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Defund the Police?

Guest: Dr. Clifford Stott, Professor of Social Psychology at Keele University in the UK and Director of the Keele Policing Academic Collaboration (KPAC)

Calls to reform, limit, and defund the police are growing after the murder of George Floyd. How should the world rethink policing?

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sparked a worldwide reckoning over violent policing practices – often applied disproportionately to select racial groups and demographics. “Black Lives Matter” has become a global rallying cry against racism and police brutality alike. By certain metrics, U.S. policing is a success – major cities enjoy their lowest crime rates in decades. But it’s impossible to ignore calls for justice as governments arm police forces with military-grade equipment and super-sized budgets. Protests have given a megaphone to demands for dramatic institutional changes to policing. Calls to abolish the police altogether have gained unprecedented momentum. It’s time to seriously consider the question: is there a better way to keep the world’s cities and populations safe? 

Dr. Clifford Stott, a Professor of Social Psychology at Keele University in the UK and Director of the Keele Policing Academic Collaboration (KPAC), joins Altamar to explain the global principles for smarter policing – and why U.S. policing is an outlier from the rest of the world. A member of the British Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, Stott specializes in the psychology and dynamics of crowd behavior, riots, hooliganism, and public order policing. He has lectured and written at universities around the world on policing and criminal justice, including advising the European Union, the European Commission, various police departments, and the English Football League on crowd management and policing.

Improvements in urban law enforcement, reactions to civil protests, and community relations are urgent – because things are going to get worse before they get better, says Dr. Stott. Stott explained that a key difference today is that “the issue is spreading at this time in the context of COVID. One of the things that is important to recognize about what COVID is doing to societies across the world is amplifying inequality.” According to Stott, George Floyd’s death against a backdrop of discontent is lighting a fire of social unrest: “We are now of course about to enter what is probably going to be one of the worst economic recessions in global history…what we’re starting to see now is the birth of a period of social instability, of which the Black Lives Matter is just the first of a whole sequence that will be coming across in the next few years.”

Political and economic instability have given credence to frustration over unfair policing methods. Stott emphasized that issues in policing are immensely complex, multifaceted and offer no easy answers, but that at its core, “the issue here is not about police violence, it’s about the justification of that violence.” With multiple high-profile cases of violence and even death at the hands of police in quick succession, citizens are left asking, “What is it that allows particular organizations access to excessive levels of capability to exercise that power, and when they do so, are they left unaccountable for any violations of that exercise of power?” After all, according to Scott, “policing isn’t about military oppression – it’s about policing the public by the public for the public of the public, and that is a model of policing through consent.”

Stott argues that in the United States the balance of power is compromised by the mind-boggling number of readily available firearms throughout the country: “One of the things I have to put on the table is the fact that you have circumstances in America where people can walk around with automatic rifles in the street…we shouldn’t be surprised that the police get a little twitchy when they are policing people in that context.” Furthermore, the U.S.’ decentralized network of police forces presents major obstacles to systemic reform. As Stott points out, there are “somewhere in excess of 18,000 different police forces in America, so the capacity to create any form of regulatory control across all of those different organizations is itself a massively complex challenge that can’t be met easily.”

Calls to “defund the police” and reinvest those funds in communities – particularly in social services and youth programs – have gained considerable momentum. “It’s a challenging idea, but it is an idea that has some traction,” says Stott. And not just in the United States. Brazilians have protested in recent weeks against excessive police force in favelas, protesters in South Africa are demanding police be held accountable, and in Nairobi, Kenyans have marched against police brutality. But Stott maintains that though this is a global problem, a universal solution won’t do: “The idea that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution is also really untenable.”

Tangible change will depend on addressing the needs of local communities directly and holistically, Stott says: “I argue so vociferously for interventions based on neighborhood and community policing, because it’s by becoming embedded in those communities that you begin to understand them.” By creating police forces from the ground up that are a reflection of the communities they intend to serve, we can begin to reimagine the very nature of policing itself. According to Stott, to maintain the peace, we must “understand the principles through which effective policing works and try to apply those principles into a [local] context that’s going to have its unique challenges, histories, and cultures.”

Learn more about the future of policing, available for download here.

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Episode 76