Pin It
Defund the police
Photography Koshu Kunii, via Unsplash

Explaining what ‘defund the police’ really means

Now a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter protests, taking money from law enforcement and reinvesting it in other services is a movement fast gaining support

In a historic move this week, Minneapolis lawmakers vowed to disband the city’s police department following police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd two weeks ago.

“It’s clear that our system of policing is not keeping our communities safe,” said the city’s council president, Lisa Bender. “Our commitment is to end policing as we know it and recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”

Global protests against police brutality and systemic racism were sparked by Floyd’s killing, amounting to the biggest civil uprising in the US since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. Activists credit the global movement for putting pressure on authorities to arrest and charge the four officers linked to Floyd’s murder.

“Defund the police” has become the rallying cry of protesters and activists, a movement that calls for the reinvestment of money taken from law enforcement into other – more vital and less violent – services. And, it appears, lawmakers might actually be listening.

Explaining why police reform – as opposed to defunding or abolition – will never work, Alex Vitale, the author of The End of Policing, wrote in a recent Guardian op-ed that it’s because policing in itself is fundamentally flawed. “It assumes that the police are neutrally enforcing a set of laws that are automatically beneficial to everyone,” he writes, adding that the police’s jurisdiction has become far too broad. Vitale lists examples: “The schools don’t work; let’s create school policing. Mental health services are decimated; let’s send police. Overdoses are epidemic; let’s criminalise people who share drugs.”

With police killings of Black people still far too common – and the US law enforcement killing more people in days than other countries do in years – it’s clear any recent attempts at reform have failed. Here, Dazed explains what defunding the police would actually mean, how likely it is that lawmakers will take action, and what impact disbanding law enforcement might have on crime.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO DEFUND THE POLICE?

For some, defunding the police simply means reducing their budgets and putting the money into the community – housing, employment, health, and education – instead. Those who advocate for a redistribution of police investment cite the fact that law enforcement’s budgets have swelled in the last few decades, tripling since 1977. In the US, the controversial 1994 crime bill – that Joe Biden, the Democrat nominee for the 2020 presidential election, helped write – pumped money into the police, and is regarded as one of the key contributors to mass incarceration, something that disproportionately affects Black people. 

For others, defunding law enforcement is the first step towards total abolition of the police. Speaking to NBC News, Andrea Ritchie, the author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Colour, said: “Even if we trim the budget, if we ask them to do more beating with less money, we’re still invested in policing as an action, institution, and method of meeting need and reducing conflict.” Ritchie and other abolitionists propose forming an alternative way of addressing community needs – one that doesn’t involve such violence.

The initial question and movement first became realised in the late 60s, with groups like the Black Panthers asking whether community control on police forces was the answer. The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove, is the first known document to really reflect on police abolition entirely.

WHAT IMPACT WOULD IT HAVE ON CRIME?

Many critics of the ‘defund the police’ movement are concerned that cutting law enforcement budgets will negatively impact crime and violence. But, as police abolitionist organisation MPD 150 say: “Right now, cops don’t just respond to violent crimes; they make needless traffic stops, arrest petty drug users, and engage in a wide range of ‘broken windows policing’ behaviours that only serve to keep more people under the thumb of the criminal justice system.” A type of policing that punishes poverty, through fines and fees, sparks animosity between the public and the police and can create conditions where crime is more likely. This is evidenced by the NYPD’s 2014 ‘slowdown’ – following the murder of Eric Garner in police custody – in which crime rates dropped when the department performed only essential duties. Plus, it’s worth remembering that the police have a terrible track record when it comes to handling domestic abuse and rape cases – in fact, many rape kits go completely untested – as well as solving murders.

ARE LAWMAKERS LISTENING?

The campaign to defund the police is gaining “unprecedented” support across the US, with legislators and government officials finally recognising its value. On Monday, top Democrats in Congress proposed legislation to reform policing practices – though refused to endorse actually defunding law enforcement – which would ban chokeholds and ‘no knock’ warrants – which enable them to forcibly enter houses (as was the case with Breonna Taylor) – and make it easier to punish officers. 

In Los Angeles, where the police budget is $1.8 billion, officials have pledged to cut funding in order to “invest in jobs, health, education, and healing”, particularly focusing on the Black community. On Sunday (June 7), for the first time ever, New York’s mayor promised to move funding from the NYPD, which has a yearly budget of $6 billion, to “youth initiatives and social services”. While policymakers in San FranciscoPortlandPhiladelphia, and Baltimore have supported defunding the police, or have rejected increases to budgets.

WHAT DO THE POLICE THINK?

The police are, unsurprisingly, unhappy about the idea of being defunded. Joe Gamaldi, the vice president of the country’s biggest police union, Fraternal Order of Police, described the suggestion as “completely ridiculous”. Referencing the protests – and ignoring the fact that most violence has come from the police as opposed to the peaceful demonstrators – he said: “You are seeing it right now. There is lawlessness in the streets, innocent citizens are being assaulted out there during these protests, and I think you are seeing the consequences of defunding the police for the last few years.” In fact, between 1977 and 2017, state and local government spending on police increased from $42 billion to $115 billion.

Police unions are notorious for protecting abusive cops. As reported by The Atlantic, unions often help police who have been fired – for unjust killings, excessive force, and more – get their jobs back, “often via secretive apeals geared to protect labour rights rather than public safety”. These unions have also reportedly set up legal ‘slush funds’ to defend officers who are sued for misconduct. Leaning increasingly towards the political right – the Fraternal Order of Police even endorsed Trump in 2016 – the unions have a history of raising campaign contributions for elected officials who support their agenda, meaning the protection of dangerous police officers goes as high as the White House.

IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE?

The police themselves have admitted that they have too many responsibilities. As journalist Sarah Jones wrote in New York Magazine last week: “They take the place of social workers and emergency medical personnel and welfare caseworkers, and when they kill, we let them replace judges and juries, too.” Jones also references their unqualified role as domestic violence mediators, as well as their stringent determination to wage the drug war, as opposed to helping those with substance addictions. With money funelled away from the police and into other essential services, it would reduce the wide-reaching authority of law enforcement, enabling people to get the proper help that they need, while also reducing the possibility of police brutality.

WHAT DOES A FUTURE WITHOUT POLICE LOOK LIKE?

While there’s no blueprint for it or contemporary instance, a future without police would go hand-in-hand with decriminalising the likes of sex work, drugs, homelessness, and mental illness, and would ultimately result in more people getting the help they need, as opposed to just being locked up. Speaking to Mother Jones, Vitale said: “What we have now is far from perfect. People get killed all the time, even though our society is filled with police. Can we come up with a situation where there are fewer killings, and fewer collateral consequences?”

“The criminal justice system says there’s one strategy for everything,” he adds. “Make arrests, put them in prison. What abolitionists say is, Well, let’s figure out why they’re doing this and try to develop concrete prevention strategies.”

In a 2014 article for Rolling Stone – written after the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – reporter José Martín shared six ideas for a police-free world. As well as decriminalisation of non-violent crimes, these include unarmed, trained people patrolling the streets to curb violence where it starts; restorative justice, in which accountability is deemed a community issue; giving communities the tools to engage with one another about problems; and reformed mental health care. The idea of a world without some kind of organised law enforcement may seem confusing for some people, because we’ve no contemporary example to work from – but law enforcement, as we know it, is a corrupt, outdated system based on racism and prejudice. We can build a better world without it.

For many minority groups and demographics of vulnerable people, law enforcement as we know it often doesn’t help, and actually exacerbates issues – see domestic abuse sufferers for example, where cases are routinely failed and their lives upended in investigations. DV is severely underreported because survivors lack any trust in police. Community-based resource centres would be able to provide non-violent, constructive support for those demonised and let down by the police. Plus, the BBQ Becky’s of the world wouldn’t have the police to weaponise against Black people.