There is currently a call to “defund” policing agencies to eliminate police brutality and/or use of excessive force. In a June 8, 2020 article, Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, is quoted as saying that, “It’s not just about taking money away from the police, it’s about reinvesting those dollars into black communities. Communities that have been deeply divested from, communities that, some have never felt the impact of true resources. And so we have to reconsider what we’re resourcing.  I’ve been saying we have an economy of punishment over an economy of care.”

Defunding police agencies comes with some level of peril, especially when it comes to more than general social order maintenance.  With anti-human trafficking activities, for example, there may be some trade-offs and unintended consequences to be considered if policing agencies are defunded.  When I teach students about policy analysis and development, one of the topics has to do with “trade-offs” of policy decisions. Because I am a Sociologist by degree, I also teach the students that they must be aware of what Merton called the unintended consequences of intended social action.

Minority communities are disproportionately affected by most crimes (as well as poor health and other issues). The impact of defunding policing agencies requires that we be careful not to make changes without considering how to effectively replace the positive impacts on certain categories of criminal activity and victimization. The American formal criminal justice system has evolved over the past two hundred years. The systems nature of criminal justice means that it affects and is affected by other social institutions, especially behavioral health and social welfare systems. Changes in funding may affect the already tenuous connections among those multiple systems needed to serve the community.

Most people tend to think of human trafficking in terms of high-profile cases such as the Jeffrey Epstein allegations, or the movie Taken. These often involve middle-class, white, adolescent and early adult women, and predominately white men of power or international criminals. Because of their cross-state and national border activities, they often involve the federal and/or international policing agencies. This can be misleading. When Epstein faced local charges, the policing was handled by county and municipal policing agencies – the very type some would defund.

In our text, Human Trafficking: A Systemwide Public Safety and Community Approach, criminal justice professionals explained how a specialist unit at the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation (MBI) investigated and prosecuted human trafficking cases in the Central Florida region. Social service professionals outlined the challenges faced by survivors of human trafficking and how they were supported in part by criminal justice professionals during and after the prosecution process. In the end, we found that human trafficking investigations of all types (labor, sex, domestic servitude) are generally conducted by specialist units within policing agencies. Not all parts of the nation have a multi-agency task-force approach like the MBI.

It is the specialist nature of investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases at the local level that would be affected by defunding policing agencies. In 2016 there were 3,012 Sheriff’s offices and 12,261 local police agencies in the United States. Just over 70% of local police departments served communities of fewer than 10,000 people; and 3% of local departments served populations of 100,000 or more people, employing 52% of all full-time sworn police officers. About 12% of full-time sworn officers were female; 27% were minority status, African American (11%) or Latinx (13%), with higher proportions of minority officers serving in larger jurisdictions.

Size makes a clear difference in terms of specialized personnel (not units) assigned to address problems such as human trafficking. In departments that serve 100,000 or more residents, 72% of the departments had at least one person designated to investigate human trafficking. That compares to 94% with specialized personnel to investigate child abuse, 89% to investigate domestic violence, 87% to investigate missing children, and 45% to investigate bias/hate crimes. It is likely that many of those personnel are investigating across all those specialty areas simultaneously.

When we look at departments serving fewer than 100,000 residents, the proportion with personnel designated to investigate human trafficking drops to 12%. Specialty staff are smaller in general, with 35% in the child abuse, 24% in domestic violence, 23% missing children, and 11% bias/hate crimes. It is likely the same persons are assigned to all those areas within one agency. In short, smaller departments are likely to lack staffing to develop specialist roles and units to address key criminal activities.

I offer these dry statistics to point out that activities such as investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases are somewhat further down the order of activities of policing agencies than other categories of criminal behavior. Defunding is likely to have the impact of further reducing the availability of personnel to address human trafficking and similar activities. Since most referrals to services for survivors of human trafficking come from policing agencies, we are likely to see a reduction of those referrals. This will have an impact on both the victims, as well as on the agencies that serve them. It is also likely that traffickers will continue to recruit new victims for the trade.

This is important because, at least in Central Florida, most victims/survivors of human sex trafficking are coming from our local community. Very few known victims are trafficked much outside the county lines.  In our area, sex trafficking is pretty much home-grown, often in-house. Without specialist anti-trafficking personnel and units, it is unlikely that many of the cases that are prosecuted as human trafficking would get the attention they require. It is also unlikely that many of those victimized by traffickers would find their way to support services until it is too late. And, as we point out in the text, the services required may be life-long, not simply for a few months.

The ideas expressed by Ms. Cullors about reinvesting monies from police to social services has been called “justice reinvestment” in the criminal justice system for nearly two decades. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative of the Urban Institute represents one of the largest efforts at this process. In short, the idea is to use savings from reduced costs in “back end” segments of the justice system, such as prisons, to invest in prevention programs on the “front end.” In fact, we have had discussions about similar ideas in Florida since the 1970s. This was concurrent with the emerging emphasis on preventive health and public health around that time.

Of course, human trafficking victims and cases are not the only area of importance to be affected by potential defunding attempts. Criminal justice sources continue to be the second-largest contributor to treatment for substance abuse, contributing 28% of admissions to programs in 2017. Mental health disorders are much higher in justice-involved populations, where referrals for Baker Act admissions are likely to be reduced with reduced law enforcement personnel.

Another question I ask my students to consider is why we address some behaviors as crimes rather than health or other non-criminal behaviors, and whether there are other systems that can address these behaviors without criminal justice involvement. I note this because simply defunding and reducing the number of police in the community without careful consideration of what will take their place will likely lead to those unintended, and often unwelcome, outcomes.

When I worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a piece of artwork in many buildings with the saying, “He who would upset a thing should know how to put it back together.” As we move forward with ideas such as defunding police, let us be very clear about the objectives/outcomes we want to achieve, not just the victory of dismantling an institution we dislike, but for which we have no effective replacement.  Those affected by defunding police are likely to be those who can least afford for us to take what few resources might be available to them, even when the institution is riddled with problems – one of those trade-offs we teach about. Even the best intended social actions have unanticipated outcomes.


Dr. Roberto Potter is a Sociologist who teaches in the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Central Florida (UCF). His experience includes working with a variety of non-profit organizations that serve runaways and families, state and federal government service, and being a university faculty member in Georgia, Kentucky, Florida, and New South Wales. He is the Director of the Center for the Study of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in the Office of Global Perspectives and International Initiatives at UCF.

This article was written as part of the Addressing Global Crisis Project (AGC), which is run by the University of Central Florida’s Office of Global Perspectives & International Initiatives (GPII). AGC examines how governments, individually and collectively, deal with pandemics, natural disasters, ecological challenges, and climate change. AGC is organized around five primary pillars: (1) delivery of services and infrastructure; (2) water-energy-food security; (2) governance and politics; (4) economic development; and, (5) national security. Through its global network, AGC facilitates expert discussion and features articles, publications and online content.


Posted June 9, 2020