Frank DeFilippo: The Different Interpretations of ‘Defund the Police’

Photo by Margaret Thale

Is there a college student alive who never began at least one freshman English essay with Voltaire’s quote: “If you want to converse with me, define your terms.”

Apparently so.

The new civic fight-song rising up from the asphalt lacks a theme. It’s a movement without a central intelligence and with an uncertain goal, except anger at police, differing in intent and intensity from the White House to state houses and city halls across the nation.

Terms are essential to resolution. They usually lay down what one party wants and the other is willing to give. Terms also set the limits and the conditions for discussion.

Nobody bothered to say what the terms were before Baltimore’s City Council skimmed the proposed municipal budget; before protesters swarmed the streets of a thousand cities; before President Trump issued another of his meaningless manifestos; and before the nation’s streets were chalked up and painted with the provocative but vague words, “Defund the Police.”

Frank!
Frank A. DeFilippo

Murder is wrong. Everybody knows that, or do they? Watching George Floyd being choked to death by a cop was a horrifying moment. So, too, was witnessing Rayshard Brooks being shot twice in the back by yet another cop who, after the kill, declaimed, “I got him,” as if he was on a rabbit hunt.

The reaction was swift and forceful. The streets readily jampacked, out of social determination and in defiance of the coronavirus pandemic, mostly peacefully but with some territorial lawbreaking carnage.

Officers directly involved in the deaths of both Floyd and Brooks have been charged with murder.

And the cops, mindful of being neighbors in the communities they police, were mostly restrained, except, for example, the uniformed lout in Buffalo who roughed up an aging peacenik forcefully enough to crack his head on the cement and leave him unconscious and bleeding and now, it is said, brain-damaged and paralyzed.

So there we have it, the two Americas, facing off, illustrating the cleave in a country that likes to boast that it was built on the twin foundations of “a Bible and a six-shooter” and hasn’t changed very much since.

Cops are supposed to be peace officers. They are sworn to assure, as best they can, calm and security in our neighborhoods. They were never intended to be armed to the teeth like “Delta Force” marauders fully equipped for stealth combat on foreign soil.

And now, to return to the top and the definition of terms, as we, as a society, process the confrontational words, writ large and small, “Defund the Police.”

Most Americans, elected officials and citizens alike, have different meaning and interpretations of what the words mean. A sampler: Abolish police departments; de-militarize cops and police departments; reduce their functions and award the money to social programs; ban excessive force, such as choke-holds; take away weapons; upgrade training programs; work to eliminate causes of poverty and crime; etc.

It’s a bafflement.

And it’s safe to say that never will there be a consensus on exactly what “Defund the Police” is intended to mean. And equally safe is that its application will vary, in degree, from state-to-state and city-to-city.

Begin at the top. Democrats in the U.S. House and Republicans in the Senate have competing plans on how to curb police brutality. Each party has vowed that the other’s plan is DOA.

Democrats would ban choke-holds; allow deadly force as a last resort; ban no-knock warrants; and designate lynching as a federal hate-crime. Republicans would withhold federal funds from police departments that do not ban choke-holds; require local governments to report deaths or injuries at the hands of police; require reporting of no-knock warrants; and, as with Democrats, would designate lynching as a federal hate crime.

President Trump, primped for his usual photo-op, issued the 152nd executive order of his presidency in which he tried to straddle law-and-order and a softening of police tactics. But in his confused, rambling and often scrambled syntax, Trump made it known that he stands four-square on the side of cops, no matter what.

Surrounded by uniformed police brass, including a Black ranking officer, Trump signed the order that would give police departments bonus federal money for adopting less confrontational tactics, create a federal database (which already exists, but is little used by local police), more collaboration between police and social workers and would allow choke-holds under certain conditions.

Throughout the weeks of unrest, Trump has been repeating his fantastical conspiratorial theory about so-called “antifa,” an imaginary coalition of left-wing anti-fascists, as infiltrating and agitating the widespread disruptions. As a prelude to his controversial Tulsa rally, he warned “agitators” and “lowlifes” to stay away.

Actually, infiltrators have been linked to an extremist right-wing group of gun-nuts who call themselves the “boogaloo bois” and who are said to be bad-ass racists who are preparing for the second Civil War, which they call “the boogaloo.” Arrests have been made.

At the Maryland State House, 99 House Democrats issued a letter in which they called upon Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to reform the different police units under his direction. They asked that Hogan immediately ban choke-holds; limit the use of deadly force; ban shooting at vehicles; require officers to intervene when another is using excessive force; and require every officer to sign a “sanctity of life pledge.” Speaker Adrienne Jones has created a House Police Reform and Accountability Work Group.

But nowhere more than Baltimore’s City Hall was the confusion and complexity of making a statement about defunding police more in evidence. The City Council did something that might mean little, or a lot, or nothing at all.

Caught between the demonstrators on the streets, and the reality of the societal need for policing, council members seemed terrified of going too far, or doing too little. It’s tough to imagine a city the size of Baltimore, with a soaring murder rate, a high rate of unsolved murders, which Trump has pointed out, and a high crime rate in destabilized neighborhoods, without adequate police funding and protection – especially in a police department under a federal consent decree. Before you know it, nobody will want to be a cop anymore.

Basically, the Council’s action was an exercise in gesture politics, a crowd-pleaser, if you will, but it does illustrate the difficulty in fulfilling the demonstrators’ outcry to punish cops.

With much anguish and even more rhetoric, and ever-mindful of the crowd of peaceful demonstrators on common ground outside, council members cut $22 million from the police department’s budget of more than $500 million.

More significant is what they cut: The Council cut the proposed departmental overtime budget from $40 million to $26 million. They eliminated the mounted police unit, which frees $554,000 after spending $2.5 million on new stables in Southwest Baltimore. And they eliminated the marine unit, which will save $1.4 million but appears foolhardy in a city that boasts a commercial harbor and an international port.

So here’s the deal: The City Council can cut funds from the budget but it can’t shift or reallocate the money to other programs. And the mayor can veto the cuts.

For its piece of the action, the Police Department can move money within its budget, and if it chooses to, which is likely, scrounge enough from other activities to preserve the units that theoretically were eliminated through cuts in funding.

At the end of the City Council seminar on defunding the police, Council President and Democratic nominee for mayor Brandon Scott had this to say: “This is just the beginning, and I intend to continue leading this process to redirect our public dollars and reimagine public safety in Baltimore.”

Does anyone know what that means?

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.