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What does "defund the police" really mean?

When the first Black Lives Matter protests began, protesters demanded some important incremental changes: body cameras, implicit bias training, and community oversight boards. Local municipalities won these reforms, but now, amidst protests catalyzed by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the call for change sounds different: Defund the police.

This is different than the laws passed in recent days around "no-knock warrants" or making police records available to the public. Defunding the police is a more holistic demand to reduce police department budgets to $0 for the staunchest activists, and for others a call to simply reallocate some of the money dedicated to funding law enforcement to other community resources instead.

It already seems to be working. In Minneapolis on Sunday, the city council voted to dismantle the current police department in favor of community-based solutions. In Los Angeles, there are talks of diverting hundreds of millions of dollars from the multi-billion dollar police budget. But what exactly does defunding the police mean? Where would the money go? And is what happened in Minneapolis replicable?

What does it mean to defund the police?

Defunding the police is both an idea and a call to action. As an idea, the concept is rooted in the knowledge that policing is a byproduct of the enslavement of Africans; historians note that slave patrolmen were hired to hunt and bring back "runaway" slaves. Much in the way that Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow illustrated a historical throughline between slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the rise of mass incarceration in the U.S., there's also a connection between early forms of slavery and policing. The idea of defunding the police acknowledges this history, and asserts that anything rooted in slavery should not be funded and supported today.

A 2017 report by the Center for Popular Democracy tracked and compared the rate of spending on policing and incarceration with that of public programming: "Over the last 30 years, the U.S. has dramatically increased its investment in policing and incarceration, while drastically cutting investments in basic infrastructure and slowing investment in social safety net programs." The investment in policing is due in part to the "disinvestment" in Black and brown communities, CPD said.

In terms of a call to action, defunding the police urges local leaders — mayors, city managers, and budget directors — to rethink their city's budgets and radically decrease their police department's budget. As we saw in Minneapolis, the city council voted to completely disband the police department in favor of rethinking what community-based solutions will look like. In other cities, like Camden, New Jersey, the city council voted in 2012 to disband the police department and build a new one from the ground up.

Where would the money go instead?

Defunding the police favors putting money into other social programs that continually suffer from underfunding, like public education, public hospitals, public infrastructure, counseling, and social work. In New York City, for example, the operating budget for the police department $5,668,823,000. Comparatively, city services for the homeless topped out at $2,061,776,000 and youth programming had a budget of $872,141,000. Advocates of defunding the police say that city and municipal budgets should reprioritize community resources — many of which could address issues, like mental health and homelessness, that often currently lead to police intervention — instead of spending all that money on law enforcement.

The list of underfunded programs is extensive, but by and large police funding has been favored over investments in "drug treatment, mental health support, educational completion programs, and supportive interventions for families in crisis," per the CPD report. Moreover, research shows that these social programs are "more effective, less expensive, and more humane 'crime fighting' strategies than increased incarceration and policing," CPD reported, but they lack the funding that policing has.

Right now, the call for defunding the police is intersecting with a global pandemic and mass unemployment. Even before coronavirus hit, most Americans couldn't afford an unexpected $400 expense, and wages have not risen in decades to meet the cost of living in most places — yet police budgets around the country have increased, and police departments have also become more militarized. This means that as Americans have become more reliant on public programs, public programs have been spread thin. Defunding police might help bolster programs that support working families and address America's criminalization of poverty.

Is defunding the police feasible?

Police funding is a local issue, which means that budgets are voted on and approved by locally elected city council members, mayors, and city managers appointed by those mayors. Because of the hyper-local control, it may actually be easier to pressure local officials to defund police than to get policing reforms passed at the federal level, which requires a far greater amount of compromise with ideologically-different stakeholders (like getting politicians from California and Kentucky to agree on policy).

Moreover, in the same way that local governments have increased funding for police in recent years, defunding just requires doing the reverse. But it's easier said than done. Elected officials prefer to use precedent and research-based solutions to enact policy decisions, and that's why the current national energy to defund the police coupled with the Minneapolis decision just might be the push for other cities start contemplating the same.

It's worth noting, though, that defunding the police isn't a universally popular idea, not even within liberal circles. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, is not in favor of defunding the police, his campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said Monday. Per Bates: "Biden does not believe that police should be defunded. He hears and shares the deep grief and frustration of those calling out for change, and is driven to ensure that justice is done and that we put a stop to this terrible pain."

What would that mean for public safety?

Proponents of policing say that an increased police presence increases public safety, but activists disagreefor a few reasons. Proponents of defunding note that police overpolice Black and brown communities when compared to white communities, which leads to increased interactions with the criminal justice system for Black and brown people, and in turn contributes to the economic destabilization of their communities.

"This is a system that was not created or designed to serve communities, especially Black communities."

"This is a system that was not created or designed to serve communities, especially Black communities," Jillian Johnson, mayor pro tempore of Durham, North Carolina, said in an interview with NPR. "Our best chance for building a safety solution that puts people first, that puts communities first, that takes care of people rather than criminalizes, incarcerates, and punishes them is by shifting resources that we use for policing into other systems, alternative systems, alternative institutions rather than the institutions that we know are also causing us harm."

In addition to the understanding that an increased police presence in Black and brown communities actually causes harm, there's ample evidence that police are ill-equipped to deal with mental health crises and intimate partner violence, which comprise a number of 911 calls. Defunding the police could put more money toward shelters for women and families or increased educational and emotional support for children of abusive parents.

Calls to police for mental health emergencies or "wellness checks," meanwhile, have increased in recent years around the country — and often result in police violence against Black and brown folks. The research differs from region to region, but overall estimates say that 1 in 4 police shootings are of a person with a mental illness. The ACLU noted, too, how millions of children attend schools that do not have counselors, social workers, or psychologists, but that do have police officers. Advocates for defunding the police say money would be better spent on licensed therapists, counselors, and mental health practitioners, who could address the root of the issue with nuance and expertise before police ever have to be involved.

Whether or not other cities take action to defund the police, the rallying cry has galvanized a new era of the Black Lives Matter movement, one that sees widespread pushes for local policy changes and reinvestment in community support systems.