“I would like to see police departments start policing with the communities as opposed to policing at the communities.”
*This is part one in a series exploring Arizona’s movements to defund police departments. Read the full series here.
A years-old movement to reform police departments, which re-entered the national debate last spring when a Minneapolis police officer dug his knee into George Floyd’s back until he couldn’t breathe, has taken root in Arizona.
“No justice, no peace, defund the police!”
The chant is a nationwide call to action, voiced by millions at protests, on social media and at city halls across the U.S. and in Arizona, where some police departments claim a quarter of a city’s annual budget.
Defunding the police, which has long been sought by groups battling police violence against African Americans and other people of color, has gained traction in the past three months. Several cities recently have reduced funds for police budgets.
Leaders in Phoenix—which has one of the highest rates of police shootings in the country—approved a city budget in June that left police funds intact but allocated $3 million for a civilian review system. The fiscal 2021 budget gives law enforcement $745 million.
In Phoenix, Tucson, Mesa, Glendale, and elsewhere in Arizona, reformers are calling on city councils to redirect funds to such areas as mental health services, and in some cases to disband their police departments. Police advocates say that would be a mistake, unraveling law enforcement’s central mission to protect and serve the public.
A nationwide movement
The defund movement is vibrant in many U.S. cities.
In June, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted to disband the police department and vowed to create a “transformative new model.”
“We acknowledge that the current system is not reformable – that we would like to end the current policing system as we know it,” City Council member Alondra Cano told CNN.
The Boston City Council is planning to do just that. Mayor Marty Walsh announced the city will reallocate 20% of the police overtime budget—$12 million—to community programs focused on inequality.
In Sacramento, California, Mayor Darrell Steinberg proposed spending $5 million for a new department that, instead of law enforcement, would respond to 911 calls involving noncriminal activity.
Along with the new department, Steinberg is calling for the creation of an inspector general who would fully and publicly investigate any officer-involved shooting, any death while in police custody and police use of force that results in serious bodily injury.
Los Angeles; San Francisco; New York; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Oregon, are among U.S. cities that have reduced funding of police departments in response to demands for change.
Debate in Arizona
Phoenix activist Chris Love, 42, said most of the money spent on police in Arizona could be put to better use elsewhere.
“I think that we’ve seen kind of some of the creeping back of a lot of the things that other folks would call gains,” she said. “And part of that is looking at policing and the overreliance on police departments, as opposed to really taking a look at taking care of our most vulnerable citizens and making sure that we have the resources to provide them whatever services they need.”
Police also have defenders and those who strike a middle-of-the road approach.
Kevin Robinson, a former assistant police chief in Phoenix, said dismantling police departments isn’t the answer, but reforms are needed to rebuild public trust.
“I would like to see police departments start policing with the communities as opposed to policing at the communities,” said Robinson, an instructor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “They need to sit down and not be afraid to talk about the things that they are upset with, about their police department.”
Robinson said redirecting money and responsibilities to other programs could be effective.
“I would suggest that people look long and hard at things within the police department that maybe don’t need to move forward, different programs that may not need to be funded for future use,” he said.
State Rep. Andrés Cano, D-Tucson, said change in Arizona must be statewide to be successful and sustainable, and he urged Gov. Doug Ducey to call a special session of the Legislature.
“We need to have a statewide conversation about how law enforcement and our state agencies and our local jurisdictions are going to do a better job,” Cano said. “I think that conversation is only possible if we get serious and bring back all 90 legislators to the state Capitol and have this governor offer a realistic proposal.”
Historic calls for reform
Defunding police has gained a great deal of attention in the past few months, but calls for police reforms stretch back to at least the 1980s. The death of James Mincey Jr. in 1982, the videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1991, the rise of street gangs, and the crack cocaine epidemic brought light to issues within the Los Angeles Police Department. King’s savage treatment after a police chase led to riots in 1992 when the white officers who beat him were acquitted.
Moves to defund the police come as Americans’ attitudes toward police are changing, according to a Pew Research Center report.
“The share of white Americans who say police are doing an excellent or good job of holding officers accountable for misconduct has fallen from half in 2016 to about one-third today (34%),” it said. “The share of Black Americans who say this has also declined, from 21% to 12%.”
Public perception of the role of police departments also is shifting, especially considering the chronic underfunding of programs for mental health and people who are homeless.
“Defunding is a word that encompasses a lot of different concepts,” he said. “Anybody who wants to just stop at the word ‘defund’ itself, and treat that word as if it has no other implications, is just showing an unwillingness to talk about the fact that art programs are always being defunded, education programs. It’s just the reality of an economy and a budget.”