There are a lot of misconceptions about what defunding the police means, which, at its simplest definition, is a reallocation of resources. Everyday citizens assess their budgets on a regular basis to determine if they are wasting money and could spend their precious dollars more efficiently. As police officers continue to kill Black people across the country, activists and some forward-thinking politicians are calling for their local governments to do the same thing and reimagine what public safety looks like—and one of those calls is to stop giving cops so much money to carry out public safety measures that police fail at executing.
“When I say defunding the police, what I mean is pulling money from their expansive budget and putting that money back into the community and reducing the militarization of police, by removing some of those militarized weapons that they use to exact silence on us,” Kim Moore, an activist who organizes around the issue in San Diego, told The Root.
In Minneapolis, the city council has moved to disband the police and reconstruct it to more effectively meet public safety needs and to reallocate money to social services that help prevent crime. Here in New York City, elected officials talked a good game about defunding the cops, but ended up with a result that did little to defund the NYPD.
Generally speaking, few politicians have an appetite for reducing police personnel because they see a robust law enforcement presence as essential to maintaining the social order and don’t want to be accused of being soft on crime. Also, as several activists have explained to The Root, many residents, even Black ones, can’t see a life without police officers, according to Pew Research Center.
That requires political education and engagement. Our explainer will attempt to be a solid starting point.
What would defunding the police look like?
For starters, it doesn’t mean getting rid of all police officers—though many abolitionists ultimately would prefer that. It simply means thinking of ways to make us safe without having to rely on cops. Police officers would still be available to address violent crime, but everything else they are called to do would be reassigned to unarmed professionals and money would be reallocated from the police department to pay for those services.
Another key component of defunding would have to include decriminalizing public health issues like drug use or marijuana possession. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times says that Portugal and the United States took a very different approach to narcotics use. Portugal decriminalized hard drugs while the U.S. hunkered down on policing.
“As I found when I reported from Portugal a few years ago, the number of heroin users there fell by three-quarters and the overdose fatality rate was the lowest in Western Europe,” Kristof wrote. “Meanwhile, after decades of policing, the United States was losing about 70,000 Americans a year from overdoses. In effect, Portugal appeared to be winning the war on drugs by ending it.”
Instead of $6 billion going to say, the NYPD, take one billion of that and hire unarmed mental health professionals to deal with mentally disturbed people. And deploy more unarmed cops to deal with traffic stops than uniformed cops with guns. Equally important, scale back unneeded traffic stops and searches of Black and Latinx people who rarely are carrying the drugs and weapons cops assume they have; to the contrary, it’s white people who are most likely in possession of such items.
So far, cops are serving one main purpose.
“Their job is to manage inequality and to put people in cages,” Derecka Purnell, a civil rights lawyer and activist leading the “defund the police” efforts, told The Root. “Defunding the police is one step, just one step of a lot of different steps that is being put on the table to remove the power from police, to remove the tools from police, to remove resources from police, to start to shift them away of their ability to come into contact with people in the streets. It’s a step, it is not an end. It’s a means to do something broader, which is to abolish the prison-industrial complex and to build something much more beautiful in its place.”
Why are some politicians—and citizens—so against defunding police departments?
Lack of imagination, but mostly, it is the accusation of being soft on crime—especially for Democrats.
Most politicians are not visionaries. They simply pass the buck or are too scared of facing down powerful police unions while fearing the loss of their jobs. The Root has covered this issue extensively and most elected officials we interview bristle at the thought of defunding police forces.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wrote an op-ed opposing the idea of defunding the police earlier this month, instead calling for more than $300 million to be spent on community policing—which does not prevent crime or stop those same cops from killing people with impunity.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) appreciates the spirit of defunding police but said during a recent interview with The Root that he doesn’t fully support the idea. The Congressional Black Caucus presented a generally weak plan to address police brutality that does virtually nothing to reallocate resources.
Even though most Black people feel cops are racist, a majority of them still do not support cutting funding from police departments. Much of the trepidation over defunding the police stems from a lack of community engagement and political education, Moore said.
“I always start by talking about our community right now,” she said. “‘What are the needs in our community?’ ‘What do we see happening to our communities?’ We see police responding to calls for people in distress. ‘Why should police be responding to calls to people in distress?’ Well, we’re not sending coalitions out on these calls. ‘Why aren’t we sending coalitions out on these calls?’ ‘Do we have programs for that?’ ‘Do we have funding for that?’ When I paint a picture that way, they start to understand and see that, ‘Oh, OK. So we’re talking about putting money back into communities that have historically been divested from?’ When I approach it that way, it makes it easier to bring people around to defunding the police and why it’s so critical and how it could keep our community safe.”
Ironically, Black politicians are just as resistant to defunding the police as white ones, albeit, perhaps, for different reasons. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot gave the excuse in a recent interview that defunding its police department would cut off a pathway for people of color to the city’s middle class—as if they cannot find other jobs and she, as the Chicago’s top executive, isn’t creative enough to create jobs for Black people that don’t allow them to kill people on their ways to economic prosperity (Or maybe she isn’t). Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser has called for an increase in her department’s budget and so has Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. The Congressional Black Caucus has its own police reform bill, but it doesn’t call for defunding police departments.
In the end, it really comes down to fear of being labeled soft on crime. During the 1992 campaign, Clinton, then governor of Arkansas returned to his state to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally impaired Black man. After the execution, he was quoted as saying, “I can be nicked on a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.”
Clinton’s predecessor and 1992 opponent former President George H.W. Bush used racist soft-on-crime tactics against Michael Dukakis with the Willie Horton ad. Horton killed someone after being released in Massachusetts then-prison work furlough program.
Democrats may not call themselves law-and-order politicians—at least not in a post-Ferguson climate. But they still struggle to grapple with the reality that people are hungry for a new model of policing that doesn’t include giving them more money to engage in so-called “community policing.”
What are the origins of defunding the police?
The abolitionist framework spans decades, but it most famously comes from the scholarship of Angela Davis, who interrogates the carceral state’s jails and prison systems. Her theoretical framework establishes that our punitive approach to dealing with crime must be replaced with a restorative one, as she explained during a lecture at Harvard in 2003.
Prisons and the policing forces that put them there “relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism,” she said.
Michelle Alexander’s 2010 groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow, renewed the conversation around prisons and policing a decade ago, taking to task Democrats and Republicans who relied on racism to stoke fears in Black communities that the only way to deal with the waves of crime impacting their communities is to incarcerate their way to safety.
The 1994 crime bill, which Biden authored and still takes little responsibility for, is to blame for that. During the 2016 presidential primary, Hillary Clinton was dogged with reminders of her “superpredator” comments as first lady and struggled to shake the label. She and Biden were carceral politicians, and activists continue to remind us as much.
Mariame Kaba, police and prison abolitionist, wrote recently of law enforcement’s origins of slave patrol and that there is no real way to reform such an institution. Kaba also wrote that politicians’ solution to police brutality is to create more rules—which cops almost always break.
Look what has happened over the past few weeks — police officers slashing tires, shoving old men on camera, and arresting and injuring journalists and protesters. These officers are not worried about repercussions any more than Daniel Pantaleo, the former New York City police officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death; he waved to a camera filming the incident. He knew that the police union would back him up and he was right. He stayed on the job for five more years.
Minneapolis had instituted many of these “best practices” but failed to remove Derek Chauvin from the force despite 17 misconduct complaints over nearly two decades, culminating in the entire world watching as he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.
Why on earth would we think the same reforms would work now? We need to change our demands. The surest way of reducing police violence is to reduce the power of the police, by cutting budgets and the number of officers.
Defunding the police doesn’t mean getting rid of police departments, as Kaba notes. It means making them obsolete.
Who will be around to catch bad guys if there are no cops?
Cops really don’t prevent crime anyway.
Police officers simply respond to crime and they don’t even do that well. A recent study by the New York Times that assessed how some of America’s biggest police departments use their time reveals that only 4 percent of their resources are devoted to violent crime. Some 37 percent of an officer’s time is spent responding to non-criminal calls, according to the study.
“I’m completely sympathetic to Black people, even middle-class white people, who have been told that safety means police and that justice means conviction because that’s what we’ve been socialized to believe our whole lives,” Purnell said. “Until you’ve gone through political education until you’ve organized and studied around those concepts, it makes complete sense why people would have that impulse.
“One thing I would say to particularly middle-class black families is that most people who experienced home break-ins, for example, have incomes of less than $10,000. And most of the people who commit home break-ins are people who do it out of economic desperation. So ironically, if you’re Black and middle-class and your income is anywhere above $7,500, you’re much more likely to be safe from that violence. The people who experienced the most vulnerability to home break-ins and to violence are people who are economically oppressed and poor and black.”
According to USA TODAY, the number of police officers who have left the force per 1,000 residents nationwide has dropped over the past two decades and crime has dropped along with their departures.
How do I learn more about defunding the police?
As far as written materials, you can start with these articles. Mariama Kaba, one of the nation’s foremost prisons and jails, wrote a column about what defunding the police means and the history behind it. Eric Levitz wrote in New York magazine how defunding police is not enough. In this San Francisco Chronicle article, the difference between abolishment and defunding of the police is explained.
As far as books to read, your first one should be Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete, which delves into the genesis of the prison industrial complex. It will provide critical foundations on which to better understand the defund movement. The End of Policing, by Alex Vitale is a great study of what a society without policing as we know it could look like.