For Some Cop Critics, a Bigger Police Force Is the Solution, Not the Problem

Facing budget season, advocates ask: Are police dysfunctional public servants, or an occupying army?

Lisa Daugaard never expected to find herself supporting a proposal to hire more Seattle cops. The director of the Public Defender Association cut her teeth defending activists arrested during Seattle’s infamous World Trade Organization protests in 1999. During her career, the cops have usually been her adversaries.

She’s chilled out a bit in recent years. Daugaard now co-chairs the Community Police Commission, an advisory body that came into being as part of SPD’s 2012 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over brutal and possibly racist practices. And while she’s still pushing hard for police reform, Daugaard has shifted posture from destroyer to builder. She’s less interested now in the well-established facts of all that’s wrong with Seattle’s Finest and more concerned with the half-technical, half-philosophical question of how to fix them.

And, she’s concluded, fixing the police force means adding officers.

That could be a controversial stance. #BlockTheBunker—the movement that recently postponed the city’s plan to spend $160 million on a new North Seattle police precinct through repeated, raucous City Hall demonstrations—has turned its attention to police funding and is demanding that city leaders renege on plans to add another 200 police officers to the city’s force. On Monday—with protesters kept outside—Mayor Ed Murray presented his proposed budget to the Council, kicking off two months of negotiations before the budget is finalized at the end of November. That is where the question of police staffing, and the underlying question of how much police help or hurt public safety, will be addressed in terms of actual investment—and where Daugaard will make her unexpected case.

“I did not used to think this, but I have come to believe from watching it happen that it is possible to radically recast the role of police officers in our society,” says Daugaard. “Just because somebody is a police officer doesn’t mean they have to do the job the way it was done under ‘broken windows’ ” or other instances of oppressive policing, she says. While she remains critical of Seattle police in some ways—highlighting, in particular, their penchant for overpolicing peaceful protests—Daugaard’s position is that if we’re gonna have cops, they ought to be adequately staffed.

“Seattle has enormous gaps in police responsiveness to legitimate community needs,” Daugaard says. She points to Chinatown/the International District as an example of what happens when “the public institutions that were supposed to be doing [public safety] were not deployed” in an already-marginalized community. That underpolicing, Daugaard says, is what led Chinatown hero Donnie Chin to police his neighborhood, leading ultimately to his death last year. “One of the ways in which communities of color have been disadvantaged is the systemic denial of equal protection in the sense of equal access to policing services,” she says. “People of color are disproportionately the focus of law enforcement, but not of service of law enforcement.”

Nikkita Oliver never expected to hear herself call for more cops, either. So far, that prediction has been borne out. Just recently, the antiracist attorney/organizer joined #BlockTheBunker activists occupying Council chambers, where she lambasted the Council for its reluctance to listen to critics of police expansion.

But it’s not just listening she wants. She also wants change—a radical “transformation” of how our society handles public safety. “The institution of policing is inherently problematic,” she says, pointing to data showing that police disproportionately hurt people of color. “Adding more cops … just adds more people to keep doing what they’ve been doing,” she says—that is, killing and brutalizing black people, among other things.

“I do not believe we need police,” Oliver says.

#BlockTheBunker organizers Rashad Barber and Bypolar (a well-known activist who does not go by his legal name) similarly argue that police are not broken, they’re just bad, period. “Police tend to stand in opposition to actually treating people,” says Bypolar, who says that he’s been viciously abused by police as both a child and adult. #BlockTheBunker, Barber says, doesn’t think that “adding more police is a solution to community safety; it is actually going to hinder creating more safe communities” by sending a soldier to do a social worker’s job.

But don’t the police protect and serve us all? “It depends on who it is” being policed, says Bypolar. In a society of such staggering inequality, he says, police’s defense of the status quo necessarily benefits elites at the expense of the dispossessed.

The basic demand of #BlockTheBunker activists is this: Divest from police and prisons and invest that money in communities via housing and community-controlled social services. Investing upstream will prevent poverty in the first place, they say, which is the real source of crime and disorder. “As we work to invest more in communities, through the process of divesting and prioritizing communities before police and prisons,” Barber says, “and as we build the strong, resilient communities we’re talking about here, we’ll find that police will become more and more obsolete.”

OK, but “more obsolete” isn’t “obsolete.” Violent crime does happen. Don’t we still need some way of using force when less-violent solutions have failed? Speaking for himself, Bypolar replies that community patrols are one alternative. Neighbors and peers, he says, will always be better suited than outsiders to intervene. “Let the community take responsibility,” he says. “In the ’hood, a lot of people don’t call the police, and take care of their own shit.”

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw says activists are misguided. “They just don’t know what kind of work we’re doing, and so they’re imagining the worst,” she says. Shutting down Council meetings, she says, “doesn’t do anybody any good. It may make the protesters feel empowered, but it doesn’t help us legislate, doesn’t help us run the city.” Daugaard is also skeptical. “If we were … to ‘privatize’ the function of ensuring public safety in response to crime,” she told me, “who ensures that those services are provided equally? And if they’re not, then who’s going to fix them?” She’s not just referring to protection services, but also false accusations. “Summary justice—where somebody says that somebody else assaulted them or violated them in some way—if that accusation gets processed and decided based on who has the stronger relationship to the group that is providing the safety services, the potential for really profound miscarriages of justice is real,” says Daugaard. “As someone who has defended people wrongly accused of a crime, I’m very skeptical that we have community institutions that will fairly protect those who are victimized by crime and be fair to those who are accused of crime.

“It’s hard enough when [public-safety and justice] institutions are public and regulated by law,” she continues. Get rid of police as a public institution, and you’re essentially privatizing them, in the form of mercenary security companies in rich neighborhoods and relationship-based justice in poor communities. Neither is likely to advance the cause of accountability or equal protection under law. “Communities are not homogeneous,” Daugaard warns. “There are always lines of internal hierarchy and oppression. People do not always take care of their own, much less people who are different from them.”

To Oliver, this kind of criticism insinuates that poor communities just aren’t competent to organize their own public-safety responses. “They don’t think we know what we’re talking about,” she says, referring to city leaders who pooh-pooh local autonomy.

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