Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the news, or maybe do both simultaneously. This week it’s been the weird and wonderful spectacle of GOP politicians, the self-appointed champions of law and order, clamoring to defund the FBI.
The Call to Defund the Police
In May 2020, shortly after George Floyd was murdered, the Minneapolis collective Black Visions called for “defunding the police.” The idea was to take some of the money we invest in a gun-toting, police-based approach to community problems such as homelessness, mental illness, and petty theft, and direct that money instead to education, social services, subsidized housing, and job creation as better ways to help solve these problems. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you are a police officer called to deal with a schizophrenic who has wandered out into the public highway, the tools you have are handcuffs and a gun.
The idea of defunding the police wasn’t new in 2020. Its origins can be traced back to W.E.B. Dubois’ 1935 study of the post Civil War era, Black Reconstruction, where he calls for “abolition democracy.” He cited the prison and convict leasing systems, as well as the use of white police to control the Black community. According to the online magazine Politico, “In the 1940s, a multiracial group of incarcerated men began to call for the abolition of prisons… [in the 1970s] two white women—one a Quaker, the other a communist—published books explicitly calling for it.” By the 1980s and 1990s, prison abolition had become a movement, most closely associated with two Black women, Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.
In 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement popularized the notion of defunding local police departments, and various municipalities began talking about it or even experimented with transferring funds, Republican politicians screamed. They used the slogan like a billy club, bashing Democrats over the head with it, going after not only liberals but even those Democrats who were saying the police should get more funds, not less. According to National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Michael McAdams, “Every voter knows Democrats are the party of defund the police.” Republicans accused their opponents of endangering public safety, and by doing so, they consistently won elections.
Then the worm turned, in a way. Earlier this month the FBI raided a certain inveterate lawbreaker and former president, who had stolen boxes and boxes of government documents, many of them marked “secret” or “top secret,” and stashed them in his Palm Beach home. Suddenly a rather large number of Republicans made a U-turn. “Defund the FBI!” they cried. “Abolish the FBI!” One of them, Marjorie Taylor Greene, is even selling t-shirts and baseball caps with the defunding slogan.
Where were the Republicans when the FBI was persecuting Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and others in the civil rights movement? When they went after the peace movement? The environmentalists? Where was the GOP during the days of HUAC, when the FBI was going after suspected Communists, socialists, union organizers, and homosexuals, driving them out of their jobs, often into poverty or even suicide? Why did we hear no Republican cries of protest when FBI operatives worked as agents provocateurs, entrapping angry young men (some of them mentally limited) into attempting crimes they wouldn’t even have considered or been able to commit on their own, and destroying their lives?
On the other hand, activist and writer Matthew Braunginn insists that the GOP isn’t hypocritical at all. The party views the current FBI as upholders of multicultural democracy, and “local and state police as defenders of the white racial order, opponents of multicultural democracy.” The police, he says, “are thoroughly infiltrated by right wing extremists… In 2020 the Fraternal Order of Police, America’s largest police union, endorsed President Donald Trump. This was their first presidential election endorsement in its history. And the Chicago Police Union even defended the January 6 insurrection.”
Are the Police Being Defunded?
Looking around the nation, police wages have been rising. In 2015, the median annual salary for a cop working 40 hours per week was $56,980. In 2018 it was $67,290.The starting salary at the LAPD was $59,717 in 2015 and in 2021 it was $70,804—an increase of 18.5% in six years. That’s just starting—the average Los Angeles cop today is paid $132,500.
The starting wage today for a cop in Portland, Oregon is $75,670. If you’re joining as a transfer from another force, it is $87,755 – $107,744. The benefits include medical, dental, and vision coverage, life insurance, various incentives and premium pay, sick leave, vacation pay, and parental leave.
Beyond their salaries, cops everywhere in the United States get time-and-a-half for overtime, plus other additional pay for going to court and various stipends and perks. In Seattle they even get an extra 2% for wearing body cameras. I haven’t been able to find national averages, but the figures for central New Jersey are suggestive. Departments in that state range from Frenchtown Borough, where the average salary is $43,556 and average total pay is $60,677, to East Brunswick, where these figures are $114,546 and $161,238.
A Bit More on Policing
Some argue that policing is very dangerous and deserving of high pay. According to Industrial Safety and Hygiene News (ISHN), logging work is the most dangerous job in America, with a fatal accident rate 33 times that of all workers nationwide, and the average salary is $41,230. Police are only #22 on the list, with a fatality rate 4.1 times that of all workers. The jobs of, for example, private plane pilots, roofers, garbage collectors, delivery drivers, linemen, firefighting supervisors, iron workers, farmers, agricultural workers, and crossing guards are all more dangerous than policing.
The ISHN list does not include fishermen, whose work is even more dangerous than that of loggers. In the United States, “the fatality rate for the fishing industry in 1996 was 16 times higher than for fire-fighting or police work and 40 times the national average.” In 2017 the median annual salary for U.S. fishing and hunting workers was $28,530.
It should also be noted that when cops abuse their power, even repeatedly, they rarely pay a penalty of any kind, either in the form of demotion or loss of employment. A prison sentence, as in the murder of George Floyd, is so rare that it makes national news. Brutes in blue almost always walk, while the taxpayer foots the bill. The Washington Post documented nearly 40,000 payments within the past decade to settle claims for police misconduct at 25 of the nation’s largest police and sheriff’s departments. More than $3.2 billion was spent to settle these claims.
A Bit More on the FBI
Full disclosure: In 1970, when I was working on a radical newspaper, the FBI questioned a neighbor about me, and one of their provocateurs suggested I join him in an attempted murder. All my alarm bells went off and I got away from him as fast as I could.
Forty years later the agency hadn’t changed its stripes. After 9/11 it added a new target: Muslims. Here in Portland, the father of 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud asked the FBI for help, saying that his son was being radicalized online. What the agency did instead was to entice the young man to set off a bomb in a public square, at the time of the Christmas tree lighting in 2010. The bomb—provided by the agent—was a dud. Mohamud is now serving 30 years in federal prison.
You can read the official version of the story on Wikipedia. It omits what an FBI employee told me privately. A father himself, he was distressed by the event, but justified it by saying it was necessary to ruin one boy’s life in order to convince people that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox. He maintained that this would prevent crimes in the future.
Mohamud wasn’t the first or only one. Since 9/11 the government has used informants to secure hundreds of convictions—and we don’t know how many of them are based on plots that the feds themselves created.
The FBI has only increased in size over the years and, in my opinion, is in no danger of being defunded. Since its founding in 1908, it has grown from employing 34 investigators to its current work force of 35,000. The base salary starts at $51,921–$66,996 and goes up to $78,681–$102,288. In addition, according to the FBI website, “All full-time special agents, including new agent trainees, receive availability pay that adds 25 percent to their base salary.” Availability pay just means that you are available to work overtime on an investigation. In a given year you may have put in 10% more than your regular 40 hours, 25% more, 50%—or no extra time at all.
So Who is Really Being Defunded?
Despite all the talk about it, in reality there is no trend to defund either the police or the FBI. So who is being defunded? You’ll find out in Part II. Stay tuned.