When U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was asked last summer what society would look like with defunded police, she naively answered, “a suburb.”
Not exactly. I know what a nation with weakened or underfunded police looks like. I see it every month in Haiti.
Some readers know that, for the last 11 years, I’ve operated an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. Last weekend, another orphanage, just outside of town, was attacked in the middle of the night. According to media reports, more than 15 armed assailants scaled the fences, blocked the entrance, and proceeded to kill a security guard, rape a 15-year-old girl and a 27-year-old woman, sexually assault a 13-year-old, beat down the director and his wife, and ransack the property, all while demanding money that the orphanage didn’t have.
“The police … can’t do anything,” the manager told the Miami Herald. “My wife kept calling and couldn’t get through.”
You might think a poor orphanage would be safe, even where criminality is high. Yet that same weekend, five Catholic priests and two nuns were kidnapped in Haiti on the way to their parish. They are being held for a ridiculous ransom.
Abductions and kidnappings of all kinds — clerics, tourists, even poor citizens who have nothing — happen almost daily now in Haiti. Gangs control the streets. Men on motorcycles swoop in and attack. You constantly hear “the police can’t do anything.”
Last month, a dozen members of a SWAT team tried to change that. They drove two armored vehicles into a shantytown that is home to one of Haiti’s most dangerous gangs. The people in that area shouted and pointed and the police believed they were directing them to the gang’s headquarters.
Instead, according to Haiti’s largest weekly newspaper, they were led into a giant hole where gang members then opened fire, killing four of the officers, wounding eight others, and dragging the dead bodies through the streets. They also captured both armored vehicles, burned one, kept the other, and stole all the weapons, body armor and radio equipment.
What happens if police go away?
That phone call was both shocking and illuminating. The police in Haiti are limited, underpaid, and under-protected. As a result, many have chosen to stand down in the face of increased violence, or worse, to look the other way and even help the criminals in their attacks. The citizens, realizing the police can’t help them, often become reliant on the gangs for protection. Today, one of Haiti’s more noted gang leaders is himself a former cop.
Now, Haiti is not America, and its challenges are unique. But the triangular relationship between criminals, citizens and police is fairly basic. The weaker the police become, the more emboldened the criminals become, and the more endangered the citizens become. Haiti, by the way, has much more restrictive gun laws than the U.S. Doesn’t stop the weapons flow to the people who do the most harm.
I wonder what many beleaguered Haitians, who only wish a police officer could be summoned with an answered phone call, think of current outcries in America to get rid of the police, end the police, declaw or defund the police.
Or the off-the-wall statement posted last week by Rep. Rashida Tlaib: “I am done with those who condone government funded murder. No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.”
I’m not sure what Tlaib, if she got her way, would do with people who kill, rob and rape others. Can’t police them. Can’t use force against them. Can’t put them in jail. What would that look like?
Oh, yeah. What we’re seeing in Haiti.
Reform, not get rid of
Most rational people agree that the police behavior in the George Floyd and Daunte Wright cases — and others like them — cannot and should not be tolerated. Reform is desperately needed in training, in de-escalation, in attitude, in racial sensitivities and perceptions.
But to observe what happened with Wright — the 20-year-old Black man who, after a traffic stop in suburban Minneapolis, was shot by a police officer who may have mistakenly used her gun instead of a Taser — and then conclude the answer is “no more police” is nonsensical. And the idea that such deadly encounters happen every day and every hour with cops — and therefore leaves no conclusion but to throw out the whole system — may be a media-driven impression, but not a factual one.
There are millions of encounters between police and citizens every year. Millions. Yet from 2015 to 2020, according to the Washington Post and Statista, the number of civilians shot and killed by police has stayed about the same, around 1,000 a year.
That’s 1,000 a year killed — many of whom are armed, threatening or committing a crime at the time — in a nation of 330 million. A little less than half of those killed are white, a little less than a quarter are Black, a little less than a fifth are Hispanic.
Meanwhile, during that same stretch, according to NPR, officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women. That averages to 22 per year. That’s still 22 too many. Agreed. Absolutely. But the Black population in America is 42 million. So as a percentage, annually, the number of unarmed killed is less than 0.000001%.
Does it feel like that? Or do politicians and talking heads jump on individual cases and stretch them over months of coverage, creating the impression that the problem is far more pervasive than the numbers indicate?
Worried people in dangerous neighborhoods are usually the last ones screaming to defund police. Politicians should be noting that. Demanding change and accountability in how officers operate makes total sense. Junking the police does not. A country with weakened, undermined or absent law enforcement isn’t a suburban paradise. It’s scary.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.