Illustration by Grae Rosa

This piece is part of a series that explores the various perspectives around defunding the police.

After weeks of protest following the murder of George Floyd, we are, as a nation, at a turning point. It is no longer enough to fire, prosecute, or convict so-called “bad apple” police officers. We must defund the institution of policing as we know it. The calls to disinvest in policing and reinvest in Black lives mean precisely what they say: taking bloated police budgets used for punitive measures (often at the cost of our most vulnerable) and instead funding our neighborhoods. The nonprofit social service sector is uniquely positioned to advocate for the reallocation of funding in the name of public safety.

I have worked in the Chicago nonprofit sector for almost all of my professional career. For over a decade, I have provided direct service and I currently support social services through grant-making. I have witnessed program cuts, organizations barely able to keep their doors open, and the constant struggle to secure funding while trying to provide basic needs with limited staff. All the while, funding for policing budgets has grown.

As I reflect on what it would mean in Chicago to disinvest in policing and reinvest in Black lives, I think of all the transformative work the nonprofit social sector has been able to achieve with limited resources. I think of all the families, mothers, fathers, and children whose lives have changed because of their local community-based organization that provided for them. I think of all the survivors of domestic abuse who escaped their abuser and were able to start over because of their local DV agency and shelter. I think of all the social workers that address community trauma and mental health with uninsured patients who would otherwise be unable to receive therapy. I think of all the young people who are mentored and provided with educational supports and training for living-wage jobs. I think of all the street outreach workers who treat drug addicts with humanity and respect. 

Chicago has nearly tripled per capita police spending since 1964, according to Injustice Watch. This year, Chicago budgeted $1.6 billion for its police department, not including the money set aside for police misconduct lawsuits and police pensions. In 2013, fifty public schools and six mental health clinics were shuttered in the name of austerity. However, this phenomenon is not unique to Chicago. Since the 1990s, the federal government has prioritized “tough on crime” bills that increase police and prison spending while simultaneously cutting funding for welfare, SNAP benefits, and social service programming. Has this equation resulted in safer communities? The answer is no. Instead, it has resulted in further disinvestment and over-policing in primarily Black neighborhoods. Under this funding equation, poverty, mental health, addiction, are criminalized.

Ask anyone who has ever worked in the nonprofit sector; we take our mission and vision statements very seriously. These statements reflect the values of the organization and the community they seek to change as a result of their work. Hours are spent crafting the perfect mission, and even more hours are spent on crafting the ideal vision. The vision for communities almost always includes delivering a better quality of life for all residents. That includes all the aforementioned components of a thriving community, like affordable housing, educational support, mental health, and job trainingbasic needs that white resource-rich communities take for granted. Never does the quality of life include over-policing residents or the incarceration of minors.

Research shows that access to quality education, employment, housing, and healthcare are deterrents to violence and crime. Social service programs that focus on the underlying systemic issues are most successful in crime prevention, and community-based organizations (CBOs) are at the epicenter of providing social services that directly connect to lower crime rates and increased community wellness. CBOs are trusted community pillars that provide vital resources, working in conjunction with government agencies when they fall short. The frontline staff supports residents through case management and wraparound services that include substance abuse treatment, rehabilitation, support for survivors of domestic violence, affordable housing, employment training, and mental healthcare. 

Unfortunately, nonprofit organizations’ services are limited by  a lack of funding and staffing support, while forty percent of Chicago’s general operating budget goes to the police. As a whole, the nonprofit sector is overworked and underpaid. That is nowhere more apparent than in CBOs, which employ some of the lowest-paid workers in the industry. The average salary for a case manager in 2019 was $30–40,000. In comparison, the average starting salary of a police officer is close to $50,000, not including overtime. Imagine redirecting police dollars to hiring more case managers.

Over the years, private funding and philanthropic efforts have attempted to cover the cost of social services as they moved beyond traditional charity to driving social change. This form of funding invests in long-term programmatic goals that, in theory, work to change systemic issues. However, philanthropy often creates competing interests among CBOs, pitting organizations against each other for the same pot of money and fostering a never-ending funding application cycle that drains staff time and takes a toll on actual impact. It also allows for a problematic grantmaking structure that is driven by metrics and lacking in lived experience. 

Defunding the police and reinvesting in social services means nonprofits can move away from heavily relying on the discretion of charitable giving. If the city were to free up a percentage of the overall budget that goes to CPD, it would have enough money to reopen mental health clinics and fund city and nonprofit social service agencies to provide needed comprehensive services. Shifting police dollars to nonprofit social service organizations would decrease crime rates, address underlying social and economic causes, and provide community-based accountability and responsibility. I think about beautiful, thriving, and safe communities with fully funded social services, and that these communities are possible. I know that the time to defund the police is now. 

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Chicago native Jackie Rosa has spent the past decade fostering community-led initiatives and empowering young people through her work in nonprofits and philanthropy. She is the director of community engagement at United Way of Metro Chicago and expresses her views independently. This is her first piece for the Weekly.

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