Every freedom-loving American should be horrified and moved to action by the injustice we witnessed in Minneapolis, when a police officer pinned his knee to George Floyd’s neck as three other officers stood idly by. The scene symbolized the racism that is all too present in some police forces across the country. Remarkably, this tragedy sparked a nationwide outcry of activism and demonstrations that remind me why America is an exceptional country. The last thing Republicans should do is bury our heads in the sand as the nation shouts for reform.
“DEFUND THE POLICE” is now a fixture of 16th St NW in Washington, D.C., reflecting a provocative demand from the demonstrators. While I do not advocate defunding police forces outright, the idea of prioritizing funds to proactive community-based programs is a compelling idea that should appeal to conservatives.
Conservative values are rooted in the individual and the belief that family, religious, and community ties produce a healthy social fabric. Studies demonstrate that children fare better emotionally and academically in a stable two-parent household. Churches, synagogues, and charity organizations have traditionally provided for the underprivileged in local communities. When we become familiar with the members of our community and humble ourselves enough to help one another, we prevent the selfishness and alienation that lead us to “outsourc[ing] the management of social interactions” to police officers, as Minneapolis City Council member Steve Fletcher wrote in TIME.
Unfortunately, top-down government programs have replaced the vital role of our local institutions. A slogan that played during the Democratic National Convention in 2012 exemplified the misguided mentality that the government will solve the problems plaguing communities: "The Government Is The Only Thing We All Belong To.” This motto is ostensibly unifying, but it is not the recipe for good government policy.
The role of government is to provide the freedom and opportunity for each citizen to thrive. Government should facilitate our individual capacity to work toward community goals. Some of the community-based alternatives to policing being proposed are a step in the right direction. These include dispatching social workers, mental health professionals, conflict resolution counselors, or EMTs rather than police officers where there are professionals better equipped to handle certain situations. Of course, we recognize that there are many cases where we will always need police officers trained to use force. It makes sense, though, to also invest in community programs that address the problems which lead to crime in the first place: providing children with an adequate education, the homeless with shelter, and the mentally ill with doctors. These programs will cost a lot of money up front, but they are cost-effective in the long run because they empower citizens to proactively create the type of community in which they want to live. That is the role of government. In sum, these alternatives assure them that first responders are there to help, not to punish.
Police officers oftentimes aggravate situations they are ill-equipped to handle. They cannot reasonably be trained to deal with interpersonal disputes or people experiencing a mental illness as well as other specialized professionals can. Improved police training fails to address the underlying problem which is that police officers are being stretched too thin and asked to regulate too many societal failures that end up making them villains of their community. We need to reimagine the reasons why we call the police, and a man asking a woman to put her dog on a leash is not one of them.
Some cities have implemented gradual reform measures to reinvest in the community. Instead of building a new $95 million police academy, the City of Chicago redirected the money to community development in education and youth programs. Camden, New Jersey famously dismantled and reengineered its police force’s service philosophy. Every new officer had to go door-to-door and introduce themselves to the neighborhood they were assigned to protect. These examples illustrate the type of mentality policymakers should have while addressing crime prevention. Conservatives believe that the government should be conscious and respectful of our rights. These principles are a blueprint for restructuring policing and the role of government.
Community-based policing places trust in each citizen and encourages political and civic participation at the local level, where it matters most. They reorient policymakers’ mindset as to how laws should be enforced and even what laws should be on the books. Conservatism distrusts big government and loves the individual’s freedom to act within their communal capacities toward goals that reflect their interests and needs. We are living amid an historic social and political transformation with a path for conservative values to shape public policy. I invite my fellow conservatives and Republicans to think creatively about how to achieve the change we need to build a better future.