With activists in Phoenix and across the nation demanding that spending on police be slashed, representatives from the Phoenix police union jumped into the fray on Friday, blasting calls to defund police.
"We are seeing an orchestrated campaign across the nation calling for the defunding and disbanding of police departments based on the false and offensive notion that all police, regardless of skin color, are violent and racist," said Michael "Britt" London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, at a Friday press conference. "This is just wrong. Phoenix is not Minnesota. We are not Minneapolis. That incident occurred 1,200 miles away. You can’t blame everyone for that incident."
"The false accusations are unfair to the thousands of upstanding police officers that selflessly serve and protect the community from violent crime," he added. "This rhetoric is creating more division and distrust within our community and it needs to stop."
The move comes on the heels of a national debate over the role of modern policing, and also after a Thursday evening protest where demonstrators marched to Tempe City Hall and demanded that the city council redirect spending on police to social services. (In the end, the Tempe City Council declined to alter the $97 million they allocated for law enforcement.) Similarly, the Phoenix City Council recently shot down calls from activists to slash police spending by 25 percent in the new city budget.
Some activists frame the push to defund police departments as a redirecting of public resources to services that better improve community outcomes, such as education and affordable housing, as well as eradicating law enforcement institutions that they view as wholly illegitimate given historical police brutality and racial bias.
"The conversation that we have today is where to redirect resources from the police state and into programs that create healthy and safe communities for us," Jamaar Williams, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro and a spokesperson for Black Abolitionist Collaborative, told Phoenix New Times. "The conversation for tomorrow is zeroing out the police department’s budget."
In response to London's statements that the Phoenix Police Department can't be compared to law enforcement in Minneapolis, Williams pointed to the high number of people shot by local cops. In 2018, the Phoenix police officers shot at more people than law enforcement in cities like New York, Houston, or Chicago, according to an Arizona Republic investigation. The same analysis also found that, every five days, a Phoenix cop shoots at someone; most of the people shot are armed, though many are not.
"Every American city has a George Floyd," Williams said. "In 2018, the Phoenix Police Department was worse than Minneapolis. In 2018 there was no other major city in America that was more problematic or more violent than the Phoenix Police Department. Defunding police is the mechanism by which we obtain the future that we all want, a future where we say goodbye to the American police officer that has been a major function of the system of organized violence and state-sanctioned murder."
Talking points aside, it's unclear what the complete elimination of police departments would look like — especially when it comes to violent crime. Meanwhile, the notion itself may not be widely popular. A recent poll found that while black support for the "defund the police" movement is double that of white support, just one in three Americans (or 34 percent) in general support the movement. Similarly, only 39 percent of total respondents supported reducing police budgets if the money gets spent on mental health, housing, and education services, according to the same poll.
At Friday's press conference, London framed demands to defund police as the "the movement to rid our communities of safety and peace of mind." He argued that slashing funding for police departments would actually work against activists' interests by eliminating money for programs like body cameras.
"You need a fully funded police department to make it better. You take away the tools we have and it just kind of makes it worse. Transparency costs a lot of money," he said. "Body cameras, retention, redaction of that information, costs a lot of money and it assists in transparency, correct? So you don’t want to take away from that."
Williams countered that the police department should find ways to finance body cameras through cuts in spending on staffing and equipment.
"It’s an easy flip to put the responsibility on us for accountability and transparency measures that they should already be paying for," he said. "We need less weapons in their hands. We need less police officers with salaries and pensions. We need less police vehicles. That’s where the sacrifices should come from to create accountability and transparency."
When asked by a reporter about documented racial bias in law enforcement, London was skeptical of the notion.
"We don’t go out there and hunt people who are brown and black," he said. "I don’t get it."
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London also repeatedly stressed that he would be willing to sit down with police critics to discuss the issues with them.
"I invite our critics to meet with us and we can discuss these issues, share these facts, trade information, and we will tell you the truth, no matter how hard it is," he said.
Williams said that if PLEA would "draft up a list" of "things that they can sacrifice from the Phoenix Police Department that totals $25 million," then activists might agree to a discussion.
"They’ve had multiple opportunities to sit down with the community and make changes in their function and role as police officers," he said. "What they want to do is sit down and have a conversation so that they can say that they are actually doing something to change the nature of the police state. But that is a disingenuous claim and they are not actually ready to make changes to their function in society."