03:35 GMT16 April 2021
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    In the wake of George Floyd’s death and after protests that trashed American cities, there has been a major debate on cutting the police budget and abolishing some structures. The recent developments in Georgia, where the local House of Representatives allowed the police budget to be cut by no more than 5 percent, was rebuked by Democrats.

    Sputnik spoke to Dr. David Thomas, a retired African American police officer and professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, who shared his thoughts on how police budget cuts might impact the american society and what challenges this policy could bring to the local law enforcement agencies.

    Sputnik: The Georgia State House approved a bill limiting police budget cuts to no more than 5 percent, and Democrats call this law unconstitutional. Do you think it is contradictory to ask to reduce police funding, as the Dems did so vocally during the BLM protests?

    Dr. David Thomas: It's interesting that this all came about as a result of the BLM protests. And it came about because of the big push across the country to defund the police. There's no doubt that those two things coincide. Not only has that happened in Georgia, but here in the state of Florida, our governor has recommended something very similar. And they're waiting for it to come across the criminal justice committee. They've even gone so far as to increase to create certain crimes, actually making it OK to shoot people for property crimes during times of a riot or making it a felony if people block traffic, if they don't have a permit during times of protest. So there's a move in the country to address or come back with this "law and order" type thing. And they don't want to defund the police. I think reallocation would be a better word. I just did an interview yesterday where we talked about how New York was going to disband its police department and then have people reapply, have officers reapply and put a civilian in charge of the police department and bring in social workers and mental health workers to be a part of that system. But our society doesn't function without police. It's total chaos. And so to do away with that makes no sense. But also, I think this country is about home rule and where cities and local governments have a right to rule their communities as they see fit. And so we have to find the balance.  

    A demonstrator holds up a Black Lives Matter sign during a protest over the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, after police put a spit hood over his head during an arrest on March 23, in Rochester, New York, U.S. September 6, 2020
    © AP Photo / BRENDAN MCDERMID
    A demonstrator holds up a "Black Lives Matter" sign during a protest over the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, after police put a spit hood over his head during an arrest on March 23, in Rochester, New York, U.S. September 6, 2020

    Sputnik: Can the police afford major budget cuts such as those proposed by Democrats?  How will substantially decreasing funding affect the work of law enforcement?

    Dr. David Thomas: Over the years, the law enforcement power in this country has already been working at a deficit. And so they've been pushed out a bit to do more with less and to kind of do these budget cuts, that I think would paralyze some agencies. Not only that, you have to look at the ideas - that they want quality police and they want well-trained police - is usually the first thing to go. And it has been, in my experience for the last 40 years, is that when the budget gets cut, first thing to go is quality training. So the very thing that they want - they're hurting by cutting the budget.

    Sputnik: How do budget cuts affect the quality of training?

    Dr. David Thomas: Well, I mean, there's no training. Literally the first thing to go, one of the things that will go out the door is, there's no training. We can't afford to train. We can't afford to send you to classes. We can't afford to do in-service training because sometimes we have to cover shifts with overtime. So that means there's no budget. So there will be no training. Unless the state, like Florida, mandates 40 hours of mandatory training every four years. So what you will probably see is mandatory minimums. And in those states where those places where they don't have that type of thing, just won't do any training, because there's no budget. 

    Sputnik: What is your stance on the constant calls to reduce police funding which are circulating in the media? Do you think such moves are necessary given the ongoing social tension in the US?

    Dr. David Thomas: I think that law enforcement needs to kind of rethink the way it does its business. Not necessarily make the budget cuts. But I think we really need to sit down and reevaluate what law enforcement's role is. In this country, over the years, everything has been kind of dumped on policing and they've accepted those roles. Especially, let's say, like dealing with mental health issues. That dates back to the late 70s and early 80s, when this country closed down all of its mental health institutions and released those people onto the street and, who became the person or the guardian for the mental health issues? Law enforcement. And that has been maintained for years. Law enforcement is not doing such a good job now. So we need to rethink and retool. There is a program in Eugene, Oregon, called CAHOOTS. And that program is pretty good because they are dispatched right out of police dispatch, which means these calls are screened. They have a mental health person, a paramedic. And they go to those calls for service. They help the homeless, the people who are mentally ill. And I think less than five percent of those calls have required police intervention. Here where I live, in Gainesville, they have a police car, and that car has one officer who has a master's in forensic psychology. And then they have a mental health clinician from the local clinic that rides with her four days a week, 40 hours a week. And they respond to all the mental health counseling service on her shift. And that program has been very successful and it reduces that type of interaction and violence. When I say rethink, they really have to rethink. 

    And law enforcement is kind of archaic because I've talked to chiefs and sheriffs here and they said "you know what happens when we send mental health people and somebody kills them? And it needs us". It doesn't necessarily need us. We just need to have to do a better job of screening the calls and determine which one needs a law enforcement response and which one doesn't. And if law enforcement does need to be involved, then let somebody else handle that call for service. 

    Sputnik: You have suggested that this society cannot function without police. How do you think police funding can be reduced without affecting the public safety? 

    Dr. David Thomas: The argument, they found this out in Minneapolis, people are screaming about police: "we don't want less police, fund the police!". It's interesting that the people who live closest to where the violence occurs, where they have shootings and robberies and that stuff occurs - they want police! Because they understand that it is a central part of their safety. When I talk about rethinking, we have to rethink policing. It needs to be reimagined. Those two things have to work together because a society without police is lost and police who are not in touch with their citizens is like an army that doesn't have a mission.  

     Protesters overtaking and burning the Minneapolis Police's 3rd Precinct
    © CC0
    Protesters overtaking and burning the Minneapolis Police's 3rd Precinct

    Sputnik: What do you think will happen with police funding during the Biden administration?  

    Dr. David Thomas: Oh, boy, that's an interesting question. I think if they do the plan right, if they do this right, if they do criminal justice reform correctly, then I think that policing will change. Culture has to change. That could be the impetus for change. The other side of that is when our federal government is involved in anything, the question always has to be asked: who is the gatekeeper? Under President Obama, in this country, we had consent decrees, meaning that if a city or a police department was out of line, then what could happen is that the federal government or Department of Justice could sue the agency and the jurisdiction. That meant that they would evaluate them and they would say, you need this type of training, you need to change these policies. And the federal government will come in basically and take over your department and make you correct those errors. Under the Trump administration, Jeff Sessions, - there's a memo that I've read, where he said we're no longer going to local law enforcement, no longer our problem, local governments can handle themselves. Well, nobody's watching police.

    So I'm hoping that the gatekeeper kind of 'evens the playing field', and they intervene where it needs to be intervened. But if you're talking about on the local level, these battles that we're having between police and communities, - that has to be solved here at that level, the police have to take their feelings and leave them at the front door. Community has to take their feelings and leave them at the front door. And they really need to kind of sit and talk so the community can say what it wants from its police department. And the police department can say this is how we're going to meet your needs. If they don't do that, then these battles will continue and the struggle will continue.  

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    Tags:
    crime, society, defunding, Joe Biden, BLM, police, US
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