Editorial: Cook County's discussion on 'defunding' police must consider all angles

  • Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, left, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, at an event in the city in 2015.

    Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, left, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, at an event in the city in 2015. Chicago Sun-Times/Brian Jackson/2015

 
Updated 8/5/2020 2:36 PM

The Cook County Board's action last week to, in the vernacular of the day, "defund" police was, by the description of everyone involved, more symbolic than substantive. And because, at least for now, the Justice for Black Lives resolution didn't really do anything, it had little trouble collecting overwhelming 15-1 board approval.

But the resolution also did not do nothing, for at least it submitted a long wish list of topic areas for its Criminal Justice Committee to tackle as it attempts to envision how "to redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement that promote community health and safety equitably across the County, but especially in Black and Brown communities most impacted by violence and incarceration."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That's a mouthful, yes, but not an insignificant one. The aims of the Justice for Black Lives resolution are surely commendable, and the discussion the measure seeks to initiate is needed and valuable. But no one should be deceived into thinking that the discussion will be an easy or a quick one.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle put the issue in stark perspective after the vote, when she told reporters, "The critical issue is implementation. I hope that in the committee, there'll be a healthy discussion about how we want to redirect resources, and I look forward to that discussion with our commissioners."

Preckwinkle uses the term "redirect" resources. That's the context in which people often portray the notion of so-called "defunding" police, as though a one-to-one correlation naturally exists between moving functions out of the auspices of police and into the control of some other agency. But that notion -- as Preckwinkle and others alluded when reflecting on the cash-strapped and coronavirus-beseiged county budget -- is likely a misconception.

It seems to us from the outset that if we want meaningful police reform that involves more of the kinds of social engineering the county resolution calls for, the effort will require more money, not the same amount and certainly not less. More and better training costs more, not less. More community interaction means more money, not less. More minority hires is apt to mean more money for recruiting, not less.

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So when the Criminal Justice Committee begins discussing -- as the resolution requires -- increased funding for housing, health care and mental health care, expanded access to mass transit, and increased public and private sector jobs for people of color, it's important to realize that it likely not be realistic to take all that from the county sheriff's budget.

As Palos Park Republican board member Sean Morrison, the lone holdout in supporting the resolution, stated during debate, "The first thing we do if something goes bad in our home or in our neighborhood is pick up the phone and call 9-1-1, and then how quickly our attitudes change."

In other words, the notion of maintaining police protection can't get lost in the discussion of "redirecting" resources.

Does that negate the merits of the discussion as a whole? Of course not. Of course, there is merit in examining our expectations of police and the systemic steps we can take to prevent crime and, again quoting the resolution, "reduce contact between people and law enforcement."

Social justice is essential. And criminal justice reform no doubt is part of that. But while working toward those necessary goals, let's remember that keeping our homes and our streets safe is one of government's most primary obligations. As we examine policing from all angles, let's not be rash or political.

Let's examine what makes sense, from all angles.

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