As police use of force undergoes increased scrutiny in light of the police killings of Black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, activists and civilians are beginning to turn their focus from protests to policy. If you've been checking out the different proposals to address police brutality and racism, you might be wondering what "defund the police" means and how the call to action could be implemented. While people are divided about how exactly to reform law enforcement and the idea of public safety, the concept of defunding the police is pretty straightforward.
Despite misconceptions, defunding the police doesn't mean there will be no one to respond to calls for help — but rather, supporters want better options for help than police. Tara Andrews Huffman, J.D., the director of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program at the Open Society Institute in Baltimore, tells Elite Daily that dismantling police wouldn't lead to states and cities immediately firing all law enforcement. Instead, it's a long-term strategy that seeks to ensure better public safety for communities where policing has failed.
"Police abolitionists don’t believe in getting rid of the police today," she says. "Rather, they believe in working hard to build communities that don’t need the function that police currently play, and are free from the harm that police currently do."
Huffman says there are two separate aspects of the movement: some advocates support defunding the police, while others want to follow that by abolishing the police altogether. However, not all supporters agree with both parts. "Some [advocates] believe there will continue to be a role for the police, although much, much more limited, whereas abolitionists believe we can eventually create a world where police are not needed and not wanted," she says.
Proponents of defunding the police argue that currently, police are asked to respond to issues which they are not trained for, and in which an armed police intervention may do more harm than good. In addition to responding to actual crime, police are often called to deal with people experiencing mental health crises, homelessness, drug use or overdoses, and personal disputes, few of which require an armed response. Advocates for defunding the police argue that the money previously used to fund police budgets would be better spent on community measures, like programs focused on housing, education, healthcare, and mental health, which build up communities and address root causes of crime. Campaigns like #8toabolition advocate for defunding the police as a first step towards implementing policies which would remove police from schools, invest in housing, and promote community self-governance, among other goals.
"This over-reliance on the police results in bloated police budgets and emaciated budgets for public health, youth engagement, workforce development, and poverty elimination," Huffman says. "It also results in police being asked to be too many things to too many people."
Defunding the police would free up a lot of money for other initiatives. The New York City Police Department, the largest police department in the United States, has an annual budget of $6 billion. "In some places, it's anywhere between 30 to 50% of the entire city budget and there's no evidence to [support the narrative that more cops lead to safer communities]," says Philip V. McHarris, a Ph.D candidate at Yale University who specializes in police budgeting and invest-divest campaigns surrounding policing. Huffman adds police budgets remain as large as they do because of "inertia" and pressure from police leaders and politicians looking for a solution to fight crime levels and deal with the rising prison population.
According to McHarris, policing in America has some of its origins in slave-catching patrols in the pre-Civil War era, and the idea of police as stewards of public safety was ushered in with President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on crime in the 1960s. Johnson expanded the federal government's role in policing and prisons while giving cops military-grade weapons and gear like bulletproof vests and rifles as part of the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965. "The idea that police are the only ones that can provide safety became a very powerful narrative, so then cities and states followed suit by increasing police budgets," McHarris says.
In recent decades, police departments have also become increasingly militarized. According to a 2014 ACLU report, as of that year, one police department in Arizona had 120 assault rifles, five armored vehicles, and 10 helicopters. Much of the military equipment comes from a Department of Defense program which allows excess military gear and equipment to be transferred to law enforcement. Per the same ACLU report, the police use of military gear and tactics can escalate the risk of violence, and police violence disproportionately affects Black and brown communities: according to a Washington Post tracker, Black Americans are killed by police at twice the rate of white Americans, despite making up only 13% of the U.S. population.
McHarris says one essential task for advocates of defunding is addressing the narrative that a police presence is what makes a community safe — an idea that, despite a lack of supportive evidence or research, he says has become ingrained in the fabric of American policy. "There's clear evidence that the police are brutalizing people, that the police are being violent, that this model does not work," he says. "There's no robust body of evidence that suggests policing dramatically increases and maintains safety."
The idea of defunding police stands in contrast to reform proposals, like Campaign Zero's #8Can'tWait, which advocates for reducing police violence by immediately banning chokeholds and strangleholds and requiring comprehensive reporting, among other research-based action items. Critics say the program doesn't go far enough with its demands: McHarris points out that many states have already implemented #8cantwait policies like implicit bias and mindfulness training, early warning response, and deescalation trainings, yet police killings of Black people are still happening.
Some cities are giving defunding a try. On Sunday, June 7, the Minneapolis city council announced that they will adopt a longterm plan to disband the police force and instead allocate funds towards community-led public safety programs. Many advocates also point to the case of Camden, New Jersey, which disbanded and completely rebuilt its police force in 2012 due to rampant corruption. In the seven years since, crime in Camden — which used to be one of the most violent cities in America — has dropped by half, per CNN. However, there are still criticisms, and Camden residents are petitioning for further changes and a shift to more community oversight.
Despite a growing number of cities considering budget cuts to police departments, both Hoffman and McHarris acknowledge it won't happen overnight. But McHarris argues abolition of police is a real possibility in the future, even in big cities. He also says it's possible there will remain a "small class of public servants that are able to respond to intense levels of violence." Harris explains, "Even that model can exist where the focus is around deescalation and doing the least amount of harm to everybody."
The fact that the conversation about reallocating law enforcement funds towards community programs is now mainstream is a promising start, McHarris says. "I think anything that sort of shifts power and resources away from police and puts it back into the hands of community institutions and community alternatives is the model."
Tara Andrews Huffman, J.D., director of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program at the Open Society Institute in Baltimore
Philip V. McHarris, Ph.D candidate at Yale University, writer, and activist who specializes in police budgeting and invest-divest campaigns surrounding policing