that he once again contacted the Chief of Police to increase revenues by 10%, in which the Chief responded, saying that he would try. In the Department of Justice’s investigation, they asked Ferguson police officers of all ranks whether or not the FDP was focused on profit collection, to which they responded that it was “stressed heavily” by City leadership.
As previously mentioned, taxes do fund police stations. But, as shown by the Report on Ferguson, some police stations also rely on revenue funded by tickets. This can ultimately lead to unjust ticket writings, where people are unfairly forced to pay for a police station that is actively seeking crime for revenue.
For example, Natural Bridge Road (also known as Route 115), is a 10-mile stretch off of I-70 in St. Louis County. This roadway is known for its infamous speed trap where in 10 miles it hosts 16 municipalities.
Each municipality has its own police force and court house where they collect money for speeding and other traffic violations.
With a population of around 52,000, Florissant is on the larger side of some of the towns in St. Louis County. Economically, Florissant’s employment rate is lower than the state average (pre COVID-19). The town’s police officers issued 29,072 traffic tickets in 2013. This made up 13% of Florissant’s yearly revenue, around $3 million in fines. In June of 2013, Florissant’s municipal court also held over 11,000 outstanding arrest warrants.
Comparing those numbers to a suburb in Kansas City, Lee’s Summit, in Jackson County, that hosts a population of 92,000, almost twice the population of Florissant, Lee’s Summit distributed only 9,651 tickets in the same month.
A town with almost twice the population of Florissant issued almost a third less tickets.
Lee’s Summit also gained $1.44 million, less than half as much revenue from its municipal court. Lee’s Summit held 2,872 outstanding arrest warrants as of June 2013, one fourth as many as Florissant.
To compare the discrepancy between the towns’ warrants, Kansas City has around one arrest warrant for every 1.8 residents, Independence (a suburb of Kansas City) around one warrant for 3.5 residents, and Grandview (also a part of the Kansas City Metro area) around one warrant for every 3.7 residents.
In St. Louis County, however, it is not rare for municipalities to have more arrest warrants than the number of residents.
But some action has been taken.
“Missouri statutes limit the amount of revenue a city can derive from tickets and fines. It’s limited to 20%,” Clayton Police Chief Mark Smith said.
The enforcement of this statute began on Jan. 1, 2016 and was made to stop municipalities relying on ticketing for funding.
At one point some towns were relying up to 40% of their annual revenue on ticketing. Traffic violation quotas were also made prohibited by statute.
“Here in the City of Clayton, we don’t practice quotas. We never have,” Chief Smith said.
According to a number of legal organizations like ArchCity Defenders, run down older cars get targeted often because police suspect they’re more likely to be driven by people who they can countlessly fine for “poverty violations.”
“Poverty violations” is a term used to describe violations including driving with expired license plates, expired registration, a suspended license and not being able to provide proof of insurance.
With many Americans a paycheck away from poverty, a traffic ticket can be devastating. Not to mention how hard it can be for low income families to take time off work to go to court.
Furthermore, if people miss their court date because they can’t take time off of work, they get an arrest warrant. Arrest warrants are visible to potential employers or landlords since they are public information. This can prevent people unable to go to court from getting a job, housing, loans or financial aid. It’s a vicious cycle.
I think that quotas actually undermine the trust in the community.”
— Clayton Police Chief Mark Smith
And with 16 municipalities across 10 miles, a single violation across the Natural Bridge Road (ex. missing license plate) can result in a driver being pulled over 16 different times
For many individuals without the needed understanding of the legal system, dealing with a handful of charges from different towns makes it almost impossible to get through the system alone.
Smith shines a light on what these quotas do for police opinion: “I think that quotas actually undermine the trust in the community. People look at police officers as tax collectors instead of people who are there to protect them and enforce law.”
The death of George Floyd is not the first police killing of an unarmed Black man that has sparked widespread outrage over police brutality and systemic racism. Protests following the deaths of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and many more laid the foundation for the current uprising. However, many activists and movement leaders contend that this time, it’s different. Almost immediately after Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis, protests spread rapidly across the globe, from Beirut to St. Louis and Melbourne to Nairobi. The global movement has become a major flash point in the 2020 presidential race, with President Trump attempting to win over white suburban voters with law-and-order rhetoric while Democratic nominee Joe Biden condemns looting, but joins protesters in calls for police reform.
Some Americans had never encountered the slogan “defund the police” before this mass movement took root over the summer. However, calls for divesting money from or abolishing policing as we know it have grown prevalent in recent months. The Trump campaign has run ads framing Biden as a supporter of defunding the police, while Biden has repeatedly expressed contrary claims. Despite its increasing ubiquity, there is significant disagreement and misinformation around what this slogan actually means. For example, when asked in an interview by progressive activist Ady Barkan whether he supports re-allocating some funds away from policing to mental health, social services, and affordable housing, Biden agreed – despite claiming he does not support defunding the police.
“What it means to some people is to radically reduce the city budget for policing and transfer those funds to other agencies in the city, or to efforts to invest in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city,” said Richard Rosenfeld, Founders Professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “For others, defund the police doesn’t mean any radical reduction in police budget. It simply means to rethink what we expect of the police, and what other agencies might do to assist the police or even take over some of the functions traditionally assigned to the police. And that can lead to some reduction in the budget for policing.”
Jae Shepherd, Abolition Organizer for Action St. Louis, also had an answer for what it means to defund police: “Defunding the police is the process of reallocating funds and responsibilities from police departments to community-based systems of safety, prevention and de-escalation.”
Before understanding what defunding the police could look like in St. Louis, we need to examine the current situation. However, it’s important to note before going into budget numbers on policing that transparent data on exactly how police budgets are spent is hard to find. Shepherd pointed out, “We recently had a petition going around to get the line item budget of the police because it’s not released anywhere, and even some city officials like the alders don’t have their hands on it. So we don’t know exactly what our tax dollars are going to when it comes to funding the police.”
With that in mind, the total fiscal year 2021 budget for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is $204 million, excluding grants but including pension and retirement costs. Additionally, the department receives about $11 million in miscellaneous grants. That’s the same police department that Shepherd explained “kills more people per capita than any other police department in the country.” According to the Mapping Police Violence project, using data from 2013 to 2019, the department’s average annual police homicide rate was 17.9. That’s significantly higher than every other police department in the country. Black people were killed at 10.3 times the rate of white people in St. Louis.
Public Safety accounts for 55% of the total general fund budget, while the Health and Human Services department receives 0.5%. 33% of the general fund is allocated towards the Police Department.
According to St. Louis County’s Open Budget database, policing receives a revised budget of $147.71 million for FY2020. In addition, the St. Louis County Police Department receives about $4 million in grants each year, as explained by St. Louis County Budget Director Paul Kreidler. Broken down by service, almost 36% of total appropriations is allocated towards Public Safety, while 20% of appropriations go towards the Health and Well-Being service.
Many lawmakers and activists have supported the case for decreasing police funding by pointing out the budget breakdown of majority-white suburbs. For example, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York explained in a June interview on Good Morning America that suburban affluent communities are essentially already models of defunding police because they prioritize health and education over policing. For example, Clayton spends 44% of its general fund expenditures on Public Safety, while Public Safety accounts for 11 percentage points more of the City of St. Louis’ general fund budget.
However, some say that defunding the police would require radical change beyond anything America has seen before, and the role of policing in communities will need to be fundamentally re-examined or abolished. Rosenfeld, one the one hand, asserted that the core function of police is to prevent violent crime, and that re-assigning some of the other functions police currently perform would allow them to focus on preventing and solving serious crime. However, John Chasnoff, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, explained that police have always served another role in Black communities. According to Chasnoff, the “even more fundamental mission of the police department has always been to serve as a repressive arm of the status quo,” and that’s why a radical shift in how we think about public safety is necessary.
Chasnoff pointed to academic and political activist Angela Davis’ book “Are Prisons Obsolete?”, in which Davis advocates for the abolition of the carceral system.
“She says in that book that we can’t quite imagine what it would be like to have a world without prisons. But, we can imagine the steps we need to take to get to a place where we can imagine a world without prisons,” said Chasnoff.
Rosenfeld agreed that the first step to police reform is to step back and examine both police funding and the role policing plays in society: “I don’t think we know yet – I don’t, and I’m not certain most people do, including most policymakers – exactly which of the functions of the police can be safely reallocated elsewhere. And that’s the discussion that needs to be held. […] The police and other city leaders need to listen to the protesters. And the task of the policymaker is to translate protest ideals – something on the order of defund the police, let’s say – into practical policy.”
There are several areas of policing that some experts, policymakers and activists say are examples of unnecessary overfunding and excessive burdens placed on police that worsen situations and allow racial discrimination to go unchecked. For example, Rosenfeld pointed to large crowd events, such as concerts and sporting events. “It’s certainly worth considering, as the number of fires has plummeted over time, why firefighters cannot be used to either assist the police or take over some of that patrolling of big crowd events,” he said. “I think for many kinds of traffic control one can make the same argument – it’s not clear why you need uniformed police officers with firearms to engage in routine traffic control.”
Rosenfeld also explained that there is still more research that needs to go into examining the viability and safety of reallocating police funding. Homelessness is an example. “What we need to know is what fraction of all the calls that the police get about homelessness problems carry a high risk of violence, and what fraction do not. I don’t think we know that right now. But assuming that certainly not all carry high risk of violence – and I would argue probably fewer than half, certainly – then it makes sense to have other agencies respond with the police, perhaps available as backup.” What we do know about the homelessness situation is that compared to the 33% of the general fund budget that is spent on the Police Department, “zero percent of that fund goes to homelessness,” as Shepherd explained.
Shepherd also pointed out other ways that police departments could be defunded: “Really, they’re only trained to use force and violence in any and all situations, so instead of having them respond to traffic accidents, having some sort of unarmed traffic monitor. Instead of having them respond to mental health crises, have some sort of mental health professionals. Instead of having police in our schools, have counselors in our schools. Instead of having police respond to drug overdose, having some sort of street nurses and recovery outreach programs.” Violence prevention and anti-poverty programs that address the root cause of crime, Shepherd explained, would be more effective than the current arrest-and-incarcerate model.
Robert Motley, a PhD candidate at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, also pointed out how the training for police emphasizes a quick resort to violence as opposed to safe diffusion of a tense situation. “We see that you’re only really making less than five percent of arrests for violent crimes. They spent over 80 percent of their training on shooting. So they’re being trained for those violent crimes, not for someone who [is having a mental health crisis]”
There are also larger structural issues with policing that must be resolved, said Chasnoff. One example is the War on Drugs. In Missouri, Black people are 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Chasnoff referenced a statistic from a 2013 report released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, which found an 18-1 disparity in marijuana arrests of Black and white people in St. Louis City.
Advocates agree that defunding the police will come with a reinvestment in communities and areas like education, affordable housing, and social services. Tishaura Jones, Treasurer of the City of St. Louis, explained that these are areas that have long been systematically overlooked in policymaking. “We’ve been defunding education for years and no one is screaming about that. We’ve been defunding healthcare for years and no one’s screaming about that, but all of a sudden, police seem to be untouchable,” she said. Building strong community organizations is also essential, according to Romona Taylor Williams, longtime activist and former Executive Director of the Metro St. Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equity. “St. Louis is not investing in its people,” Williams explained. She said, “I believe in not only identifying the problems and talking about the problems, but we have to also come up with innovations and innovative solutions in order to resolve the problems. And a lot of that starts at the grassroots level. You know, one thing that is void in St. Louis is strong community based organizations.” Money needs to be divested from sources like the St. Louis penitentiary known as the Workhouse, Williams said, and invested into long-neglected and disadvantaged communities such as North St. Louis.
If you believe Black lives matter, you should be saying defund the police”
— Jae Shepherd
The process to defund the police will not be an easy one, Chasnoff explained, because no end result is in sight yet. However, many movement leaders are hopeful as the concept continues to gain traction and awareness increases. Shepherd said, “In 2014, it was radical to say Black lives matter, but now it’s like, super radical to say defund the police […] If you believe Black lives matter, you should be saying defund the police.” Jones also expressed hope for future progress under new leadership: “Do I think that it’ll happen under the current leadership? No. Do I think that if we had more bold leadership that would challenge that and possibly defund or reallocate funds […] Yes, under different leadership I think we would.”
While several academics and policymakers see reasoning behind the idea of defunding the police, there are several others who disagree with the idea– bringing up the necessity for police and the ‘impracticality’ of police defunding within the nation. Even top Democrats including Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip James Clyburn have steered away from supporting the cause. “I think people are afraid of the phrase ‘defund the police,’ and not realizing that we’re talking about expanding public safety to include all of the things that make people safe in their homes and their neighborhoods,” said Jones.
St. Louis County Police Officer Shanette Hall agrees that oftentimes the idea of defunding the police is misunderstood. Hall is a board member of the Ethical Society of Police, an organization founded by African-American police officers in 1972 to address and expose problems of racial discrimination within the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. “I think we have to understand what people are asking for when they say defund the police. And oftentimes, we will have pro-police people or even police departments who take that as, you just want to take away all of of our money, or you want to cut our jobs, or you want to cut our salaries,” she said. However, Hall explained that defunding the police is about addressing root problems and systemic issues with policing. “Sometimes we are requiring police officers to do more than what they are trained to do. And the people are being affected by that because you have police officers responding to things that they’re not adequately able to or able to effectively do. And so this is where I wholeheartedly support the reallocation of funds. I think if we want to leave the same amount of funding in police departments then we need to expand the type of people who work within police departments […] police departments should hire social workers, police department should hire a liaison, let’s say, for the unhoused.”
On the other hand, a big problem that Tim Fitch, former St Louis County Police Chief and Councilman of St Louis County District 3, sees is that defunding the police would take away something that police officers need the most: crisis situation training.
“The first thing that go when there is a budget crunch is training and travel. So if you take away the training that you just demanded, like additional crisis intervention training, or de escalation training, or any of those things, how now are you going to deal with the public wants to know, additional training?”
Fitch also argued that defunding of police is not needed because police officers are trained to deal with crisis situations, especially within such a big police department like St Louis County’s. “They’re already doing social work. They’re already doing crisis intervention, trained and to do that. To take money away from the county police, and give it to some other group to do the same thing [police officers are] already doing doesn’t make sense to me,” Fitch also questions what would happen if social workers did replace police officers, and went into dangerous situations alone. “You can have a house where somebody wants to report that their sick brother is not on his medicine. And what happens when that social worker gets there and [the brother] hurts the social worker”?
Fitch believes that the real problem is the defunding of mental health services in St Louis. He explained that there used to be a lot more support from the state for mental health services, but those eventually got removed due to tax increases. “I used to have a place when I was a young police officer when I found a person that was drunk. We used to have a place we could take them [to] detox. None of those [places] exists in St. Louis region anymore.”
Another problem that that several opposants bring up is that police defunding simply won’t work– the example most used being the defunding of police in Camden, New Jersey.
In 2012, Camden disbanded its police force. Hundreds of officers were fired from their jobs and made to reapply following new training and psychological evaluations. From first glance, the program looks like a success (crime having decreased 42%), but community members have consistently argued that they feel unsafe within their own neighborhoods.
Motley argues that this is due to how Camden disbanded their police department. “[The disbanding] was really a cost saving measure. Instead of paying police officers 90,000 a year, we can pay them 40,000 so now [they] can get two police officers instead of one. So now you have more police officers but it just exacerbated the [previous] problem.”
Defunding the police has never officially been done before. However, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer means that both large-scale social change and policy change concerning the issue of police funding may be imminent.
At 6-years-old, children begin to understand the concept of numbers, knowing day from night and left from right.
And for a 6-year-old girl in Orlando, Florida, she was trying to understand why she was being arrested for misdemeanor battery.
On Sept. 19, 2019, Kaia Rolle, a first grader, was sitting at a table, coloring with crayons, when two police officers walked in to arrest her. As they zip-tied her hands, she wailed in desperation. “No … no, don’t put handcuffs on!” she said.
After the officers led her out of her elementary school, she said, “Please, give me a second chance.” The officers proceeded to put her in the police car. She was taken to a juvenile center to be fingerprinted and got a mugshot.
Earlier that day, Rolle threw a tantrum because she wanted to wear her sunglasses. She began pulling on her classroom door and screaming. The assistant principal then took Rolle to his office, where she began to hit and kick him.
At this point, the assistant principal called the school’s student resource officer over, and he attempted to calm Rolle down. After about ten minutes, Rolle calmed down.
By the time the officers walked in to arrest Rolle, she was sitting in the office, calm and reading books and coloring with crayons.
The officers that arrested Rolle were student resource officers at her school, Lucious & Emma Nixon Academy. Officer Dennis Turner, the main arresting officer, was fired days after news of the arrest went public.
According to the National Center for Education’s statistics about Crime, Violence, Discipline, and Safety, U.S. Public Schools 45% of public schools had SROs during the 2017-2018 school year. Another 35% of public schools had some sworn type of law enforcement officer or security personnel.
But, schools weren’t always like this.
Police began emerging in schools in the 1990’s, when schools attempted to cut down on serious crimes by implementing zero tolerance policies. These policies caused harsh punishments and even arrests for minor issues.
After the Columbine High School shooting, the number of police officers in schools skyrocketed.
Although these School Resource Officers (SROs) were initially put in schools to prevent school shootings, they are now commonly known for being responsible for general safety and crime prevention in schools.
Mo Canady, the Executive Director of the National Association of Student Resource Officers (NASRO), said, “A misconception is that we’re just there to defend the school against an active shooter situation. Well, most schools are never going to face an active shooter incident. So you know, are we really there for something that’s probably never going to happen? We have to be trained and prepared to respond to that. But, we’re there for so much more. It’s a community based policing approach.”
NASRO is a nonprofit organization that provides training to SROs, holding classes and conferences around the nation. A SRO’s participation in NASRO is completely voluntary, as it is member-based.
As of 2020, there are more than 3,000 NASRO members around the world. However, this number is still only a small fraction of SROs and police officers in schools across the country.
Canady said, “I wish that every SRO in this country came to our training and learned to do the job the way we espouse the job should be done. I think we would rarely see a story about someone wanting to remove an SRO. I think that if everyone came through our training, I think most schools would see the value and would want an SRO. I firmly believe that.”
Officers who choose to be a member of NASRO have the opportunity to gain greater distinction. Upon receiving advanced training from NASRO and meeting certain criteria, SROs can become a “NASRO Practitioner.” However, NASRO only trains officers, not certifying them at all. Certification would constitute an expiration date, renewal requirement, or a revocation procedure if misconduct were to occur.
Currently, in the U.S., there are no specific requirements SROs must fulfill before serving in schools. Prospective SROs must simply be a sworn, career law enforcement officer. There is no other national regulation; each individual police department and school district establish their own protocols.
The School District of Clayton has two SROs: Officer Jack Boeger at Wydown Middle School and Officer Herman Whittaker at Clayton High School.
Both officers have taken the NASRO basic 40-hour SRO course, which discusses topics ranging from the teenage brain to understanding special needs students. Officers Boeger and Whittaker also underwent a screening process before being appointed to their respective schools.
Clayton Police Chief, Mark Smith, said, “[Officer Boeger and Whittaker] had to volunteer for the job. We want people who want to be school resource officers. We want them to want to work with kids, and with staff and parents. They also go through an interview process. We evaluate their background, we look at their personnel file, make sure that they have an appropriate background to go over there and we do assessments. Finally, when we pick that officer, we make sure the school is comfortable with them.”
Both officers have to meet the goals that the Clayton Police Department defines for a SRO.
Chief Smith said, “Their main role is to keep the school safe. It’s also important that the SROs foster positive relationships with the students. We want to pick officers who can build trust with the students, because sometimes they actually deal with problems that students may have at home. We want them to be good role models for the students.”
Officer Whittaker is in his fourth year as the SRO at CHS. Throughout his time, Whittaker has cherished the positive relationships he’s formed with students.
“My job is to build relationships. Here, I’m able to see development. On the street, you’re pretty much going from call to call. You are getting to see some of the things that you’ve helped with. But, here, you see it every day. So, you see the hard work that you put in into the students, and it’s fulfilling.”
CHS athletics and activities director, T’Shon Young emphasized Officer Whittaker’s support of students.
Young said, “He has more of an impact than he or others may know. Black men and police officers do not go well together. Many of our Black students, families, and even staff are harassed by police officers. Officer Whittaker is definitely making ground and proving that all officers are not misled. He is definitely a positive role model for a lot of our students, and not just our black students. You see him not just doing his job, but actually engaging with students and showing a genuine interest in them and their well being. […] He is highly engaged with our Black Student Union. He comes to the meetings and supports all the efforts.”
Along with a SRO’s ability to form relationships with students, successful SRO’s possess a certain temperament.
It takes a unique personality, and individual and skill set to do this particular job. […] We’re talking about putting officers in an environment with our most valuable commodity, which is our youth. Really, our future.”
— Mo Canady
Director Canady said, “It takes a unique personality, and individual and skill set to do this particular job. […] We’re talking about putting officers in an environment with our most valuable commodity, which is our youth. Really, our future.”
When SROs aren’t the right fit for the position or lose sight of their broader mission, problems can arise.
In the case of Kaia Rolle, the 6-year-old, her main arresting officer, SRO Dennis Turner, was plagued by a long list of disciplinary actions. Throughout his 20 year tenure as an officer, Turner was disciplined seven times for violating department policy. Previously, his youngest arrest had been a 7-year-old boy.
Officers are in agreement that cases like Kaia Rolle’s should not be occurring.
“As a father of a 7-year-old, I just can’t imagine someone doing that to my son,” said Officer Whittaker. “That’s a difficult question, as a father and officer, for someone who gets there to protect. You’re there to help but ultimately put yourself in a position where you restrain a student, a 7-year-old with handcuffs. He overstepped his boundaries… Yeah, that’s very upsetting.”
Director Canady said, “Good SROs don’t make a lot of arrests. I was actually at a table today with six SROs from Montana. And I asked all of them, I said, How many arrests did you make during the last school year? The answer: zero. Six SROs, zero arrests. Now, that’s not because we ignore crimes that happen. And sometimes, unfortunately, a situation does have to end in an arrest. But a carefully selected, specifically trained SRO, we teach them other strategies, how to de-escalate situations, how to work with the school administration. […] I can speak to that myself. I was a SRO for 12 years. I didn’t arrest five students in those 12 years.”
When SROs overstep their boundaries or become harmful to students, it is crucial that these officers be addressed, whether it be through disciplinary action or removal from the school.
Director Canady said, “Let’s suppose that we mess up on that front end and put the wrong person in. As a former SRO supervisor, I’ve made that mistake twice. Then, we have to do our due diligence in getting that person out of that position. We can’t leave a problem person in. It’s the most high profile position in law enforcement. The SROs are going to be the most well known officers in their community. […] So, it has to be the right person.”
With publicized cases of SRO misconduct and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, opposition to a police presence in schools has been mounting. Many argue that SROs should be replaced with mental health experts or more guidance counselors.
However, Canady said, “Replacing the SRO with anything is a mistake. We’re talking about apples and oranges. A psychologist, social worker, is not a law enforcement officer; and an enforcement officer is not a social worker, or psychologist, but we need each other desperately… When I was an SRO, if it had not been for our social workers, and our school district, there’s no way that I or the other people working around me would have been nearly as effective in our roles. They were our teammates. One does not cancel out the other.”
Some schools have shifted away from SROs. St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) doesn’t utilize SROs. Instead, they have their own safety officer team, which is run by the district. None of the safety officers are licensed police officers.
Dr. Michael Brown, the SLPS Deputy Superintendent, explained that the district’s safety officers go through de-escalation training and work closely with school social workers. Many of them have also fostered close bonds with students.
“Those relationships provide an opportunity for students to have someone to talk to. And sometimes when they’re on the fence, someone that can talk them off that fence,” said Dr. Brown.
These relationships are key to stopping the pipeline to prison: a national phenomenon where students are being pushed out of public schools and into the criminal justice system.
When a student is suspended or expelled, their chances of dropping out increase drastically, and once a student drops out, they are more likely to be involved in crime later in life.
Jason Jabbari, a Washington University in St. Louis Data Analyst and co-author of several research papers on the school-to-prison pipeline explained that social exclusion increases under the carceral system in schools:
“At first, with in-school suspension, you’re excluded from your classmates. Out-of school-suspension, you’re excluded from your school environment. When you’re dropped out, you’re excluded from mainstream educational institutions and are typically not in college, when you drop out when you’re incarcerated now. […] So, the odds of being excluded tend to increase.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, the amount of out of school suspension has doubled since the 1970’s and has been on the rise ever since.
But, that doesn’t mean kids are misbehaving more. The same source says that crime rates for children ages 10-17 have been decreasing.
However, discipline rates differ with race. Students of color are disciplined at a much higher rate than their white counterparts.
Injustices against people of color in the criminal justice system start as early as preschool. A 2015 University of Los Angeles California study found that Missouri ranked first in the nation in racial disparities of elementary school suspension.
The study said, “Statewide, elementary schools in Missouri suspended 14.4 percent of their black students at least once in 2011-12 compared to 1.8 percent of white students.”
And these suspensions aren’t just harming the suspended students, they are harming their peers as well.
Jabbari says, “We wanted to deploy a similar strategy to look at the collateral damages of suspensions. We found that students that attend high suspension schools are less likely to enroll in advanced math courses. They’re less likely to have higher math achievement and less likely to attend college.”
School districts are re-evaluating what student discipline looks like. In particular, schools are moving away from a reliance on suspending and expelling students.
In 2016, SLPS adopted a new student discipline code, encouraging the use of restorative discipline and trauma-informed practices. In addition, SLPS banned out-of-school suspensions for students in preschool through second grade.
We, as officers, really need to do a better job of reaching out, communicating, building positive relationships, getting out in the community, and showing that, hey, I’m human, I’m just like you.”
— Officer Whittaker
Dr. Brown said, “For the rest of the grades [three through twelve], we do suspensions, but we’re really trying to put a lot of positive things within the schools, so that we’re reinforcing a positive behavior, rather than the negative reinforcements. Sometimes suspensions can be just a kid having a bad day. So, let’s wait until tomorrow and see what happens. A lot of kids will come back the next day and say to you, Hey, I was having a bad day. I apologize. Thanks for not suspending me. It won’t happen again.”
As calls for police reform in schools across the nation increase, sometimes the simplest solutions can be the most effective.
Officer Whittaker said, “We, as officers, really need to do a better job of reaching out, communicating, building positive relationships, getting out in the community, and showing that, hey, I’m human, I’m just like you. You are able to see me as a person and look past the uniform. And the police officer should be able to look at a person who’s walking down the street as a human being, as a person, not as a suspect. Once we’re able to do that, we’ll make a positive change.”