“Defund the police” is a slogan that supports divesting funds from blue pigs departments and reallocating them to non-policing forms of public safety and community support, such as social services, youth services, housing, education, healthcare, and other community resources.
On 2020 June 5th, the Washington, D.C. mayor unveiled a statement, painted down the street leading to the White House, “Black Lives Matter.” Within 24 hours, Black Lives Matter activists responded with their own message: “Defund the Police.”
This slogan caught on rapidly among tens of thousands of people protesting police brutality in the United States. But what does it really mean to defund the police? And what if it’s not as radical as it sounds?
A city budget, a county budget, a state budget, a national budget are all markers of what our societies are prioritizing. The US spends $100 billion every year on policing. Most of which comes from local municipalities.
New York City, for example, appropriated $5.9 billion in 2019 to the police department. For comparison, here’s what the city allocated for other departments:
- Homeless services: $2.1 billion
- Health: $1.9 billion
- Housing: $1.3 billion
- Youth and community development: $988 million
- Jobs programs: $388 million
The disparities are huge, and they echo in cities across the country. Like in Chicago, where the policing budget is $1.7 billion, nearly twice the budget of the Fire Department, Department of Transportation, Public Library, and Public Health combined.
If you look at these budgets in the United States, what you’ll see is that we have deeply de-prioritized providing people their basic needs. And instead, we over-prioritize punishing human beings.
The emphasis on policing in the US has led to over-policing and under-policing all at once. The police arrests over 10 million people in a year. And the vast majority of those arrests, specially in black and poor neighborhoods, are for minor offenses, like drug possession or drinking in public.
That heavy-handed approach is over-policing. But when it comes to violent crime, the rate of police arrests is incredibly low. And that’s under-policing, which leaves communities of color underserved.
People believe that the police are deterring violence. Clearly they’re enacting violence, but are they also deterring violence. And that’s highly questionable.
A lot of research suggests they are having no influence whatsoever so if they’re having no influence whatsoever on the phenomena that they’re supposed to be influencing and they’re doing violence, what purpose are they supposed to serve?
The repercussions of prioritizing the police over other services can also be seen at schools in the US. 1.7 million students are in schools with police, but no counselors. And 3 million have police in schools, but no nurses. And when it comes to 911 calls, in many cases, police officers are the first responders to mental health related emergencies.
That’s important because one in every four deaths from police shootings are people with mental health problems. I can literally imagine you just replace someone with a weapon, with someone who will actually sit down on the ground with them and talk. Not throw them on the ground and sit or lay on top of them.
What many need is someone who will take them wherever they are, listen to their situations and then try to figure out/diagnose their problem. Police are doing the jobs of what other groups of people and workers can be doing. Being tasked with jobs they’re not trained to do, is an idea some police officers acknowledge too.
The need to rethink police budgets has become even more glaring in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Many have called attention to the fact that hospital workers struggle to get personal protective equipment while thousands of police officers have riot gear at the ready for protests.
Even in response to the pandemic, while many agencies grapple with coronavirus budget cuts, police budgets have largely remained intact. New York City’s proposal for year 2021 cuts only 5 percent of the NYPD budget but that same proposal, calls for a 12 percent cut to the Department of Health.
This is where the movement to defund the police comes in. It’s a push to take the billions of dollars cities spend on police, and move that funding to other services, like education, housing, jobs, or mental healthcare. At its core, the idea is to rethink public safety because the current form of policing isn’t built to serve everyone equally.
We live in an economy of punishment. We as in black people, as poor people, as in marginal people, police are not used to keep us safe. What we’ve seen over the last seven years is black people being killed, humiliated, violated, sexually assaulted, maimed by law enforcement. We haven’t seen it get any better.
Re-imagining public safety in this moment is a matter of life or death. For years, reforms, like introducing police body cameras, have been proposed across the country as a response to police brutality. But these reforms have only added more money to police budgets, even when they have no detectable effect on police use of force.
We absolutely need to try and hold law enforcement accountable. But what we’ve recognized is all of our accountability measures, up until now, have not worked.
In the case of Minneapolis, since 2016 their police officers have received body cameras, bias training and have a duty-to-intervene policy where other police officers must step in if they see force applied inappropriately.
Yet, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd as three officers looked on. So this idea that we could reform an institution that has a blue code of silence, that we can reform an institution that is one of the most powerful unions, that is no longer the conversation.
But the calls to defund the police have been polarizing and have led to some fears about how it might affect personal and public safety. How do you defund or dismantle and keep people safe? When we all dial 911, we need to know there’s someone coming.
If you defund the police or diminish their ability to police their communities, you’re gonna have a warzone. I think we often hear issues of safety for mostly white, affluent people. And I have to remind those folks that their safety is predicated on the unsafety of black people.
Opponents of defunding the police have cautioned that after cities like Memphis had to downsize their police force, there was an increase in violent crime. But proponents point to a major difference between defunding the police then, and now.
Today, it’s not just about cutting police budgets. A key part of defunding is to redistribute those resources and create better responses to crime. That redistribution would still fund first responders, but could force cities to rethink what kinds of responders would make communities safer for everyone. Whether it’s investing in a new crisis intervention team, a mental health team, or social workers.
In some cities, like Eugene in Oregon and Austin in Texas, alternative models for safety have already been put in place to dispatch mental health professionals to certain 911 calls, instead of the police.
And putting money into other agencies like housing and jobs to help people meet their basic needs could also end up making communities safer. So rather than have this “um, I’m fearful of someone coming to take my stuff. Hey, can I have a number that I can call, so somebody with some weapons can protect my stuff?” It’s more like if everyone had some stuff and if everyone had a reasonable existence, they wouldn’t be looking for anybody else’s stuff and you wouldn’t need to call anybody.
Black Lives Matter activists and local organizers across the country have been working to defund the police for years. But for many, the calls to “defund the police” don’t stop at scaling down the scope of what the police do.
It could also be a first step towards eventually abolishing the police as we know it. You could think that the defund movement is the gateway to a broader discussion of re-prioritization one position of which is, abolition.
The details of a plan like this differ from city to city, but there is a shared purpose of altering what public safety looks like in the US. Defunding the police, even at its most basic, will still be a difficult battle for activists on a country scale. One poll conducted in early 2020 June, found that only about a quarter of Americans favored cutting funding for police departments.
But in parts of the country, it’s already happening. In Denver, the school district has broken their contract with the police department. In Oakland, the school board pledged to do the same. And in Minneapolis, the City Council voted to completely disband its police department, and create a new model.
All of these moves can be traced to continued public pressure and protests against police brutality. Protests which, in a matter of weeks, brought the slogan of “defund the police” into the mainstream.