In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, calls to “defund the police” have become a standard demand of demonstrators. Many activists want to see police budgets drastically reduced, or, eventually, eliminated altogether, with money instead going to priorities like mental health and education.
The argument that police do more harm than good in low-income, Black communities is complicated by the fact that poor Black people often call on the police for help—in fact, significantly more often than wealthy white people do. But, as legal scholar and sociologist Monica C. Bell writes, the fact that people call the cops doesn’t necessarily mean they believe the police have their best interests in mind.
In 2012 and 2013, Bell interviewed fifty low-income African-American mothers living in subsidized housing in Washington, D.C. She found that their opinions about the police were generally nuanced. Just three made only positive statements about them, and just eight made purely negative statements. A majority, thirty-three out of the fifty, said they had called the police at least once.
“Tiffany,” a thirty-four-year-old mother of three, told Bell she often calls the cops to address people drinking and smoking crack in the hallway outside her apartment. While she saw that as an effective tactic for making her building safer, she said she doesn’t trust the police. “If you don’t know your rights the police will get over on you,” she said. “That’s why people are always saying ‘Fuck the police.’”
Perhaps counterintuitively, Bell found that the women often called the police on people they love—intimate partners and children. They reported that they saw this as a tactic to help family members get support they needed, such as access to social services. “Angie” said that calling the police on her son, who has mental health challenges, led to a social worker visiting her home and helping him get access to therapy.
Bell writes that the women she interviewed were aware that interacting with the police could be dangerous. Yet sometimes they saw it as the best way to get a response from other government bureaucracies they interacted with. After the city housing authority moved “Janice” and her family to a housing complex known for violence, she called the police on a girl who was threatening her daughter. As part of the response, not only was the girl arrested but the housing authority moved Janice’s family to a different building. In other cases, mothers called the police when their children skipped school as a proactive measure to avoid an investigation by child welfare authorities.
“You know, if the kids don’t go to school, they lock the parents up,” one mother said. “You can’t make a kid go to school!”
Ultimately, Bell’s research suggests that low-income Black mothers strategically use the police even if they have serious doubts about them. That suggests that if they call the cops at higher rates than wealthier whites, it may be largely because they don’t have many alternative resources.