This summer’s wave of social justice protests across the country ushered in a broad, national conversation about police abolition. As social media users, journalists, media professionals, and others got a crash course in the decades-long abolitionist framework, the popular movement against police brutality latched on to a key phrase: Defund the police.
As the defunding movement took hold, protesters began applying pressure around that specific demand, challenging their local leadership to either dismantle entire police departments or at least reallocate funds from oversize police budgets toward under-resourced social programs. Law enforcement and pro-police advocates have responded to the criticism in a variety of ways that all communicate the same thing: Police officers are determined — and desperate — to hold on to their power and influence in any way they can.
One of the tactics that police departments have leveraged this past summer, and indeed in recent years, is punishing organizations and businesses that support the Black Lives Matter movement by refusing to serve them. And despite providing much-needed community support, local social services and aid programs are apparently not exempt.
HuffPost recently reported several examples of police departments that have all abruptly ended their partnerships with local domestic and interpersonal violence programs. Embrace, a Wisconsin-based organization that provides shelter and social services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, hung a Black Lives Matter sign at one of its locations this summer. As a result, more than a dozen law enforcement agencies “have indicated that they will no longer partner” with Embrace, per HuffPost. The pro-police government of Barron County, where one of Embrace’s offices is located, additionally responded by voting unanimously to reduce the organization’s funding by $25,000. Embrace was forced to set up a GoFundMe page to help offset the sudden budgetary change.
Other organizations dealing with sexual assault and domestic violence have also reportedly experienced backlash from local law enforcement officials after signing on to an open letter stating their commitment to challenging their own reliance on the criminal justice system and recognizing that black, Indigenous, and other people of color are especially vulnerable to police violence. Forty-seven coalitions around the country signed on in total. Nebraska’s coalition director said she was contacted by the Nebraska Sheriffs’ Association and was asked to remove their name; she refused. Idaho’s coalition director meanwhile said the state’s Chiefs of Police Association, Sheriffs Association, and the Prosecuting Attorney’s Association all withdrew their support from the coalition in response.
Police departments and law enforcement agencies choosing to abandon organizations that have publicly and explicitly stated their commitment to anti-racism work isn’t surprising. But in this instance, given law enforcement’s track record of mishandling sexual assault cases and dealing with their own internal issues of domestic and interpersonal violence, the choice is particularly concerning.
The generally negative reaction from law enforcement organizations that feel threatened by Black Americans asserting their rights has its own long, bloody history — one that reaches all the way back through the Civil Rights Movement and the Jim Crow era and has its roots in violent retaliation against abolitionists and enslaved Black people fighting for their freedom. But over the last half a decade at least, we’ve seen law enforcement officials become only more brazen in their self-righteous positions.
Police abolitionists and supporters of the “defund” movement are working to usher in an entirely new framework for how our society treats criminality, violence, safety, security, and rehabilitation.
Pro-police entities across the United States are well-connected and well-funded, and many are organized enough to make their childish tantrums seem like honorable appeals to the public in support of their noble roles in society. But when faced with the reality that their work might not be the most effective way to prevent and address crime, ensure community safety, and ensure that members of society generally treat each other with basic decency, rather than embrace any level of reform they've instead opted to buttress their own hubris.
It's critical to remember that police abolitionists and supporters of the “defund” movement are working to usher in an entirely new framework for how our society treats criminality, violence, safety, security, and rehabilitation. But law enforcement agencies have taken that mission as a personal slight, and intentionally made it more difficult for people fighting to improve the lives of others in response.
In addition to that, officers have also responded negatively to the shift in attitude overall toward law enforcement. Whether or not people supported the protests or not at the beginning of the summer, the onslaught of images and photos of brutalized protesters filling social media and making headlines helped the movement quickly go mainstream. Before this, law enforcement agencies had enjoyed blanket trust from the media, letting their press releases and statements serve as unquestionable truths. Now, their authority has been challenged en masse, and some officers (although still very few, considering) are even facing consequences for their brutalization of protesters.
It's led to some ugly moments. In Buffalo, New York, two police officers were suspended and put under investigation after footage emerged of them shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground, who began bleeding from his head. The officers were eventually charged with felony assault. In response, all 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department emergency response team quit, which the department’s police union said was done in an act of solidarity with the two police officers who had come under scrutiny. In Atlanta, Georgia, roughly 170 police officers across the city’s six police zones staged a sick-out after it was announced that the two of the officers involved in the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks would be charged. For officers who did show up for their shifts, many reportedly refused to leave their precincts unless an officer needed backup in the field. Law enforcement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, also considered carrying out their own organized sick-out in response to a high-ranking officer being charged with felony aggravated assault after video surfaced of him brutalizing a protester.
In one of the most notorious instances of police retaliating against protesters, the NYPD organized its own work slowdown in 2014 after the officer killing of Eric Garner, limiting their work to emergency calls and essential duties. Rather than the imagined post-apocalyptic lawlessness some might’ve expected as a result, overall arrests dropped by 66%, including arrests for non-major crime and stop-and-frisk events. Reports of major crime fell as well.
As the "defund" movement deepens its roots in mainstream politics, it might not be a stretch to imagine more organized actions like this from police departments and law enforcement agencies feeling the pressure. Another four years of Donald Trump as president would almost certainly inspire police officers to take more extreme measures to suppress protest movements too — and could allow them to feel even more justified in carrying out work stoppages. A Joe Biden administration might offer less extreme rhetoric, but there’s a possibility that the vice president’s willingness to engage in conversations about police reform might have a similar effect anyway. An administration that excuses police brutality might embolden law enforcement to act more brazenly out of hubris, but an administration that criticizes police brutality might encourage law enforcement to act the same out of pure indignation.
Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of these kinds of reactionary measures are backed by police unions who often use their political and economic cache to protect officers from public scrutiny, not to mention legal troubles. Police unions have long presented a unique challenge for activists and leftists who are, generally speaking, pro-union. But as many labor organizers have argued and demonstrated in recent months, police unions operate differently than typical labor unions, and the labor movement will need to have its own reckoning concerning those organizations in the near future.
Another particularly concerning possibility is that police officers and pro-police advocates will transfer their support to private security firms and other related security organizations. The Trump administration’s consistent reliance on using fear-based, racist rhetoric to drum up support encourages his base to feel like they themselves are targets and that their very lives are under threat. When people buy into his sweeping — and completely unfounded — claims about widespread crime ruling the streets and wildly violent protesters throwing well-manicured affluent suburbs into utter chaos, it leads to cases like the St. Louis couple who stood on their front lawn, guns drawn, saying that they feared for their lives as protesters simply walked down their street.
A potential increase in private security firms poses a major threat, given the typical lack of transparency or oversight. We’ll have even less than the barely-present police accountability than we have now. Protesters caught beneath the baton of an overly-zealous member of a private security organization won’t be able to make the same legal argument as they would if they were confronted by a member of local law enforcement. Scarier still: Police officers that are fired for improper conduct on the job could in theory just join these private organizations.
The Republican Party is seasoned at creating and popularizing justifications for over-policing. Hell, Democrats are good at it, too. Part of the work for activists pushing to defund the police will be to combat those narratives with their own messaging about the truth about abolitionism: that they’re fighting to ensure and protect the dignity of every member of society by eliminating an outdated institution that does far more harm than good.
But if any of the fallout from the movement means we see more police retaliation or private security efforts, activists will also have to proactively strategize to combat those outcomes too. It means fighting for abolition on multiple fronts. The need to build a strong, principled coalition is critical — but thankfully, a broader fight for police abolition means there will be room for everyone to join.