This Is What It Means to Defund the Police

Kentucky State Police detain a man on West Liberty Street on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. (Max Gersh/The Courier Journal)

By Keya Vakil

June 3, 2020

Defunding the police means reducing city police department budgets—which are exorbitantly high—and redirecting those funds to underfunded programs, such as health care, education, and housing.

Over the past week, Americans outraged by the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd have taken to the streets in more than 300 cities across all 50 states to demand justice and an end to police brutality of Black Americans. As outrage has swelled and videos of police violently attacking protesters have spread, they’ve also given rise to a new movement seeking to defund the police.

From Minneapolis, Minnesota—which served as the lynchpin for the protests—to Los Angeles and everywhere in between, activists, organizers, artists, writers, and ordinary citizens have repeated the call. The movement is clearly breaking through, as Google searches for the phrase have skyrocketed in the past week. 

But what does it actually mean to defund the police?

First things first: Though the two are often confused for one another, it is not the same as abolishing the police (though there is some overlap among supporters of the two ideas). Instead, defunding the police means reducing city police department budgets—which are exorbitantly high and in some cities make up as much as 30% of the entire city budget—and redirecting those funds to other programs, such as health care, education, housing, and other programs which have been defunded or underfunded for decades. 

As Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale pointed out in an op-ed in the New York Post, “New York City spends more on policing than it does on the Departments of Health, Homeless Services, Housing Preservation and Development, and Youth and Community Development combined.”

This reality is not lost on the activists and organizers behind the Defund the Police movement.

“Policing and militarization overwhelmingly dominate the bulk of national and local budgets. In fact, police and military funding has increased every single year since 1973, and at the same time, funding for public health decreased every year,” the Movement for Black Lives wrote in an open letter to local governments.

The group cited a 2017 Urban Institute study which found that state and local government spending on police and corrections surged from $60 billion in 1977 to $194 billion in 2017. 

“That money could pay for so many things,” actor and activist Kendrick Sampson told COURIER this week. “We can have unarmed, non-law enforcement first responders in our community. We can have mental health care infrastructure. Right now, our largest mental healthcare system is prisons and jails,” he said. “We can have after-school programs, we can invest in rehabilitation centers, we can invest in housing, we can invest in the things that truly make us safe.”

RELATED: The George Floyd Protests Are Grimly Familiar — But They’re Also Different

The push to reduce funding for police departments also comes as cities are hemorrhaging tax revenue and slashing their budgets due to the coronavirus pandemic. But in some cities, including New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles, police departments are the only ones not facing steep cuts, even as other city services are gutted. In some cases, police departments are actually slated to get more funding during the pandemic.

Supporters of the movement point out that many of the reforms enacted in recent years, such as the usage of body cameras, more diversity among the ranks of police officers, and early intervention systems, have not ended police brutality. They specifically point to the Minneapolis Police Department, which has often been held up as a model of progressive policing reform.

Philip V. McHarris, a doctoral candidate focused on race, housing, and policing, and Thenjiwe McHarris, a strategist with the Movement for Black Lives, highlighted the Minneapolis Police Department’s ongoing failures—despite past reforms—in a recent op-ed for the New York Times.

“The department offers procedural justice as well as trainings for implicit bias, mindfulness and de-escalation. It embraces community policing and officer diversity, bans ‘warrior style’ policing, uses body cameras, implemented an early intervention system to identify problematic officers, receives training around mental health crisis intervention, and practices “reconciliation” efforts in communities of color,” they wrote. “George Floyd was still murdered.”

They emphasize that the focus on these types of reforms takes much-needed attention away from the underlying cause of police violence. “The problem is that the entire criminal justice system gives police officers the power and opportunity to systematically harass and kill with impunity,” they wrote. Those reforms, they say, also cost more money, which only balloons police department budgets further, giving them more power.

RELATED: Body Cameras Were Supposed to Save Lives. Here Are 5 Cases Where They Failed.

Instead, the Defund the Police movement wants to cut city budgets and reform the police another way: by minimizing their footprint. 

The movement has its detractors, including Ed Maguire, a professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. Maguire supports allocating more funding to programs like education and social welfare, but said defunding police departments could have unintended consequences. 

“If we start cutting budgets, where is it going to come from?” Maguire asked. “When you call a cop, maybe a cop isn’t coming now, or when you call a cop, maybe you get a less-trained cop because their budgets were cut.”

Less money means fewer officers and fewer services, Maguire said. “Which services are we not going to get if we defund the police? Which neighborhood is going to have fewer officers. Which training are we going to decide that those officers will no longer get because we can’t afford it?”

Defunding advocates argue that this is exactly the point. They want fewer officers, because those officers have historically overpoliced Black and Brown communities and brutalized Black and Brown bodies. A 2014 ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings found that young Black men were 21 times more likely to be shot than their white counterparts between 2010 and 2012. A 2015 study found that an unarmed Black American is more than three times as likely to be shot by the police than an unarmed white American. 

And when police initiate an interaction, they’re twice as likely to threaten use or force against Black residents than white residents, according to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, that number is far higher. The Minneapolis Police use force against Black people at seven times the rate of whites, according to a New York Times analysis.

Defund the Police activists find this and the amount of money police get unacceptable. They instead envision another world, where police aren’t the answer to every problem. 

The seeds of this world already exist. As Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris pointed out in their Times’ op-ed, the city of Dallas has implemented a new program where social workers are dispatched to some 9-1-1 calls that involve mental health emergencies. The approach has been promising thus far, and many people are now receiving care they would not have gotten in jail or overcrowded hospitals.

Community-driven and mutual aid efforts have also popped up in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, providing another alternative model. 

In its letter, the Movement for Black Lives offered suggestions for where the money diverted from police budgets could go: “It could go towards building healthy communities, to the health of our elders and children, to neighborhood infrastructure, to education, to childcare, to support a vibrant Black future. The possibilities are endless.”


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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