On paper, St. Joseph shares certain similarities with Camden, New Jersey.
Both cities exist in the shadow of a larger metropolitan area. Both boast a population of around 73,000. Both have citizens who worry about crime.
Lately, Camden emerged as a case study for a city that made wholesale changes to the structure of its police department. Call it what you want: defunding, reimagining, gutting or transforming.
The results are hard to ignore. Camden de-emphasized “broken window” enforcement for more community engagement and shed its costly union contract in favor of younger officers. The murder rate dropped to 25 last year and the city saw demonstrations but an absence of chaos and destruction in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
That much is documented. Here’s one more detail about Camden that was noted in an Associated Press article: “Along with the switch to community policing came a reliance on high-tech, citywide surveillance and more patrols.”
This illustrates one of those overlooked realities in this sometimes Utopian debate. Defunding the police, whatever that means, isn’t the same thing as eliminating crime, or more importantly, eliminating concerns about crime.
If this movement results in a less visible police presence through reduced funding, something else will fill that void, especially in high-crime areas. It’s likely that one of those things would be increased deployment of technology.
Red-light cameras, license plate scanners and facial recognition software would prove useful in helping to prevent or solve crime in a world with fewer officers on the streets. But this technology also would lead to privacy concerns, not to mention allegations that facial recognition technology is prone to a bias against minorities.
Another likely consequence of disbanding an entire police department, something that’s under discussion in Minneapolis, would be a move toward more private citizens arming themselves and more businesses and neighborhoods relying on private security services. This would not be an upgrade. Do you think Joe Sixpack would handle a stressful situation better — or show more sensitivity to minorities — than a trained, licensed law enforcement officer?
Plenty needs to change with policing in the United States, but don’t forget that many Central American migrants don’t come to this country for economic reasons alone. They come to escape murder, violence and lawlessness in their home countries.
They come because the police in this country do their jobs.
Those calling for defunding the police should do a better job of describing in detail what this would look like. They may want to be careful what they wish for.