Defund the police, or defang the gangs? 

Reform calls clash with reality of urban gun violence 

The “defund the police” slogan, born out of anguish and anger over police killing of unarmed black men, has existed uneasily alongside another painful reality: the predominantly black neighborhoods that advocates say are too often the scenes of unwarranted police brutality are also home to much of the urban gun violence that terrorizes whole communities. 

Those twin truths have collided this week in Boston, where Acting Mayor Kim Janey unveiled a new city budget yesterday and where outrage continues over the shooting death of a 73-year-old Dorchester woman who became the innocent victim of gun violence while sitting on her front porch last Saturday. 

Janey, as president of the City Council last year, was part of an effort pushing for a 10 percent cut in the roughly $400 million police budget. Now, as the city’s interim leader, she is proposing a far more modest $4 million cut in next year’s police budget. 

Last November, Rep. James Clyburn, the longtime black South Carolina congressman who helped deliver that state’s Democratic primary victory to Joe Biden, single-handedly resurrecting his moribund campaign, said the “defund the police” slogan cost Democrats congressional seats in the election. Clyburn, a veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, said he had conversations with late Congressman John Lewis about the parallels between the new catchphrase and the embrace by some of the cry, “burn, baby, burn,” during the 1965 unrest in Watts. 

“We can’t pick up these things just because it makes a good headline. It sometimes destroys headway,” Clyburn said in November.

Yesterday, Rev. Eugene Rivers, a leader of the clergy-police effort in the 1990s to quell rampant gang violence in Boston, seemed to endorse that view. He called the idea of supporting either police reform or more attention to public safety in neighborhoods a “false dichotomy.”

Rivers said he would be organizing a forum for Boston mayoral candidates to discuss their position on policing issues. “This horrific act must shock us into engaging in a serious, evidenced-based discussion of policing policy,” Rivers said of Saturday’s killing of Delois Brown as she sat on her Olney Street porch.  

“There’s this idea somehow that Black people can’t walk and chew gum,” Rivers said at a press conference alongside other clergy. “We’re against the bad cops and we’re for good cops and better funding is better than no funding.” 

Janey seems to be trying to straddle that divide. She named the first director of Boston’s new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency on the same day she proposed a 2022 budget that trims police overtime by a small amount while also funding 30 additional officers in the 2,200-member police force.  

Michael Cox, director of Black and Pink Massachusetts, a group that favors prison abolition, told the Globe his organization was “deeply disappointed” in Janey’s spending plan and wanted to see a 10 percent cut in the police budget. “We had high hopes for her,” Cox said. “Now all of sudden she’s mayor and it seems her calculus has changed, and we hope she can revisit that and meet the will of the people.”

But the “will of the people” may not be exactly in line with what the loudest voices are calling for. 

A national poll conducted earlier this month by Vox and the liberal think tank Data for Progress showed strong support for police reform — and for regular police presence in US communities. 

Asked whether regular police patrols in their community would make them feel more safe or less safe, 65 percent of black respondents said more safe, while only 22 percent said less safe. There was a bigger gap among white respondents, with 81 percent saying regular patrols would make them feel more safe and only 10 percent saying less safe. But the broad message seemed to be that Americans want better policing aimed at real public safety dangers in their community. 

A report being released today by a criminal justice advocacy group alleges that New Bedford police stopped, frisked, or questioned black people at rates significantly higher than whites in the city over the last five years, with 10 officers involved in nearly half of the incidents. 

Reports like that, alongside the surge in shootings in many US cities and low rate of solving homicides, underscore the observation of some criminal justice experts that minority communities suffer from both over-policing and under-policing at the same time. That’s a complicated problem to address, and not something easily reduced to a slogan on a bumper sticker.