Defunding public-safety agencies, or abolishing them entirely, may seem very 2020 at this point – polls now show overwhelming opposition among the public to the concept, and many of the same Democratic politicians who embraced its rhetoric last year have fled from it this year.
But some activists have not entirely given up the fight.
At the Nov. 13 Arlington County Board meeting, speaker Evangelia Riris called on elected officials to eradicate much or all of the police department and sheriff’s office, rerouting the $119 million in annual funding to other uses.
“We could put the money into social services that would provide a more meaningful effect onto people’s lives,” said Riris, a college student majoring in psychology.
Riris declared that local law-enforcement personnel “enforce a deeply racist system” and “the Arlington government has not done enough to try to rectify the harm.”
“Defunding the police would not create all-out anarchy or make Arlington a lawless county of crime,” she said. “It will likely do the opposite.”
Arlington board members and County Manager Mark Schwartz said, in effect, thanks but no thanks to Riris’s request. While stopping short of saying it out loud, they intimated that activists in the defund-the-police movement are not quite cognizant of the nuanced role public-safety officers play in the modern era.
“This concept that they’re somehow divorced from social services couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Schwartz, pointing to the close collaboration between the public-safety personnel and the department of Human Services (which at $159.2 million this year has a budget more than twice that of the police department).
Public-safety personnel “are actually out there every day in our community, interacting with our residents and trying to improve things – 99.9 percent of the work we do is talking with our residents and making sure they are doing well,” Schwartz said.
Skipping past a direct confrontation with the speaker (he does have a re-election bid coming up next year and needlessly alienating Arlington’s noisy left flank might not be prudent), County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti responded indirectly. He said the county government has taken steps to improve policing while also investing “significantly more than the $119 million” in housing and social-service efforts.
His County Board colleague, Libby Garvey, suggested critics of the current system might want to reach out to gain a better understanding from the other side of the issue.
“Have an officer come and talk about their work and what they do,” she said. “That might be a useful conversation.”
Arlington’s police department may not be defunded, but its ranks have been denuded: The county’s police department is facing a shortage of sworn officers as retirements and other departures have increased and recruitment has become a challenge in the recent political environment that saw all law-enforcement personnel vilified in some quarters for the actions of a few.
Taxpayers will likely be the ones to pick up the tab, as county leaders may have to hike pay scales and provide other blandishments in order to stanch the exodus and start building back.