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GREG HARTON: Are law officers or political leaders the issue?

by Greg Harton | August 9, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

If you've spent most of your life viewing law enforcement officers as people who come to the rescue, a call to "defund police" sounds like an invitation to lawlessness and giving the "bad guys" control of our communities.

Not everyone sees things that way.

Consider this comment by a resident in a Ward 4 meeting in Fayetteville a couple of weeks ago: "People are dying in the streets. This is not just conjecture that I'm making up in my brain. An increased investment in a police force will proportionately make the lives of nonwhite people a lot harder. And number two, no institution based in violence can be reformed, is what I'm saying."

Fayetteville, among Arkansas' most liberal or progressive cities and government administrations, is the crosshairs of a "defund police" discussion happening within the national reaction to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other examples of police brutality. Why? The city's voters in 2019 went to the polls and approved building a new police department headquarters.

Voters, at the request of the City Council, agreed to tax themselves so the city could spend up to $37 million on the new facility. With its location now selected at Deane Street and Porter Road near Interstate 49, some City Council members are unhappy with its design and want changes made. Others in the community are seizing the moment to argue against the project or any additional spending on law enforcement.

Another Ward 4 resident reflected the localized battle, saying there's nothing special about Fayetteville's police department that makes it different than other troubled agencies. "This is systemic and we are not doing anything for public safety, especially for Black and brown communities, if we pretend otherwise and don't look to those solutions that do keep people safe, and it's not adding police officers, it's not a firing range, and it's not terrorizing our Black and brown communities."

Last Tuesday, five City Council members handed the anti-police forces a victory by voting to reject a $250,000, three-year federal grant to help put two additional police officers in Fayetteville schools, as requested by Superintendent John L. Colbert and the School Board. In a misguided response to the recent protests, these City Council members substituted their judgment for that of the educators operating our public schools.

On the larger question -- eroding funding for law enforcement activities -- I'm not so sure the pro- and anti-police sides are as far apart on their evaluations as one might presume. I'm skeptical even the most ardent advocates of law enforcement changes want communities in which chaos and crime rule. I also think law enforcement leaders might agree that, over the course of decades, too many responsibilities for the community's well-being have been placed on the shoulders of officers. We've asked too much of them and failed to provide funding for meaningful services that have the potential to stave off high-conflict, late-in-the-game interactions between police and citizens.

The problem, to me, is that in last Tuesday's discussion and others, some appear willing to dismantle law enforcement as a sacrifice to the failures of political leaders to address the community's needs in other ways. Police enforce the laws passed by city councils and state Legislatures. They put their lives on the line to deal with criminal and disruptive behaviors. That we lack less intensive responses isn't something we can blame law enforcement for.

If society, in Fayetteville and elsehwere, wants someone else -- trained in other important skills -- to respond, elected leaders ought to focus on building those systems. Isn't it their jobs to advance ideas about how to do that?

Diminishing law enforcement isn't what's needed to better address mental health, drug abuse and addiction, poverty and inequities in economic opportunities that have lingered for decades. Those issues go far beyond law enforcement.

Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.


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