Mind the Gap
As Richmond and other cities around the country engage in groundbreaking budgetary reform efforts, transferring resources from distended police budgets to strapped social services, a narrative is emerging that such changes create a “gap in services.” City staff and others have argued that there should be no cuts in the police budget to “ensure there are no gaps in services while implementation actions are undertaken.” But this is a specious argument.
The logic behind the “gap in services” narrative is that while any cuts to the police budget would be felt immediately, the crime-reducing impact of social services would take time to emerge to fill its place. The flaw that holds this argument together is the mistaken belief that the police are currently providing critical social services. While it’s true that the police really are the front line of contact for all manner of incident, from mental illness crises, to truancy, to community disputes, it is decidedly not the case that they are providing our communities with what we might recognize as effective support in these areas.
Social services have steadily eroded over time at both the federal and state levels. Before we began divesting from social welfare as a society, public safety included a whole network of institutions, of which the police were simply one component. As is evident in classic studies on policing, such as a 1967 examination of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, it used to be the role of police officers to bring minor offenders directly to networks of social workers, so that these struggling individuals could obtain housing, mental healthcare, addiction assistance, and other services. Now that these services have all but entirely vanished, the single option left for police is to apply the “services” they know: criminalization and punishment. In fact, our criminal justice system is now our frontline mental healthcare system. In the absence of more humane solutions to the advanced marginality generated by our modern racist capitalist societies, prisons have become de facto warehouses for the poor and the stigmatized, and the police are the “service providers” tasked with capturing them.
Continuing to rely on the police department to address all our social woes will only take us further down the punishing path of inadequate services, which we know will hit the most vulnerable among us, only broadening existing inequity and further criminalizing Black, Brown, poor, disabled, and immigrant communities. As social justice leaders have been trumpeting for years, the gap is a chasm, and we must stop trying to use bullets to fill these holes. We need cohesive, integrated, and robust social services, and we need to get those services to the most critically neglected among us most urgently.
In the face of what we are told about our current provision of services, we must build a movement of solidarity and truth that places real care and healing for impacted bodies, minds, and spirits at its very core. This is an emergency, though it’s one that’s been building far longer than the most recent budget cycles; and we have no time to lose.