Stop Defunding Schools, Start Defunding Police: A Juvenile Public Defender's Perspective

Michele Hall
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/06/02: A participant holding a Defund The Police sign at the protest. Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Brooklyn in a massive march to demand justice for George Floyd, killed by Officer Derek Chauvin and to make a loud call for the defunding of the police force. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

For better or worse, spoken-word performer, poet, and musician Gil Scott-Heron was wrong when he wrote that "the revolution will not be televised" in 1971. As a Black woman who works as a public defender - representing children and young adults charged with crimes and who have experienced the normalized violence of American policing - I have been unable to stomach watching the videos of killings by police, of people who look like me and my clients, under the color of law. At the same time, I see how these videos have galvanized a nation to say enough is enough.

We are finally imagining a world fundamentally different than the one we live in now. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech in 1967: "We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late." If Black lives truly matter, now is the time to defund the police. By removing funding from police departments, we will limit police contact with the public, and with it limit opportunities to inflict violence on Black and Brown communities. Defunding the police will free up state and federal funds to invest in community-based resources, like housing, food security, mental health services, and violence interrupters.

Defunding the police is rooted in prison and police abolitionist theory pioneered by Black woman leaders like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore for years. The killings of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Andres Guardado, and countless others at the hands of the police have pushed the conversation around defunding police into the mainstream. What I see every day in my work is not the sharp pain of a shocking killing in police custody caught on video, but the steady throbbing pain caused by regular and systemic police violence in Black and Brown communities. Police violence doesn't just look like the shooting captured by a bystander: it looks like the humiliation of being stopped, frisked, and handcuffed just for walking with a group of Black friends. It looks like being screamed at and shoved up against your car for not answering a question fast enough. It looks like being pistol whipped for asking, "Why are you stopping me?" And for the children I represent in court, it looks like the intimidation of police officers roaming school hallways, infringing on students' ability to learn and feel safe.

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How Is Defunding the Police Connected to School Policing?

The only resource that police have to offer in a school setting is the ability to react, arrest, and use force and violence to control the people around them, even when those people are children.

When I first began as a juvenile public defender in Prince George's County, a Maryland suburb just east of Washington DC, I was shocked by the number of clients my colleagues and I represented whose cases stemmed from school-based arrests. More surprising were the "crimes" for which children were being prosecuted: "second degree assaults" that were regular schoolyard fights, or "robberies" that were the teasing and bullying that I recognized from when I was in school. I was confused. Why did this regular schoolyard behavior lead to the prosecution of my clients? What was so new and different about their behavior that they ended up in court instead of the principal's office? The answer was the presence of police officers, euphemistically called school resource officers or SROs, whose mere presence leads to increased criminalization of behavior that is part of typical adolescent development. Why is this the case? Because the only resource that police have to offer in a school setting is the ability to react, arrest, and use force and violence to control the people around them, even when those people are children.

Every day, I see how the mere presence of police officers in schools directly contributes to the funneling of Black and Brown children to the courts, or the school-to-prison pipeline. Numerous studies have shown that the presence of police officers in schools leads to "increased rates of exclusionary discipline and the criminalization of relatively trivial student behavior" because school police "are not trained as educators, but as sworn law enforcement officers with the authority to arrest people."

A resource guide compiled by the campaign Dignity in Schools includes alarming statistics about how the presence of police in schools leads to the criminalization of behavior that not only is part of typical adolescent development, but also is low-level conduct that does not warrant intervention by a court. One survey compared 13 schools with a school police and 15 schools without one, and found that schools with police had nearly five times the number of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without police. Additionally, in New York City in 2012, 70 percent of arrests in public schools were for misdemeanors and four percent for even lesser violations, according to the NYPD's own reporting.

It should not be surprising that Black students are overrepresented in school-based arrests. In Prince George's County where I represent children, during the 2017-2018 school year, school police conducted 350 arrests in our public schools, 301 of those arrests involved Black children. Black students only comprise 58 percent of the school district's overall enrollment, yet 86 percent of the school-based arrests. This is not because Black children are inherently more criminal; it is because policing even in the school setting replicates racial bias that is inherent in all policing.

The mere presence of an armed, uniformed officer changes the learning setting and escalates simple disagreements, contributing to a culture of criminalization and antagonism in schools.

For my clients, this goes beyond statistics. The mere presence of an armed, uniformed officer changes the learning setting and escalates simple disagreements, contributing to a culture of criminalization and antagonism in schools. The place where our children spend most of their days, where they are supposed to be able to grow and thrive and learn independence and how to critically engage with the world, suddenly turns into a caged institution where Black children feel like they are treated like animals by armed and unarmed school police. I have witnessed school staff saying that unless we're on the "front lines" with them, we can't understand why police must be present in schools. But children are not enemy combatants who need to be neutralized, they are growing people who make mistakes and can learn effective tools to work through them.

Removing school police is just one piece of defunding the police and dismantling the carceral state. We have created a system where we over-rely on police, defaulting to them in situations where they have no expertise. In an analysis of public police data in The New York Times, officers in Sacramento, New Orleans, and Montgomery County, MD, spend only four percent of their time responding to calls for violent crimes. These officers instead spend half of their time responding to traffic and noncriminal calls. What does this look like in practice? When a person is experiencing housing insecurity and sleeping in a vacant home, a neighbor may call the police to say that someone is trespassing. The only tool the police have is to handcuff that person, arrest them, and take them to a cage. The police's involvement in that person's life only punishes survival, and does nothing to change the material conditions impacting that person's life.

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What About Police Reform?

The knee-jerk response I often see from those against defunding the police is that we should instead reform it. But time and again, we have been shown that reform and checks and balances within the existing police structure will not work. For example, body cameras were initially lauded as the great accountability tool to finally shed light on the police's actions. Yet when David McAtee was killed by the police in Louisville, KY, in May, none of the officers had activated their body-worn cameras, against clearly stated department policy. As a public defender, I have reviewed footage from these cameras where officers selectively mute or turn off their devices during critical parts of their interactions with my clients and investigations. There are rarely consequences from police departments, judges, or prosecutors when individual officers subvert these accountability tools.

Another popular rebuttal is that police just need more training. But this is insufficient for two different reasons. First, training cannot undo the violent roots of policing. As Mariame Kaba noted in her phenomenal opinion piece in The New York Times "Yes, We Literally Mean Abolish the Police," policing in the US was born out of slave patrols, quelling labor strikes, and suppressing "marginalized populations to protect the status quo." It is antithetical to say that police can be taught appropriate ways to deescalate confrontations with citizens or assist in mental health interventions when at their essence, police are taught and legally allowed to use force to get citizens to bend to their will. Counselors, psychologists, restorative justice practitioners, and social workers receive years of training in their respective fields. We cannot expect a few hours of training to undo the essence of American policing.

In order for training around issues like implicit bias or deescalation to be impactful, those being trained have to be receptive to it.

Second, in order for training around issues like implicit bias or deescalation to be impactful, those being trained have to be receptive to it. But privately, individual officers resist these types of trainings, just as they have for additional accountability tools. Recently, ACLU of Maryland released an expert report about allegations of systemic racial bias in the Prince George's County Police Department. The report details numerous instances of racial bias by white police officers that went unchecked by department leadership. It's littered with examples of violent racism in the police force, such as officers dressing a dummy used to practice baton strikes in an Afro wig and blackface, or exchanging racially derogatory texts while referencing "bringing back public hangings" and "getting rid of the animals." But most damningly, during an implicit bias training, a group of white police officers walked out in protest. What this report and others make clear is that we cannot reform an entity that simply refuses to be reformed.

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What Does Defunding the Police Look Like?

The only reasonable resolution to stop the sustained abuse and violence directed toward communities of color by the police is to start by defunding the police. Ralikh Hayes, Deputy Director of Organizing Black, was recently quoted by Jaisal Noor in Baltimore Beat, saying, "The movement is aimed at creating a world where public safety is not defined by police and crime but how communities use their resources to care for each other." Take a look at the police budget in your city or county.

Prince George's County spent $531 million on the arrest, incarceration, and prosecution of people. Imagine if we redirected that half a billion dollars toward resources and interventions that support people instead of funneling them into prisons and jails.

In fiscal year 2020, Prince George's County spent $531 million on the arrest, incarceration, and prosecution of people. Imagine if we redirected that half a billion dollars toward resources and interventions that support people instead of funneling them into prisons and jails to maintain the status quo? Or let's think smaller. In fiscal year 2021, the Prince George's County Board of Education has proposed spending over $17 million on unarmed school police and security, in addition to the over $4 million spent by local police to fund armed police in schools. This includes an additional $1 million to place more unarmed school police and security personnel in middle schools. Comparatively, the budget provides for no new nurses or school psychologists, and only one additional guidance counselor for a school district that serves over 130,000 students. What if that $1 million for more school police had gone toward expanding on the restorative justice programming available in Prince George's County Public Schools? What if it went toward increasing school counselors and psychologists available to meet the mental health needs of our students? What if we imagined solving challenges with love and support instead of suppression and arrests?

Kaba said it best: "As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm. People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation."

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What Can I Do to Help Defund the Police?

I will leave you with resources about defunding the police and abolition (a list compiled by my friend Josh Aiken, a current J.D./Ph.D. student in history and African-American studies at Yale University and former Policy Fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative). We can never stop learning and growing; that is how we will truly build the nourishing, safe, and secure world that we all deserve.

Michele Hall works as a public defender in Prince George's County, MD. The views expressed in this piece are her own.