What does ‘defund the police’ mean and why some say reform is not enough

“Defund the police.”

In recent days, those words have spread on social media, been asked of politicians and been painted onto streets.

Protests around the country in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have reignited conversations around the role of police in society, and a growing voice among some activists has been calling to “defund the police.”

In Minneapolis, a veto-proof majority of the city council committed to dismantling its police department, breaking with Mayor Jacob Frey’s desire to make reforms but not break up the embattled police force.

“It is clear that our system of policing is not keeping our communities safe,” council president Lisa Bender said. “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to cut as much as $150 million that was part of a planned increase in the police department’s budget, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday that the city would move funding from the NYPD to youth initiatives and social services, while keeping the city safe.

Here’s what’s behind the movement to defund the police.

What does it mean to defund the police?

In one sense, the movement to defund the police is quite simple: It means taking funding away from police forces across the country. In many cases, a city’s or county’s legislators allocate money in yearly budgets to fund police departments. Defunding the police is just that literal.

But the larger push to defund the police is about more than just taking money away. It’s also a push to reallocate those funds into social programs.

“It’s not just about taking away money from the police, it’s about reinvesting those dollars into black communities. Communities that have been deeply divested from, communities that, some have never felt the impact of having true resources. And so we have to reconsider what we’re resourcing. I’ve been saying we have an economy of punishment over an economy of care,” Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, told WBUR.

In an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, Christy E. Lopez, a Georgetown Law professor  and co-director of the school’s Innovative Policing Program, writes that defunding the police is not necessarily something that comes overnight or by just zeroing out a police department’s budget.

“Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need,” Lopez writes.

MPD150, a Minneapolis-based initiative by local organizers aiming to bring “meaningful structural change” to police in the city, similarly writes that shifting police’s responsibilities is central to the defund the police movement.

“The people who respond to crises in our community should be the people who are best-equipped to deal with those crises,” the group says on its website.

Why defund the police?

Proponents of defunding police say policing in America has a long history of disproportionate harm to communities of color.

From law enforcement tracking down enslaved people who escaped in the south to enforcement of Jim Crow laws, “that history is engrained in our law enforcement,” Isaac Bryan, the director of UCLA’s Black Policy Center, told CNN.

Alex S. Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who wrote the book “The End of Policing,” explained to NPR that there is a “myth” that police are politically neutral and enforce laws to benefit everyone equally.

“The reality is that America’s social order has never been entirely equitable,” Vitale told NPR. “While we’re not using police to manage slavery or colonialism today, we are using police to manage the problems that our very unequal system has produced.”

Today, the history of law enforcement results in black people being killed by police at a disproportionate rate, advocates say. For example, a 2016 paper in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine analyzed data from the National Violent Death Reporting System, a federally maintained database. It found that while the majority of victims of lethal force by police were white, the fatality rate among black people was 2.8 times higher than among white people.

Furthermore, in cases where police used lethal force, black victims were more likely to be unarmed than white or Hispanic victims, the paper found.

“It’s not possible for the entity of law enforcement to be a compassionate, caring governmental agency in black communities. That’s not the training, that’s not the institution,” Cullors told WBUR.

The growing role of police

Vitale argues that one of the biggest problems with policing in recent decades is that law enforcement has played an expanding role in addressing societal problems.

Police are in schools, often respond to drug overdoses or mental health crises and clear homeless encampments in cities. Vitale says that instead of addressing the root causes of these problems, police are used to “criminalize” these people.

“This is perverse and unjust. So then it places police in this completely untenable situation, because they completely lack the tools to make this problem any better,” Vitale told NPR.

Thus, as MPD150 notes, instead of “strangers armed with guns, who very likely do not live in the neighborhoods they’re patrolling,” it should be social workers, mental healthcare providers and victim or survivor advocates, among others, who address the problems police are called into handling today.

In some cases, police officers themselves have agreed that the role they play in society is beyond what the traditional scope of law enforcement should be.

In 2016, then Dallas police chief David Brown made headlines when he said, “We are asking cops to do too much in this country.” Brown’s comment came during a news conference following the fatal shooting of five Dallas police officers. “Every societal failure, we put it off on cops,” he added.

Speaking with the Philadelphia Inquirer on the topic of whether police are asked to do too much, William Bratton, former New York City Police Commissioner, Boston police commissioner and Los Angeles police chief, said:

“After 9/11, police departments, particularly in large cities, are expected to commit resources to preventing terrorism. We are expected now to deal with cyber crime, and the opioid crisis. Police are being expected to be better trained to deal with emotionally disturbed people on the street. We are asking police officers in the 21st century to be almost doctors.”

Why not reform police?

Many detractors of the defund police movement have asked the question in recent days, can’t police departments be reformed without lessening their funding?

In D.C., police chief Peter Newsham warned that underfunding a police department could cause an increase in excess force by police officers.

“The number one thing that contributes to excessive force in any police agency is when you underfund it. If you underfund a police agency, it impacts training, it impacts hiring, it impacts your ability to develop good leaders,” Newsham told The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

Cullors told WBUR that Black Lives Matter and other groups have worked on police reforms for years, yet black Americans are still being disproportionately killed or harmed by police. Reforms like new training protocols or the requirement of body-worn cameras aren’t working, she said.

“The body cameras have done nothing more than show us what’s happened over and over again. The training has done nothing but show us that law enforcement and the culture of law enforcement is incapable of changing,” Cullors told WBUR.

Other detractors of the defund movement have also expressed concern that it would lead to increased crime.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the city’s police union, said budget cuts would be the “quickest way to make our neighborhoods more dangerous.”

“Cutting the LAPD budget means longer responses to 911 emergency calls, officers calling for back-up won’t get it, and rape, murder and assault investigations won’t occur or will take forever to initiate, let alone complete,” the union’s board said in a statement last week.

However, proponents of the movement say the reallocated funding to address other social needs would reduce crime.

“By shifting money away from the police and toward services that actually meet those needs, we’ll be able to get to a place where people won’t need to rob banks,” MPD150 wrote on its website.

Contributing: The Associated Press


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