A Call to Action: Elder Justice and the Movement to Defund the Police

Editor’s note: This summer, as the urgent issue of racial injustice took center stage, ASA and Justice in Aging decided to embark upon a series of articles in Generations Today highlighting for the aging advocacy community how aging, identity and racial equity intersect. Called On Aging, Race, Identity and Equity, the articles will run in each issue for a year.

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers has led to renewed attention to the epidemic of police brutality against Black people and police reform in this country. While advocates nationwide rally for a reimagining of policing, elder justice advocates should be asking, “What role do we have in this fight?” How could defunding the police lead to better ways to prevent and address elder abuse and a more sensitive and appropriate treatment for victims?

What Does It Mean to ‘Defund the Police’?

Simply put, defunding the police means redirecting funding away from policing to locally funded social services that can be more tailored to the needs of the community. Activists and advocates across the country are having a conversation about what this means, but few, if any, are talking about the connection between defunding the police and elder justice.

This movement asks us to examine every aspect of policing with an eye toward its racist and classist roots and to work toward creating a system that supports communities, without relying on the threat (and reality) of police violence. 

In the United States, 9 out of 10 police calls for services are for nonviolent issues. Despite this, police officers are trained “in use-of-force tactics and worst case scenarios to reduce potential threats.” As has become more clear to everyone in recent months, many nonviolent interactions turn violent and deadly very quickly when police are involved.

The risk of a police interaction turning violent increases when police engage with people of color and those experiencing mental health struggles. A recent study found the risk of being killed by law enforcement was 16 times higher for individuals suffering from untreated serious mental illness.

In addition, 1 of every 1,000 Black men are expected to be killed by the police. Think of an older Black adult experiencing the effects of dementia interacting with the police in light of these statistics. In addition to well-documented inequalities like those above that are baked into the police system it is also true that the police are not generally trained to deal with dementia, poverty, domestic violence, mental health issues, homelessness, or a whole range of other social issues. While there are examples of programs aimed at training police in interactions with older adults, they are not the norm.

Yet funding for the services that do regularly address such issues is continually being whittled away, while police budgets expand. In many major metropolitan areas, the police budget exceeds 25 percent of general funds spending. In New York, Los Angeles and Chicago that spending amounts to more than $1 billion to police. The lack of non-policing solutions to social issues leaves victims of elder abuse with little choice but to endure the situation or call the police. And in communities of color, as has been shown, calling the police can be a deadly choice. Research demonstrates that Black older adults are likely not to seek help from abuse because of the risk of racial discrimination.

By narrowing the focus of policing, funding can be shifted to social services that are traditionally underfunded. For older adults, area agencies on aging, Adult Protective Services (APS), mental health services and legal services are critical lifelines that lack sufficient funding. These services are much better suited to serve older adults experiencing elder abuse who need the expertise of social workers, attorneys, doctors and advocates.

But year after year, advocates for older adults struggle to convince elected officials their services are worth increased investment.

Role of Elder Justice

Beyond funding, why is this movement important to elder justice advocates? Older Americans are growing more diverse. By 2060, it is estimated that the number of Black older adults will nearly triple, while the number of Hispanic older adults will quintuple.  If we purport to be elder justice advocates, we must advocate for all older adults, and that includes factoring in the distinct differences among them that create barriers to successful advocacy.

‘Establish or join a multidisciplinary team as a way to introduce alternatives to policing in resolving elder abuse cases.’

Additionally, elder abuse is nuanced, with the most common perpetrator being a family member, who is often a caregiver or the source of housing for the victim. Layer on the complexities of race and implicit biases in policing and one can quickly see where problems could arise.

The problem is also structural. In the United States, elder abuse prevention work is intertwined with law enforcement. In many states, APS is required to report abuse cases to law enforcement and often the police are the first call when elder abuse is suspected.

Not only does funding need to be shifted, but the structure of how elder abuse is addressed needs to change. And, in this work, there is an obligation to center the work on, and honor the lived experiences of older adults of color.

Black older adults have lived their entire lives in a racist system. Many black older adults have only had negative experiences with policing in this country. Elder justice advocates have a duty to reexamine our relationships with law enforcement regarding elder abuse. And to look at how law enforcement interacts with older Black adults and older adults of color to see if it is doing more harm than good.

A Call to Action

What are the next steps? What concrete actions should elder justice advocates take now, to further this cause? Change starts at the community level; therefore, regardless of whether a specific community is looking to defund the police, elder justice advocates can and should reassess policing and its relationship to elder abuse prevention and elder justice locally. In doing this, consider the following:

  • Check the statistics, are elder abuse prevention organizations in the community reaching all older adults? Are there discrepancies? If there is little data, advocate for increased data collection.
  • Examine the relationships between law enforcement and elder abuse advocates in the community. As an advocate, is it your first response to automatically contact the police? Is this necessary?
  • Establish or join a multidisciplinary team as a way to introduce alternatives to policing in resolving elder abuse cases.
  • Reach out to older adults you serve and survey their views on policing.
  • Recognize that police may not be helpful in cases of self-neglect.
  • Recognize that a police response is not trauma-informed.
  • Acknowledge that an elder abuse victim of color may be less likely to report abuse for fear of police involvement.

Elder justice advocates have a critical role to play in reimagining policing in America and taking this opportunity to build a strong, culturally competent, and effective elder-abuse prevention and response infrastructure—one that serves all older adults, while taking into account the lived experiences of diverse communities.

Vivianne Mbaku, J.D., is a senior staff attorney at Justice In Aging in its Los Angeles office.