What does “defund the police” mean?
Do you support calls to defund the police?
By Lorelei Yang, Countable News
In recent weeks, protests over police brutality against black Americans have led to broader calls to defund the police. With demonstrations in every state, and over 10,000 police stations throughout the U.S., it’s not always clear what “defunding the police” would entail. Below, we consider what the practice might mean for communities.
Defund or abolish?
Defunding the police is an idea that has been popular among activists and critics of the criminal justice system for decades.
But first, it’s important to draw a distinction between defunding and abolishing the police.
While some activists want to abolish the police altogether, defunding the police doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating the police altogether. Instead, it generally means reducing police budgets and reallocating the funds to education, public health, housing, and youth services programs that deter crime by directly addressing societal issues such as poverty, mental illness, and homelessness. At present, police are often tasked with handling these problems despite being poorly equipped to handle them. For example, according to some estimates, 21% of law enforcement time is spent responding to and transporting those with mental illnesses.
The argument for defunding
Where should funding go?
As a country, America spends $115 billion on policing, which makes the U.S. police budget dwarf most countries’ military budgets.
Proponents of defunding the police contend that taking some of the money currently allocated to police departments, and reinvesting it in community workers trained in de-escalation techniques, could help prevent the use of unnecessary force from police first responders—who often aren’t trained to handle social problems like domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness, and mental health issues. (In 2015, the Washington Post found that one in four people killed by a police officer suffered from a serious mental illness at the time of their death.)
Those in favor of defunding also argue that incremental police reform has failed. They contend that addressing underlying factors that contribute to crime - such as homelessness and poverty - would be more effective than policing in its current form, and call on cities to invest in social welfare like housing and youth services.
During an appearance on “The View,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) explained the logic behind investing in community resources:
“We have confused the idea that to achieve safety, you put more cops on the street, instead of understanding to achieve safe and healthy communities, you put more resources into the public education system of those communities, into affordable housing, into home ownership, into access to capital for small businesses, access to health care regardless of how much money people have. That’s how you achieve safe and healthy communities.”
Asking too much of the police
Some police officers agree that law enforcement is currently asked to do too much, addressing problems they aren’t equipped to handle. In a 2016 interview, former Dallas police chief David Brown said:
“Every societal failure, we put it off for the cops to solve. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
Recent efforts at defunding
A number of municipalities have moved to reduce police departments’ budgets in recent weeks:
- On June 7, the City Council of Minneapolis announced plans to disband the city’s police department with a veto-proof majority and replace the police with “a holistic model of public safety that actually keeps us safe.”
- Los Angeles, California Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) has announced that the city will cut $100-150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department’s $1.8 billion budget and reinvest the funds in communities of color.
- San Francisco, California Mayor London Breed (D) has announced plans to reduce funding for the San Francisco Police Department and reinvest those funds into Black communities.
Arguments against defunding the police
Public safety concerns are the biggest argument raised by opponents of police defunding. In an appearance on Fox News, Attorney General William Barr argued that defunding police departments would make communities less safe:
“Police chiefs, the rank and file officers understand the need for change and there has been great change. And I think defunding the police, holding the entire police structure responsible for the actions of certain officers is wrong, and I think it’s dangerous to demonize police.”
President Donald Trump, his fellow Republicans, and police unions are also against defunding the police. And in some localities, police unions have rallied their members in solidarity against police brutality protests, arguing that demonstrators are agitators seeking to hurt their officers’ reputations.
One example of this occurred in Buffalo, New York, where 57 officers resigned from the police department’s special squad over the suspension of two officers who shoved a 75-year-old protestor, causing him to sustain a serious head injury. In an interview with WGRZ, Buffalo Police Benevolent Association president John Evans said, “Fifty-seven resigned in disgust because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders.”
While Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police - the nation’s largest law enforcement union - says his organization is open to “a fact-based discussion” on law enforcement practices, this attitude isn’t shared by all police officers. Some local-level unions continue to accuse the media of vilifying police officers and label Black Lives Matter protesters as “terrorists.”
Barriers to defunding the police
There are potential legal and political barriers to defunding the police. Most notably, because police officers are unionized, a state or municipality moving to eliminate a police union’s contract would likely face legal challenges.
Police unions as reformers
It’s worth considering the role that police unions have to play in improving policing at the officer level. In California, three major police unions have introduced a reform agenda meant to improve outcomes between police officers and their communities and “root out any racist individual” in their ranks.
Alternatives to defunding the police
Democrats have introduced legislation that would reform the police in a number of ways, including by banning chokeholds and establishing a national registry of officers accused of misconduct. However, no major political party has endorsed legislation to defund the police.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) explicitly rejected the “defund the police” call in an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, saying that “nobody is going to defund the police.”
“We can restructure the police forces, restructure, reimagine policing. That is what we are going to do. The fact of the matter is, the police have a role to play. What we have got to do is make sure that their role is one that meets the times, one that responds to these communities that they operate in.”
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has suggested there may be a middle ground between defunding the police and maintaining the status quo. In an interview with CBS Evening News, Biden expressed support for funding police departments to purchase body cameras and train personnel on community policing. He also called for conditioning federal aid to police departments based on officers’ conduct:
“I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness. And, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community.”
(Image Credit: iStockphoto.com / PaulMoody123)
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