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Defund la Policía

Roar writer Julia Hoffmann on recent endeavours to defund police in the United States, and how those efforts could be put to good use in Latin American nations.

While Donald Trump’s campaign adverts claim that “defunding the police” will bring an end to all law enforcement, the concept actually calls for reducing police responsibility and the reallocation of police funds to public services such as housing and education, reducing general criminal activity. So, despite what the President may claim, you and your family would still be safe.

In the United States, confusion over the meaning of police defunding, a decline in public support, and widespread polarisation significantly impede progress in the implementation and execution of the initiative. And yet the concept could still find application in the Americas – just not the northern region. While most discourse on police brutality comes from the United States, the countries with the greatest rates of police killings are overwhelmingly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Latin American governments rely heavily on the police as the only institution able to combat the region’s high crime rate, and in turn direct the majority of security spending to their police departments. Previous dictatorships and armed conflicts have resulted in heavily militarized police departments that encourage the use of force. In such volatile and highly armed environments, police killings seem almost inevitable.

While the United States and Latin America are miles apart, their solutions to this issue could be one and the same. A 2018 study from Brazil showed that even with increased funding in the security sector, homicide rates did not decrease, but rather increased. A solution to the cycle of criminality and police brutality may require a rethinking of the linear orthodoxy that connects an increased police budget with a consequent decrease in crime.

In 2014, administrations in the Americas spent an average of 5.4% of their GDP on public security. Defunding the police could partially redirect these funds to community policing groups trained in the management of non-violent crime. Through the regionalisation of the police force, these groups could act more efficiently by practising more targeted policing in their communities. Law enforcement also needs to realise this as an opportunity to regain the trust of the public which it has squandered through years of abuse, inefficacy, and corruption.

To combat root causes of criminality like poverty and poor education systems, state investments should also be redirected to social services. A want for a strong police force in the face of rampant crime has led to a policing tradition that is more reactive and punitive than preventative. As crime prevention is both more effective and cost-efficient, other citizen security institutions need to reclaim their responsibilities.

Reallocating state funds is only the first step. A report by the Inter-American Development Bank recommends additional measures, including police demilitarization, increased transparency, and police training reform. Yanilda González, assistant professor at the University of Chicago, states: “The pendulum has swung toward reform in the United States, but it remains to be seen whether societal and political conditions in Latin American countries today will generate a similar reckoning”.

Police reforms have been historically slow in the Americas, stemming from a lack of support from governments, police, and even the public. If the political willpower for change could be harnessed in Latin America, it could really benefit from the ideas of its northern neighbour.

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