Is Defunding Police Departments Right for Your City?

Is Defunding Police Departments Right for Your City?

Is Defunding Police Departments Right for Your City?

Will it Lead to Sustainable Success or Catastrophic Failure?

People around the world are protesting against racism and police brutality. The system is breaking down (or in the throes of self-correction, depending on your point of view). One solution that has been suggested is to defund police departments. It is unclear, however, whether defunding is the best approach for all cities. 

Arguments against defunding suggest that it will lead to greater racial inequality and harm to the community as poor neighborhoods organize around criminal gangs. Some fear that removing the devil we know will lead to the arrival of seven that we do not. A wide variety of arguments in favor of defunding range from the relatively simple to the relatively complex. Each of them is claiming that their plan will lead to greater social justice and less violence.

Despite the range of opinions, two things are certain. First, things cannot continue as they are. There must be change and the change must be substantial. Second, the path to change is not clear, there is a veritable cacophony of voices and opinions on which way we should go. 

In this article we will briefly explore our chances for successful change based on our existing understanding of the situation. Then, we will suggest a process for moving forward at the local level with a few key points to keep in mind for maximizing our chances for successfully creating communities that are safe, prosperous, and just. The first question is “do we understand the situation?” The short answer is no.

How do we know how much we know?

One warning flag about our lack of knowledge may be found in the halls of academia. A search for scholarly papers on the topic of “defunding police” found only seven publications. Compare that result with a search for papers on “police brutality” which found nearly sixty thousand publications. 

Do those thousands of publications provide us with an effective understanding of police brutality? Are we able to eliminate police brutality? Obviously not. So, how do we think that we can solve the more complex problem of defunding police to improve safety and justice in our communities? It seems we have a vast quantity of knowledge, without much quality or usefulness of knowledge.

Of course, the academic world is not the only repository of knowledge. There are several web sites and articles providing suggestions for finding justice by defunding police. These include “For a World Without Police” and “Transform Harm” with more articles published on other sites almost every day. Each is different with alternate suggestions for action ranging from reducing police use of military hardware, to disbanding police departments. 

One case that is increasingly mentioned as an example of successful de-funding is Camden, New Jersey. In that situation, however, the police department was disbanded and then re-formed. There is no guarantee that Camden faced the exact same situation as your city or that the Camden solution will prove effective in your city. 

While reasonable people might argue forever about the relative merits of the many plans and few examples of success, we cannot argue forever – justice should be swift. However, justice should also be sure. The question becomes, “How can we predict if a plan might work?”

Research in the science of conceptual systems provides a method for evaluating those plans according to their internal logic structures. Let’s look at one, reasonably simple, plan for defunding the police to provide an example of how the structure of our knowledge might be understood. From a recent article we create the following diagram:

Thanks for the free online mapping platform to: 

Here, there are seven boxes – each representing a concept that is relevant to the topic of defunding police departments. They are connected by arrows representing causal relationships. For example, the more community patrols in a neighborhood, the less need there will be for police (and, presumably, less violence and more justice for all). 

We can measure the structure of this knowledge by first counting the number of “transformative” concepts (those have more than one arrow pointing in to them). Here, the only transformative concept is “Less need for police.” Next, we count the total number of concepts (seven). Then, divide the transformative by the total to get 0.14. Thus, we can say that this knowledge is 14% structured and so has about a 14% chance of success (assuming that each of those causal arrows is supported by good data from previous research). 

There is nothing worse than a simple plan. 

To have a better plan, representing more useful knowledge, with a better chance of success, we need a map that has more boxes and more connections. 

More pragmatically, the structural weakness of this diagram can be seen starting with its “daisy petal” arrangement. Imagine each box is being run by a different organization. All of them competing for funding, each of them ready to take credit for success but point the finger of blame at the other five groups if the plan does not succeed. This arrangement almost guarantees that the many groups will be in conflict with each other instead of cooperating for common and interdependent goals. Because, working in their silos, they are not collaborating as an effective network should.

This kind of “daisy fail” can be avoided by following two parallel paths of developing more structured knowledge on one hand, and by using better tools of government on the other. Both of these require communication and collaboration. 

The “tools of government” path means deploying the best approach to find success within each box. For example, to improve our mental healthcare system we might consider providing grants, contracting those services out, mobilizing community volunteers, or any one of many different approaches. The choice of which tool to apply will be based on the appropriateness of that tool to the specific community. That choice, of course, would be made by the careful consideration of a diverse stakeholders. That means reaching out to find an ever-expanding circle of stakeholders and litening carefully to their concerns, insights, and ideas.

The second path is to improve the structure (and so the usefulness) of our knowledge. Here, there are a few basic strategies. First, we want to integrate research from multiple fields of knowledge. As mentioned above, there are untold thousands of research papers available; what we need to do is synthesize them. The second strategy is to access and integrate knowledge from a diverse range of stakeholders (black, white, police, non-profits, government agencies, social workers – more diversity is better). The process of collaborative integration accelerates our shared learning. 

While some may see that as a recipe for confusion, their many insights can be integrated effectively using a “practical mapping” approach that has proved effective in creating more structured knowledge. Looking back at the daisy diagram above, we want to understand how all of the boxes may be connected. If we do it right, each organization will be working to support the others; and, will be accountable to the others. In short, creating a collaborative action network. 

These parallel paths to success are guided by ongoing research into the “structure of knowledge” that shows how we can develop policies and plans that are more likely to succeed. Also, increasingly researcher are newer “tools of government” that are providing new ways to deal with old problems. Together, these tools, and the knowledge for how they might best be applied in each local situation, suggest a path forward that is likely to have sustainable success. 

Instead of advocating for “bandaid” approach devoid of real change, or a “defund the police today” approach of immediate action, we would suggest an approach that is likely to lead to successful change in less than a year as follows:

  1. Understanding the situation (local facilitators use the practical mapping approach to generate a shared understanding among diverse stakeholder groups and scholarly research).
  2. Identify where solutions have been found and adapt the appropriate tools for each locality (using the map from step #1, carefully consider the range of tools for each part of the situation and choose the best tool for action).
  3. Apply solutions in parallel with existing police work (using insights from steps one and two, begin implementing tools being sure to identify how actions of each part will support other parts).
  4. Evaluate and return to step #1 (this will include tracking measurable results and reporting them with full transparency through community meetings and online dashboards).

With competent leadership, the first two steps should require less than two months each to create an effective map and choose the best tools. With tools in hand and a shared plan, step three may begin almost immediately with activities easily coordinated based on the map. Results may require a few months to manifest; however, they certainly should require less than a year. Data collection will be ongoing. And, with that data, participants can revise the process as needed.

To summarize, we have a great quantity of knowledge but that knowledge is not have a high quality. It is unstructured and so provides only the pretense of understanding. Thus, as it stands, dramatic efforts to defund police have about an 86% chance of failing to reach their goals. 

Likewise, it should also be noted, that with less structure and less chance of success also comes greater chance for unanticipated negative consequences. So, the concern about gaining seven devils we don’t know, just to get rid of one we do, seems quite reasonable. 

This kind of failure has been seen before. Even policies that are well funded and broadly supported, such as the “war on drugs,” have failed to reach their goals. Worse, they have spawned a variety of new problems such as sending more people to prison which results in increased costs to taxpayers and the destruction of families.

Because action should be taken to advance justice for all, this post has outlined a path of collaborative communication and learning for toward improving knowledge for effective implementation that gives us the best chance for success within a reasonable time frame. The results may not lead to any one group being perfectly satisfied, but they will lead to better, safer, just, and prosperous communities for the benefit of all. 

About the Author

C:\Users\swall\Desktop\new FAST\paper and promotional\steven wallis.jpg

Steven E. Wallis, PhD

Director, Foundation for the Advancement of Social Theory (FAST)

Capella University, School of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Researching and consulting on policy, theory, and strategic planning 


Dr. Wallis is a Fulbright alumnus, international visiting professor, award-wining scholar, and Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Social Theory; researching and consulting on theory, policy, and strategic planning. An interdisciplinary thinker, his publications cover a range of fields including psychology, ethics, science, management, organizational learning, entrepreneurship, policy, and program evaluation with dozens of publications, hundreds of citations, and a growing list of international co-authors. In addition, he supports doctoral candidates at Capella University in the Harold Abel School of Psychology. Following a career in corrosion control engineering, he earned his PhD at Fielding Graduate University and took early retirement to pursue his passion – leveraging innovative insights on the structure of knowledge to accelerate the advancement of the social/behavioral sciences for improved practices and the betterment of the world. His textbook, with Bernadette Wright, “Practical Mapping for Applied Research and Program Evaluation” (Sage Publications) provides unique and effective approaches for developing new knowledge in support of sustainable success for businesses, government, and non-profits programs working to improve measurable results, individual lives, and whole communities.

featured image: DOUG MILLS /NYT

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