The Color of Climate

Defunding the Police Is an Environmental Justice Issue

Getting rid of the police could remove a key environmental stressor of Black people

Police surround protesters gathering in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to demand the defunding of the police force and to demonstrate against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder on June 1, 2020. Photo illustration. Photo: Erik McGregor/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

When Kari Fulton walks outside in West Baltimore, she regularly sees cop cars patrolling the streets, helicopters hovering in the sky, or beat cops walking around the neighborhood.

“They’re there,” Fulton, a policy fellow with the Climate Justice Alliance, tells OneZero. But, she adds, “they don’t give a shit about the community.”

Baltimore is one of several U.S. cities where residents are calling for public officials to defund the police in the wake of the most recent spate of police violence against Black people. Protesters in cities like Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Los Angeles are urging elected officials to abolish law enforcement agencies, or cut their budgets and reallocate funds and personnel toward social services. In 2017, the United States spent $115 billion on policing, according to The Urban Institute. That same year, it spent only $8 billion on the Environmental Protection Agency and $7 billion on the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“There’s a lot of funding that goes into police and then that funding has to come from somewhere,” Fulton says. “And so it takes away from our school systems. It takes away from our environmental protection.”

Activists like Fulton argue that defunding the police is an environmental issue for a variety of reasons. Police create types of pollution that people don’t normally think about. Money that funds police, as she notes, can be used to improve the environment. And the mere presence of police in communities of color can be considered an environmental stressor.

The kinds of pollution that law enforcement agencies bring into communities include noise pollution created by sirens and cars, light pollution from floodlights in high-crime areas, and emissions from police vehicles that are constantly driving around. Because Black communities and communities of color are often heavily policed, they are the people who must bear the burden of this pollution.

“When you live in an environmental justice community, you don’t feel community from no police officer. You know, these people are literally a pollutant in your neighborhood along with the trash, along with everything else.”

“All space in the U.S has been racialized given the ways white supremacy, Jim Crow, redlining, and other historical processes have led to such extreme segregation,” Nik Heynen, PhD, professor of geography at the University of Georgia, tells OneZero. “Given this, the police are yet another aspect, like toxic chemicals, that disproportionately and negatively impact the lives of folks within communities of color given the abundance of attention police unjustly pay to communities of color.”

Defunding or abolishing the police could represent a radical change for the environments of Black communities across the country. As Fulton points out, all of the public funds meant for police could go to supporting community agriculture, health clinics, public parks, and a myriad of other social services.

In addition to improving the natural environment in Black communities, defunding or abolishing the police could also drastically improve the “built environment,” which experts in the Journal of Environmental Health define as the “human-made space in which people live, work, and recreate on a day-to-day basis.” Police patrols, floodlights, sirens, helicopters, and weapons are all examples of ways law enforcement pollutes the built environment in communities of color.

“Given the many ways the urban built environment sets the stage for the routines and rhythms of life in all cities, the violence initiated by police has to be read as part of the urban built environment,” Heynen says.

Police presence is perceived as a harmful part of the built environment. In communities plagued by environmental justice woes, police already seem like outsiders to the community, says Fulton. “When you live in an environmental justice community, you don’t feel community from no police officer,” she says. “You know, these people are literally a pollutant in your neighborhood along with the trash, along with everything else. They’re not serving you.”

Fulton wants to fully eliminate police presence from the built environment but acknowledges that it could take 20–30 years to completely abolish the police in the right way. “If we’re going to defund the police, we need to find programs that are actually serving the most vulnerable residents,” Fulton says.

Taking police out of communities of color would positively impact the psychological and physical well-being of residents because the police themselves are an environmental stressor, according to Lindsey Dillon, PhD, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has researched the relationship between police and environmental injustice. Police-related stress has been linked by researchers to “diabetes, stroke, ulcers, cognitive impairment, autoimmune disorders, accelerated aging, and death” in Black people.

All over the country, Black and Latinx people are more likely to have multiple run-ins with officers than white people. They are also shot and killed by police officers at a much higher rate than white people. Black children in Chicago grow up seeing police jump out of cars and aggressively search residents in their neighborhoods; in New York, Black and Latinx residents are more likely to be stopped and harassed while walking on the street than white people. In Minneapolis, police use force against Black residents at seven times the rate of white people.

“That would be a wonderful outcome if instead of police responding to an issue of public safety, you had like a mental health expert or somebody without a gun responding, which is what defunding the police is calling for,” says Dillon. “It’s like rethinking what safety and public health means.”

Dillon isn’t the only person rethinking what safety and public health means. Here are a couple of other places to look with thoughts about how climate and environmental policy figures into the debate about defunding the police:

  • Back in 2016, Brentin Mock covered Dillon’s research linking environmental injustice to police violence for City Lab.
  • Earlier this month, Kate Aronoff at The New Republic wrote about how defunding the police could free up room in government budgets to fund environmental projects to make vulnerable communities more secure.
  • At Earther, Brian Kahn declared that there is no climate justice without defunding the police.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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