An open letter to Uncle Bob about "Defund The Police"

reading time 5 min

You’ve tweeted that you feel “defund the police” is a terrible policy. I hope to change your mind.

Ignore the name. It is imperfect. In software engineering terms, “defund the police” is similar to the strangler pattern.

For the non-engineers reading this, TSP is a reasonable, pragmatic, and down-to-earth way to slowly replacement an old system with a new system. The name is terrible… I would have called it the warm hug of gradual change.

Taking the term “defund the police” literally would be like being arguing against Serverless because… there will always be servers. It would be like thinking that the Circuit Breaker Pattern is a literal circuit breaker and can only be reset by going to the basement with a flashlight and… dang it! Who left that toy on the basement stairs!

In the software engineering world we accept names that are imperfect because naming is hard.

Naming is also difficult in public policy.

“Defund the policy” doesn’t mean a lawless world.

20 percent of people in prison have mental illness issues. Why not take 20 percent of the budget that goes to prisons, and send those people to facilities that can treat them? Instead of spending years in an environment that harms mental health, why not get them help? It turns out a few years of quality mental health work is cheaper than a long prison sentence. And (bonus!) when the person leaves they have the life-skills that reduce recidivism! Oh, and it’s cheaper. Cheaper? Aw, heck, why not do it just to save money?

60 percent of police calls are for things like noise complaints, domestic violence, drug overdose, suicide crises, neighborhood disputes, and so on. These situations don’t require an armed response (sending someone with a gun, in fact, often leads to trouble). Why not reallocate a proportional amount of the budget to a team of trained counselors and conflict resolution specialists?

Heck, that’s what one town in Florida has decided to do. It is expected to save money. So, aw, heck, why not do it just to save money? (Cops make twice as much as social workers.)

What about police departments that are so bad they can’t be fixed? Seven years ago Camden, NJ decided their police department was so corrupt and unfixable that they decided to disbanded it. If anyone wanted to stay, they had to re-interview. Mostly new people were hired.

The result? Violent crimes have dropped 42% since. Relations with the town much better. Heck, in May 2020, Camden County Police Chief Joseph Wysocki marched with Camden residents in a “Black Lives Matter” protest.

When you hear “defund the police”, think about doing what Camden NJ did.

It’s not like the new police officers of Camden, NJ held cookouts and other events and the crime rate magically dropped. Oh wait, they did hold cookouts and other community events. However, the crime rate drop wasn’t magic.

Camden’s police department became experts in de-escalation skills. By 2015 the change was evident. In one incident a man with a knife was tackled and disarmed. According to the new police Chief, Scott Thompson, “There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that six months prior to that, we would have shot and killed that man.”

Change isn’t easy. The Camden “use of force” policy is 18-page. It was written in collaboration with help of the NYU Policing Project and vetted by the ACLU of New Jersey and the Fraternal Order of Police. You think getting buy-in for a software design doc is difficult? I bet it is a cakewalk in comparison. Camden’s policy is now a model for other police departments.

When conservatives become apoplectic at the notion of disbanding failed police departments, I remind them that G. W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law’s most radical innovation was to do exactly that for public school systems. We’re copying you.

Ok, now let’s get back to the name.

In software engineering terms, “defund the police” is similar to the strangler pattern. It is a slow, thoughtful, process that takes time. It is difficult to start, difficult to maintain progress, and difficult to finish. However, like TSP, after it is done everyone is proud of their work and glad someone had the balls to start the process.

Yes, there are definitely people that want to replace the entire institution of law enforcement and prisons overnight. However, even they will admit that nothing happens overnight.

The ex-cop that wrote “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop” lists 5 incremental approaches that would improve things.

Surprisingly his 6th proposal is to “abolish the police” but if you keep reading he says it will take “a generation” to replace it with something better. So… even he is talking about the strangler pattern.

Lastly… about “cancel culture”.

A lot of people said you are “cancelled” in their mind. I don’t do that. I want to see people evolve, learn, and grow. Working backwards from that, it means being friends with people that think differently than me. It also means that I can’t hold it against a person if in the past they said or did things that I find abhorrent. That’s the opposite of cancel culture.

I think you’re pretty awesome. You’re books, talks, and writing has changed the world for the better. Everything you write is about doing things better. Would you please apply that to law enforcement?

I hope you can keep an open mind. I hope you change your mind about “defund the police”.

And if I haven’t convinced you today, I hope you hold an open mind for the future.

If you would like to read an article that changed my mind (it’s rather long) please read “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop”. I find it very powerful, honest, and blunt.

Maybe you can think of some large software projects that were off the rails but got back on track because someone was honest and blunt. I bet the project had a terrible name too.

Sincerely,Tom Limoncelli

P.S. But seriously… read “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop”.

Tom Limoncelli

Tom Limoncelli

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