Don’t defund the police.

I’m not an apologist for police brutality. It’s revolting. Tamir Rice was born the same year I was, yet his life was cut short nearly six years ago in Cleveland by Timothy Loehmann. Loehmann had previously been deemed mentally unfit to serve while working in another city, but he kept that a secret. He should be held accountable. And it’s ridiculous that things like qualified immunity and unions make it harder to do so.

I’m not going to defend the indefensible. No, instead I want to challenge some of the narratives surrounding police brutality. In the era of “All Cops Are Bastards” chants and attempted assassinations of officers, we should remember that things are not as Twitter may present them. While there are structural problems within police departments, the issue is bureaucracy, not policing itself.

Police officers make contact with approximately 50-60 million civilians a year. Of these interactions, over 10 million are arrests. And, of these arrests, around 2,300 lead to complaints of excessive force (0.023 percent).

A depressing statistic often mentioned is that there were “1004 fatal police shootings in 2019.” This leaves out context, though. Only 55 of those shot were unarmed. This is obviously still terrible. Even if we were to assume all of the remaining 949 shootings were self-defense, 55 needless deaths are more than enough to devastate hundreds of families. Unjustified killings foster mistrust in communities the police serve. It’s in the best interest of all Americans to address this. But in order to enact effective reform, we must be informed. We can’t tilt at windmills and expect life to improve.

The racial component makes civil discourse on this issue difficult. So I’ll just make two basic points. One: Police brutality disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people. If I hear one more Republican say “ackchyually, more white people are killed than Black people,” I’ll lose my mind. And two: It is unlikely that brutality is caused by systemically racist police departments; instead, I’d argue it’s unions. Hear me out.

Some activists claim that the racial disparity among shooting victims proves that police and their activities target people of color, through “over-policing.” But, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Black people were no more likely to have an officer initiate contact with them than white or Hispanic people. So blaming the disparity on the concentration of officers in a community doesn’t make much sense. Still others point out that minorities are arrested due to rampant individual racism within police departments. There’s little evidence for this, as the race of officers has no correlation with their likelihood to shoot minority offenders. It is unlikely that Black officers are equally likely to harbor racist beliefs as their white colleagues.

What is to blame for the imbalance, then? The law is a major factor. Remnants of our subtly discriminatory policies from the 70s and 80s continue to contribute to differences in enforcement. Our legal system still treats crack offenders far more severely than cocaine users. Predominantly POC crack users are targeted more than the mostly white cocaine users, despite the fact that the two drugs have essentially the same chemical composition. Poverty rates, which are related to crime rates, can also foot some of the blame. This poverty is caused by many factors, one being the legacy of racism in America. Regardless of the cause, though, the point is that modern police violence is not caused (at least not to a statistically significant degree) by police racism. 

We actually already know what the largest contributor is to the over-abundance of excessive force — unions. A 2018 Oxford report on the hundred largest American cities discovered that the strength of protections in police contracts directly coincided with abuses against citizens. Additionally, a 2019 UChicago study found that allowing Florida sheriffs’ deputies to unionize led to a 40 percent increase in reports of violent misconduct.

It’s important to recognize that police unions aren’t problematic because the police they defend are inherently bad. Many public sector unions protect mediocrity and bad personnel. Take my hometown of Stamford. When one of the teachers in my high school was terminated for the statutory rape of a student, she still received legal assistance from her union. It is notoriously difficult to punish government employees. This results in repeat offenders like Derek Chauvin keeping their position, out of fear for a union fight. Chauvin had 18 prior complaints. 18.

The military isn’t permitted to unionize. That isn’t to say the US Armed Forces are perfect, but it does show that the government seems to understand that mediocrity cannot be tolerated when it comes to people who have the authority to take a life. So why should it be different with police officers? We shouldn’t demonize the officers and their careers, specifically. And while I’m not suggesting that we ban their unions, they should certainly be the main target of our reform efforts. 

Since the cause isn’t the sheer amount of officer-civilian interactions, defunding would reduce police resources without fixing the problem. Departments are already strapped for cash (on average, they receive barely 4 percent of local government spending), and the last thing we’d want is for them to start cutting training programs. Police officers put their lives on the line, and polls say the vast majority of POC want the same or a greater law enforcement presence in their area. It makes sense that they do—hiring new officers has been proven to reduce crime. Local recruitment and community relations work. We don’t need less cops, we just need cops that get along with the people of their neighborhood. 

Minneapolis, Chicago and New York City are facing mass police resignations and crime spikes, and 2020 is on track to have the highest amount of gun-homicides in over twenty years. It’s no coincidence that these cities reduced their level of police activity just before this uptick. Violent crime disproportionately harms low-income and minority communities, so we shouldn’t support initiatives that make crime more frequent. We should stop saying ACAB, and focus on real police reform. Most cops are good people. Target the unions, not the career or individuals.

ARON RAVIN is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at aron.ravin@yale.edu.