Guest Opinion: Defund the Pittsburgh Police

By September 16, 2020 2 Comments

Current Photo: Jake Mysliwczyk

By Suhail Gharaibeh
Special to the Pittsburgh Current

A recent Twitter back-and-forth between Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and one of his constituents caught my attention.

Referring to the Pittsburgh Police, the constituent wrote, “We need you to help defund and defang them. We realize the police have resisted your attempts to bring reform, but the issue is too important to give up on so easily. Pittsburgh needs your bravery here.”

Peduto replied, “I get you. But please understand, the message from our Black neighborhoods and the message from Protestors are very different. Ending systemic racism involves better access to housing, healthcare, jobs, education as the foundation. That is what we are delivering.”

This response from our Mayor irritated me for a few reasons. Firstly, despite Peduto’s apparent desire to link ongoing activism in Pittsburgh to “far-right extremists,” the “alt-left” and other so-called “outside agitators,” the protestors currently on the street were born and raised in the very Black neighborhoods that Peduto would like to pretend they’re diametrically opposed to. The protesters include a diverse array of Black activists from all over Pittsburgh, and they alone are the driving force behind the current movement. Peddling conspiracy theories that suggest otherwise is misinformative and dangerous.

But even more glaring is Peduto’s claim that the City of Pittsburgh is “delivering” for Black folks. The idea that “we are delivering” in any of the aforementioned areas would be laughable if it weren’t so stunningly dishonest. 

Sure, Pittsburgh is known today as having safely overcome a near-disastrous environmental past, emerging triumphant from the rubble of deindustrialization with a thriving new “Eds and Meds” economy to boot. Our elected officials certainly love to tell this story about Pittsburgh. 

But the problem is that this narrative deliberately erases the experience of the city’s Black residents.  Socioeconomic data  shows that, when compared to similar cities, rates of livability for white men and women are quite high in Pittsburgh—but for Black men and especially Black women, they are shockingly low. 

And as an important 2019 report from Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission documents, the disparities begin at birth, and last until death. Pittsburgh’s Black residents are more likely to experience maternal mortality and infant mortality than both white Pittsburghers and Black people living in other cities. They are more likely to experience food desertion, gentrification, poverty, barriers to higher education, unemployment, arrest, incarceration, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and suicide. Depending on age and gender, Black Pittsburghers are between 4 and 42 times more likely to experience homicide—and their homicides are far less likely to be solved—than their white counterparts.

So no, the Mayor is not “delivering” Black Pittsburgh anything except precarity, displacement, and death—no matter how many times he pays lip service to social justice, attempting clumsily to soothe communities’ frustrations with his mendacious platitudes.

But furthermore, Peduto’s response betrays his shallow understanding of the movement to defund the police. Even a cursory glance at the many explanations of defunding that have recently been pushed out en masse by academics, activists, and explanatory journalists recently would benefit Mayor Peduto. He would realize that “better access to housing, healthcare, jobs, [and] education” is exactly what supporters of defunding are asking for.

So, Pittsburgh, allow me to make the case. Defunding is not a crackpot thought experiment or a liberal pipe dream. As a political demand, defunding is evidence-based and entirely defensible.

Defunding is not simply a unilateral slashing of police budgets. It’s not a vengeful punishment, or even a sanction for the police’s bad behavior. And despite the fear-mongering by corporate-owned media and right-wing pundits, defunding is certainly not about cutting off victims’ access to justice. 

Nobody wants to see their neighborhood become a “war zone” where crimes don’t get solved and violent offenders are allowed to roam with impunity. But the first key observation is that, despite what we have learned from Hollywood, police just aren’t the badass crime fighters one may think of them as. The Vera Institute has found that police are often the de-facto first responders to 911 calls, despite the fact that the vast majority of these calls are unrelated to emergencies or crimes in progress. We should begin by asking why people with guns and tasers are the first, rather than last, resort.

Data from the FBI shows us that 95 percent of arrests made by U.S. police each year are for nonviolent offenses—and that, on average, individual police officers make less than one violent crime arrest in an entire year. The mandate of the police is supposedly to “protect and serve.” But only 46 percent of violent crimes ever result in police actually making an arrest. The vast majority of rapes and robberies go uncleared every year, as do almost 40 percent of murders and almost 50 percent of assaults. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that most violent crimes in America don’t even get reported.

Black folks bear the brunt of the police’s remarkable ineptitude. In Allegheny County, for example, 97 percent of unsolved homicide cases between 2010 and 2015 were of Black victims, despite the fact that Black people make up just around a quarter of Pittsburgh’s population. 

And figures like this don’t include the murders that police themselves carry out. As public health experts and community organizers have long warned, our overreliance on law enforcement as the sole means to control violence is entirely counterproductive. Black Americans are up to six times more likely to be killed by police than non-Blacks, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast. Fewer than 1% of police killings ever reach a conviction. As the Brookings Institute concluded recently, “the failure to prosecute murderous police typifies a bad overall track record with solving violent crimes.”

In short, the (overwhelmingly Black) working class in Pittsburgh, like in virtually all major American cities, just isn’t getting a return on its tax dollars given the sheer magnitude of resources absorbed by the Bureau of Police. In a truly democratic (and not just Democratic) city, budgets are supposed to be a reflection of communities’ values and interests. 

Just in the time since Peduto was inaugurated in 2014, the police’s budget has ballooned by over $42 million, bringing the PBP to a 2020 grand total of $114,787,000. That’s almost 19 percent of our city’s budget. For comparison, Human Resources and Civil Service, which got slashed by over $14 million in 2020, takes around 7 percent. Environmental Services takes only 3 percent. Parks and Recreation, just 0.78 percent. The Citizen Police Review Board, a measly 0.1 percent.

Like in the vast majority of America, violent crime in Pittsburgh has been generally falling steadily for around two decades. 2019 in particular saw a dip in violent crime. Homicide rates were at historic lows. So why did the 2020 operating budget, drafted between City Council and Mayor Bill Peduto, boost the police’s budget by 10.2 million dollars? Why was the police’s first stated goal to “continue to increase the ‘boots on the ground’ officers in the field”? Why did Peduto advocate for police recruitment classes, hybrid police cruisers, three new substations in Homewood, Southside, and Downtown, and a potential fourth North Shore station to be included in the budget?

The goal with opening the new substations, as Peduto himself put it, was to hire more officers who were interested in working with young people, drug addicts, homeless people, and the mentally ill. With substations, Peduto said, “officers become part of what is needed.” This phrasing is telling. If police need to “become” part of a community’s needs, is that not a red flag? 

Defunding does not seek to create a vacuum of violence, chaos, and destruction. Quite the contrary—advocates are deeply invested in stimulating our strongest community organizations, and, indeed, in creating new ones altogether. Defunding seeks to address the true generator of crime—namely, socioeconomic marginalization. Consistently, both Black community organizers and academic sociologists tell us that the single most effective way to reduce crime is to improve social programs—especially education and employment. The status of these social programs is dismal in Black Pittsburgh.

A schematic view of the past half-century in American cities reveals two processes, always twinned and mutually reinforcing—on one hand, municipal austerity and the gutting of social services; and on the other, a drastic expansion in the scale and scope of policing, typically justified by a rhetoric of “law and order.” From the 1980s until the early 2000s, while Allegheny County affordable housing projects were getting demolished or turned into “mixed-income housing” and Pittsburgh was losing hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs, brand new prisons were popping up all over Western Pennsylvania, often in renovated schools and hospitals. 

We have to think, then, about tipping the scales in our communities once more—away from punishment (policing, surveillance, incarceration, etc.) and towards transformative social justice. Defunding represents this kind of concrete step. It is a counterbalance to the massive expansion of the prison-industrial complex—which, of course, includes police as its gatekeepers—that we have witnessed in the U.S. since the end of the Civil Rights Movement.

But why not reform? Well, efforts at police reform have been implemented in municipalities like Pittsburgh for years now—body cameras, training sessions, town halls, hiring more officers of color. I even participated in many of these reform efforts, from roundtables with Chief McLay and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch to focus groups with Zone 2 police officers. As solutions to police brutality, we now know these “reforms” were totally bogus. We have zero evidence that any of these efforts have affected police use of force or the disproportionate criminalization of Black people. They are little more than public-relations Band-Aids slapped over the gaping wound of the prison-industrial complex.

Defunding acknowledges the undeniable reality that policing, as Micol Seigel has put it recently, is about “violence work.” By definition, it’s the job of police to enforce the law through violence, or the threat thereof. So it should appall us that the criminal justice system has become many people’s primary point of contact with their local government. The true crackpot fantasy here is the idea that granting police even more money, training, and respectability will stop them from carrying out acts of violence against the citizenry. Violence is the logical conclusion of policing—and the systematic murder of Black people by police is the logical conclusion of the past half-century of our political history here in the U.S. Whether you like it or not, 2020 is a watershed moment, screaming at us that it’s time that we change course.

But where would the police’s money go? What would we do with this surplus of capital and human labor? 

Answering these questions requires ongoing research and collaboration. It requires constant public discourse about the future of the community. It requires a deliberately intersectional and interdisciplinary approach to ending oppressive hierarchies. It requires people willing to employ dynamic and complex solutions to meet people’s short- and long-term needs. In other words, it requires strong community organizing. 

Pittsburghers are freedom fighters, and their/our dedication to liberation and mutual aid long precedes the current moment. Not only have the city’s residents (especially its Black femmes) long been organizing against police and the prison-industrial complex, they have also long been organizing for employment, community safety and accountability, clean water and air, access to food, education, and reproductive justice, among so many other things. They have shown us that making our future in the present is possible. 

The Pittsburgh Police received a budget boost of $10.2 million in the last fiscal year alone. 

  • Instead of three new police stations, this bonus could have paid for three or more new reproductive health clinics. 
  • It could have been reinvested in a community-based public health approach to ending gun violence, as recommended by the CDC. 
  • It could have been set aside to give grocery grants of $250 each to over 40,800 working families when they need it the most (a strategy Pittsburgh Mutual Aid has done an incredible job with spearheading).
  • It could have gone toward establishing a robust restorative justice infrastructure to replace traditional punishment in Pittsburgh courts and schools, or expanded counseling services for victims of rape and domestic violence.
  • On average, it could have paid for over 500 years of tuition at Pitt—or over 2,000 years at CCAC. 
  • It could have expanded walkability and accessibility and improved our public transit corridors. 
  • It could have been used to implement a Housing First model (which has been proven effective at ending chronic homelessness) here in Pittsburgh. 
  • It could have established harm prevention strategies like clean needle exchanges, Narcan distribution, and robust rehab programs. 
  • It could have built schools, preschools, playgrounds, daycares, after-school centers. 
  • It could have gone towards fixing our water system, which has been utterly ruined since 2012 by the international utilities company Veolia—the very same company responsible for Flint, Michigan’s clean water crisis. 
  • It could have planted trees in neighborhoods where air pollution is the worst, or funded a municipal zero-waste program. 

I think people often misunderstand the work that “reparations” really do. Reparations are not about saying sorry for slavery. They are not simply about atonement or magnanimously making up for a past wrong. What “reparations” refers to, rather, is a dynamic political and economic effort to systematically reverse the long-term effects of colonization, enslavement, and white supremacy that continue to differentially expose the Black diaspora to precarity and premature death. Reparations seek to heal our “founding wounds.” And as the work of Black American scholars like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, and Michelle Alexander has shown, our current criminal justice system is yet another one of these long-term effects, a damaging and deadly wound that is widening each year.

Divesting from the police and investing in working-class communities represents a huge change to our current system, certainly—but it’s perhaps the clearest goal I have heard from the American left in my twenty years of life.

Our budget is decided during the fall and winter months of each year. Go to defund12.org to immediately email Pittsburgh’s City Council and Mayor. Exercise your rights to speech and assembly in your streets. Fight for Jonny Gammage. For Dion Hall. For Deron Grimmitt. For Jerry Jackson. For Romir Talley. For Antwon Rose, Jr. Most of all, fight for those whose stories may never be heard, and for those who have yet to be born.


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