Skip to main content

Search NYU Steinhardt

Two NYPD officers on motorcycles at a crosswalk outside of Central Park

Q&A: What is the Role of Social Science in Defunding the Police?

This blog post is written as part of a two-part series on the relationship of social science with the movement to defund the police. The other part of this series can be found at "Why Social Scientists Need to Support Defunding the Police."

The Institute of Human Development and Social Change asked faculty, post-docs, and graduate students to answer a brief survey that explored the intersection of justice, research, and civic engagement. The goal was to imagine bold, equitable, and evidence-based ideas for policy and practice that promise to make a meaningful impact in the lives of children, youth, and families. Responses were edited for clarity and length.

What is the role of social science in the debate around defunding the police? What evidence, data, or actions can researchers contribute?

Chantal Hailey, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Texas-Austin: It is easy to simplify Defund the Police debates into the question “Do police increase or decrease crime?” As social scientists, however, we understand the role of police in society as more complicated than that simple inquiry. We must bring this complexity to the current debate by providing context and advancing nuanced evidence on policing.

Public safety reforms should not be ahistorical or acontextual. As scholars, we can bring both historical and contemporary contexts to the debate on policing. As such, social scientists can provide insights into how policing has evolved over time from patrols of Black people who escaped enslavement to public agencies to its current militarization. Social scientists can also illuminate how policing intersects with other public institutions (i.e. education, immigration, homeless services, etc.) and varies across and within communities. 

Amanda Geller, Clinical Professor of Sociology, NYU: The idea of counterfactuals is incredibly important for the current debate. If police are defunded, which of their responsibilities get moved elsewhere? To whom? What resources do those organizations need and how can they effectively scale up to meet the new demands placed on them? Social science gives us the tools to answer these questions.

L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy, Associate Professor of Sociology of Education, NYU: Currently, social science research has been used to largely cool off discussions of defunding the police. There are a few reasons for this: 1) social science evidence is retrospective, not prospective; 2) social science research is deficit based, rather than asset based; and 3) social scientists have had previous limited engagement with the concept of defunding police. The first issue, and most fundamental, is that most social science estimation is used to explain what happened after a time period or intervention. This means we can often identify what impacted a phenomenon, but this is not the same as knowing what could or would impact a phenomenon. The recent set of studies around Fragile Families demonstrate this limit. Secondly, defunding the police starts from an abolitionist posture, which assumes communities know what they need and likely have cultural workers and institutions that could address problems better than “outsiders'' would address them. In that way, assets are identified and enhanced through training, organizing, capacity building and direct funding. Social scientists, even the best among us, typically look at disadvantaged communities and articulate the many lacks in resources, which is often translated to human capital. This is a critical error. Lastly, the idea of “defunding the police'' is rather new and when it arrived on the national landscape, there were few studies on it; for the most part, people don’t know what it would look like to whittle away at the budgets of police and enhance the capacities of other state and community-based agencies. Instead, there has been a false narrative that suggests defunding will happen immediately. Divest to invest is a known tactic, but it takes time. 

Charlton McIlwain,  Vice Provost and Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, NYU: Social science research can and should be focused on contributing to the arguments justifying the reduction of policing infrastructure and provide evidence that demonstrates that different models of public safety can be effective both in terms of protecting the public from harm as well as creating environments for underserved communities to thrive. Social scientists can also contribute evidence about the devastation that policing practice, premised on criminalization, has had, particularly on communities of color and produce evidence that helps to weigh the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of current models of policing practice actually making communities more safe. It is also critical for social scientists to engage in questions about the technological infrastructures that support modern policing/criminalization practices — from massive surveillance infrastructure, to data access, and more.

Chantal Hailey: During this “defund the police” debate, social scientists must bring evidence to bear. Policy recommendations, however, should include nuance and careful attention to when, where, and for whom a policy or practice is effective or ineffective. We must communicate the limitations of generalizability and extrapolation. When providing evidence, scholars should also utilize data beyond police-reported crime statistics. Research can humanize this debate by centering community voices and drawing on surveys of communities, qualitative interviews, and ethnographic observations. Through these efforts, we can continue to understand the experience of being overpoliced in schools and neighborhoods and the effects of these experiences on students’ academic performance and perceptions of justice and adults’ physical and psychological well being. Finally, while participating in this debate, scholars should provide a framework to critically assess the racial, nativist, gendered, and economic power dynamics across the carceral apparatus from police to prisons.

Sophia Hwang, Doctoral Candidate in Applied Psychology, NYU: School-based policing is a critical part of the debate about defunding the police. School police are referred to as “School Resource Officers'' and are formal law enforcement officers (in contrast to school security guards). In the U.S., the majority of high schools and nearly half of middle schools have school police and the presence of school police has grown in the past decade. However, the effectiveness – whether the presence of school police actually makes school safer – is unknown; much of the research evidence is mixed. Thus, there is a need for researchers to conduct rigorous quantitative and qualitative studies to understand the potential consequences of school police on student outcomes, school climate, parent engagement, and neighborhood well-being. 

Sukhmani Singh, Post-Doctoral Associate, NYU: Social sciences have a long history of serving white supremacy and furthering colonization through providing "evidence" that justifies imperialist expansions and the dehumanization of peoples of color. We need to start there, and follow the thread that recognizes systems of state-sanctioned violence as rooted in this ideology. The same ways in which values underlying racial capitalism and coloniality served to give birth to the institution of policing, we need to engage to unearth, highlight, and name evidence that allows us to demonstrate the urgent need to dismantle policing and systems of state sanctioned violence. We need to name our morality and become openly maladjusted, as Dr. King said, to the ideas and demands of white supremacy. 

Vincent Southerland, Executive Director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, NYU: I think social science can play an important role in demonstrating how the current iteration of policing does more to perpetuate racialized social control and marginalization than it does to provide any measure of public safety, however one might define that term. I believe data about the nature of police — community interactions, and when police are truly necessary (or when a response to a call for assistance could be answered by some other entity that is not armed and is trained in a range of other skills beyond law enforcement) would be useful. I think there is also a myth around the value of diversity on police forces — that diversity necessarily yields better policing and less violence — which I think is worth exploring.

Sophia Hwang: There is also an opportunity to take a nuanced approach to understand if there may be differential outcomes for various subgroups and communities. And, these findings need to be effectively translated and disseminated to key stakeholders. We know that racial and ethnic minority students are more likely to attend schools with school police. The presence of school police may be traumatizing to students and in fact, strengthen the school-to-prison pipeline from within. It’s difficult to believe how schools could be a true safe haven for learning if students worry about the possibility of being physically hurt or arrested. 

Additionally, rigorous cost-benefit studies examining school police are needed. The average salary of a school-based police officer is higher than the mean salary for both teachers and nurses. Public schools have already been chronically underfunded and the economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated these financial strains. Unless there is a plethora of positive research evidence supporting school police, funds should be strategically used for initiatives known to support students, educators, and schools. 

David Kirkland, Professor of Urban Education, NYU: Social science has played a crucial role in helping to assess both the costs and benefits of policing in vulnerable communities. It has allowed for important comparisons between those communities and their more privileged counterparts with respect to policing; however, social theory is playing an even larger role than social science. Unfortunately, our social sciences only reflect the beliefs baked into them, which tend not to count for ways to imagine a world or set of systems beyond the status quo. This is where theory comes in, to offer a lens for what is possible and a critical lens on existing data and systems that shed new light on their meanings. Researchers can certainly listen to and partner with communities to get at the right kinds of questions to research, push our sense of what constitutes data, and interrogate how we imagine Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. This contribution must be made with a certain vision of the world in mind, one that privileges — for example — racial justice. Absent social theory and the critical lens it offers, any kind of research solution that we arrive at will undoubtedly reinforce the status quo. 

If police budgets are decreased, which organizations, services, or programs should receive new investment and why?

Vincent Southerland: I view the criminal legal system as the repository of all the people who have been failed by the systems that are supposed to allow people to thrive and live with dignity — education, housing, health (mental and physical), employment (training), the environment (polluted water & air), basic infrastructure (public transportation etc). So I push for investments in people and in those aspects of communities. I would also term the investments not as services — because social services can reflect the same concerns we have with policing and be viewed as a one off — but as building and investing in the community as a whole.

L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy: It’s not just about budgets; it’s also about retraining and reimagining. With that said, there are additional funds needed in violence prevention and  interruption (e.g., S.O.S., Life Camp, GMACC, KAVI.), resources around intimate partner violence (RAPP and Connect), support around job training (e.g, STRIVE, NEW), harm reduction efforts and lobbying (e.g., Drug Policy Alliance, Harlem United, Washington Heights Corner Project), and supporting work of transformative justice as well as financial infusions to communities via basic income and place-based reparations. There are, of course, more local level dimensions to work through legally around the carceral apparatus, e.g., bail statutes, decarceration, etc. (e.g., Brooklyn Bail Fund, No New Jails, SWOP Brooklyn Mutual Aid). The work of defunding the police is also about getting the police out of our heads and hearts, so this is a longer-term process that will demand creativity and a willingness to trust in indigenous ways of addressing harm and conflict. A special thanks to Aisha Lewis-McCoy for helping me populate this list of organizations.

Sukhmani Singh: The leaders of the abolition movement(s) are clear that systems of oppression are interconnected. It is not just about decreasing budgets. It is also about naming and then severing the sinews that connect oppressive institutions. For example, the military and its weapons are shared with police departments across the country. If we are active in the conversation around dismantling police, we also need to be active about the institutions that support and uphold its presence and power: one being the military. Organizations and institutions that are about serving humanity need to be supported.

Amanda Geller: There's a growing evidence base that community organizations have great potential to reduce local violence (see Pat Sharkey's work, for example). We also know that schools and other organizations supporting youth and families are often under-resourced in high-crime, heavily policed communities. Regardless of what happens with police budgets, these institutions should receive additional investment. 

Charlton McIlwain: Greater investments in education will help ensure that communities have the ability to govern themselves and to effect political and public policy decisions that impact their lives. Education is the one thing we know is an arbiter of upward socioeconomic mobility. 

David Kirkland: New organizations must be created to serve the authentic needs of our communities alongside existing ones, such as faith-based and community-based institutions that offer counseling and uplift services such as food and family supports, housing and mental well-being supports, etc. The idea is to partner with the community, make funding available in service of a much broader investment in human capital, and focus directly on the needs of those communities. Much of this investment is about proaction — limiting or eliminating the kinds of conditions and social traumas that lead to acts of desperation in the first place. It means finding ways to cure the causes as opposed to poorly treating the symptoms, thereby exacerbating the illness. The point to be made here, though, is that communities should be empowered through processes of participatory decision-making and through democratized budgeting to come up with solutions to community problems because those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. With that said, it's not up to us, fully, to determine who receives funding and why. This is a collective decision that must happen at local/community levels and based on the needs of the people. 

Sophia Hwang: Funds should be re-invested in programs known to support and cultivate the well-being of youth, families, and communities. One specific approach that addresses this are “community schools”, which is where schools foster partnerships with local organizations to provide comprehensive, wraparound supports in school. This includes services to support physical and mental health, nutrition, and employment and legal services for families. The community school model also engages diverse stakeholders and invites community perspectives when engaging in school governance and decision making. With this commitment to the whole child, community schools can offer training related to social-emotional learning, restorative justice, trauma-informed practice, and other approaches that foster equity and positive learning. Re-invested funds can ensure that every school has full-time professionals (e.g., nurses, counselors, social workers, psychologists) to strengthen the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of students. Another strategy would be to support the work of on-the-ground non-profit organizations that offer afterschool programs, mentoring, employment opportunities, and health and nutrition services to youth and families. These organizations engage in effective and varied prevention efforts to keep communities healthy and promote wellness. 

What role should institutions of higher education play in the debate to defund the police?

Charlton McIlwain: We should produce research and evidence that sets the agenda and frames the discussion about what police defunding should look like and what should take its place. Higher ed institutions should also play a strong role in connecting that research to policy development and policy makers such that the policies designed to replace current policing practices are sound, effective, and able to be implemented.

Sukhmani Singh: We have the power, skills, and responsibility to name the sinews, document the low rates with which police actually "solve crimes," discuss the harm that policing and the military perpetuate in the lives of people of color across the country and the globe. We can lay bare this moral evidence, a laying bare that comes from a place of decoloniality and commitment to justice. We can justify the creation of systems of care, and not of systems of oppression, and build consensus and understanding through making knowledge, and its epistemic and moral roots, clear. 

L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy: Higher education institutions could support the re-training of social scientists to not simply operate from deficit models and to berate unknown counterfactuals. No matter how sophisticated the tools, the future is not predicted by a well fit regression line. Additionally, higher education can support grassroots work on reducing harm and increasing safety in Black communities, in particular, by donation of in-kind services from research consultation to space for organizations that are not 501(c)(3)s to hold meetings.

Chantal Hailey: As community stakeholders, universities are uniquely positioned to bring together police agencies, social service providers, community members, and academics to imagine a new future for public safety. While engaging in the public debate, universities should also use this moment to assess their own campus policing practices. According to the Department of Justice, about 95 percent of mid- to large-sized universities have private campus law enforcement agencies. Faculty and administrators should evaluate their school’s internal public safety practices. These assessments should focus on how campus police interact with students and faculty (with particular attention to their interactions with marginalized populations); how campus police interact with and are perceived by members of the surrounding community; and whether/how campus police funding could be used for other university and local community services.

Vincent Southerland: Institutions of higher education should stand alongside communities and serve as subject matter experts on budgeting and investment. The average citizen likely doesn't know how much of the budget is dedicated to policing, or what that money could do if it was invested in other facets of community life. I don't think that institutions should lead the charge, but I think they should attempt to get a sense of what the community wants and would be best served by, and then provide the resources, expertise, and support to meet those wants and needs.

David Kirkland: Institutions of higher education have an important, organic intellectual role to play. Part of this role is about offering a theory or a vision for what a new world could be, how it can look, and how to better make it possible. This is the work of invention; as we know the best way to predict the future is to invent it. It is also the work of social innovation, which stands close to social justice, as both entities demand that we create spaces for dialogue and action, or praxis. Institutions of higher education have a power to bring people together to deliberate upon ideas, to mark transformation through the sharing of understandings that help to advance society. This is, first and foremost, the main role of the university: to educate (that is, to draw out). Mass education on the effects of policing, its relationship to oppression and racism, and the militaristic use of a civil agency can lead to a more informed public that is better positioned to remake the world in which we live. 

Related Blog Post

Why Social Scientists Need to Support Defunding the Police

In a matter of weeks, the call to defund police departments has gone from a radical, fringe position to a mainstream protest slogan and policy prescription across the nation. Helena Wippick, project coordinator at IHDSC, makes the argument that this position has been one supported for years by social scientists.

Read More