Why ‘Defund the Police’ Is a Chant With Many Meanings

“Defund the police” has become a rallying cry at protests around the country, a thorny art project in the nation’s capital and a cudgel that President Donald Trump is trying to wield against his opponents. The simplicity of the phrase belies the complicated nature of the debate. The “defund” movement runs along a spectrum, from those in Minneapolis who would disband and rebuild their police department (on the theory that the current department’s culture is too pervaded by racism and violence), to those in New York City or Los Angeles who advocate reallocation of spending and reform of police practices.

1. What does ‘defund the police’ mean?

Different things to different people. The city government in Minneapolis is pursuing the complete disbanding of its police department, not just in reaction to the killing of George Floyd, but also because of poor performance fighting crime. Elsewhere, discussions are more nuanced, and defunding means spending less on police overtime and equipment and more on mental-health care, housing, education and violence-prevention initiatives. The justification for diverting law enforcement funding toward those purposes is based on the premise that a robust police force is not the only way to prevent crime. A movement to adopt so-called People’s Budgets, emphasizing social-service programs, has taken hold in American cities including Los Angeles, Nashville and New York.

2. How much does the U.S. spend on policing?

In many major cities, 30% to 40% of the municipal budget, according to a 2017 report by a coalition of social-equality groups including the Center for Popular Democracy. New York City’s achievement in breaking its crime wave 30 years ago is generally credited to a massive infusion of money to hire 6,000 additional cops, a 54% increase in its daily patrol. But many protesters question if money and more cops are always the answer. Over the past four decades, the cost of policing in the U.S. has almost tripled, from $42.3 billion in 1977 to $114.5 billion in 2017, according to an Urban Institute analysis of census data. That cost kept rising even as violent crime and property crime fell significantly, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

3. What would replace a disbanded police department?

The Minneapolis City Council voted to replace the police department with a community-led public safety system that will be designed over the next year in consultation with the community. (Mayor Jacob Frey doesn’t support abolishing the department but says he does seek “massive structural reform.”) Activist groups such as Reclaim the Block, Black Visions Collective and MPD 150 want the city to divert about $45 million from the police department into “community-led health and safety strategies.” The Minneapolis police department uses about $189 million of the $1.6 billion total city budget.

4. Where else is the debate happening?

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who had initially proposed a 7% increase in spending on police, called for a $150 million cut, with the proceeds instead going to support youth programs. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing the idea of cutting the $6 billion budget of the 36,000-officer department and spending more on youth programs. The City Council wants to cut police spending by $1 billion in the 2021 budget. Even New York City’s police commissioner, Dermot Shea, says he’s OK with the idea of cutting: “To help the kids of our city, I’m 1,000% behind shifting some funding from the police,” he said.

5. What’s the alternative?

Camden, New Jersey, population 74,000, abolished its city police department in 2013, after years of allegations of police brutality and corruption, and contracted with Camden County to provide law-enforcement services. The county police proceeded to adopt an 18-page use-of-force policy, developed with New York University’s Policing Project, that puts a priority on de-escalation. As protests around the country have turned violent in recent weeks, Camden officers left the riot gear at home.

The Reference Shelf

  • CityLab digs into the sudden interest in municipal budgets.
  • Mother Jones contemplates what a world without police would look like.
  • No, Biden says, I don’t support defunding the police.
  • A co-founder of Black Lives Matter discussed what “defund the police” does and doesn’t mean.
  • Remember “abolish ICE”?

— With assistance by Polly Mosendz, and Jameelah D Robinson

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