What "Defund the Police" Means — and Why Some Activists Say Reform Is Not Enough

Hannah Jeon
Photo credit: Ira L. Black - Corbis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ira L. Black - Corbis - Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

As the United States grapples with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and countless other Black Americans at the hands of racism and police brutality, one rallying cry has gained momentum across the country: "Defund the police." You might have seen the phrase written on protest signs, on social media, or even on painted street murals — which probably has led you to wonder, what does "defund the police" mean, exactly, and what would it really look like?

Though the idea of defunding the police has been a call from many activists for decades, the movement has grown more popular and received an unprecedented amount of national attention amid the recent Black Lives Matter protests — which, among many other achievements, have ignited a critical conversation regarding the role of police in America. If you're wondering what defunding the police exactly means, here's what you should know about the meaning behind the popular protest slogan:

What does "defund the police" mean?

It's a common misconception that "defunding the police" means completely stripping law enforcement of all of their funding. While while some organizations are indeed calling for the abolishment or dismantling of police altogether, "defunding the police" simply means reducing police department budgets and redistributing those funds towards essential social services that are often underfunded, such as housing, education, employment, mental health care, and youth services.

The idea is not as radical as it initially seems, as Christy E. Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law School and a co-director of the school's Innovative Policing Program, recently wrote in an op-ed published in The Washington Post. “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,” she explained. “It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.”

Why defund the police?

Today's police are tasked with responding to a vast variety of social issues and crises, from homelessness to mental illness — yet they're often not trained to handle such tasks on the daily. Proponents of defunding the police argue that investing in public health and social services, rather than in police, is a more appropriate and effective means to meet the public safety needs of a community; specifically, these social services would address societal issues such as poverty, homelessness, and mental health more directly, therefore acting as a better deterrent to crime than law enforcement, which activists point out have historically been a harmful institution of systemic racism.

Despite the fact that police are often poorly equipped to address such societal problems, police department budgets commonly make up a large portion of many cities' overall budgets, and often significantly exceed funds for education, employment, and other critical social services. In fact, it's estimated that over $100 billion is spent on policing nationwide every year. Last year, New York City allocated $6 billion to its police department — a budget that exceeded more than that of the health department, homeless services, youth and community development, and workforce development combined.

By redistributing these funds to essential social services and community programs, the idea is that the needs of a community can be more directly addressed without the harmful effects of policing — especially for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) who disproportionately suffer from police brutality and violence every year.

Photo credit: Tasos Katopodis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tasos Katopodis - Getty Images

Why not just reform the police?

Though many advocate for measures to increase police training, accountability, and transparency rather than defunding law enforcement altogether, supporters of defunding the police argue that efforts to reform have largely failed to combat police violence in any meaningful — or effective — way.

Indeed, despite increased measures to reform the police over recent years, police violence and brutality have still persisted, as many activists point out. According to The Washington Post, police have fatally shot approximately 1,000 people a year since 2015 with the rate that police kill Black people being more than twice the rate for white people. In Minneapolis, MN, where George Floyd was killed, police had already tried implementing a series of reforms, including bias and de-escalating training along with the use of body cameras — and yet have continually been involved in multiple deadly encounters.

In a recent interview with WBUR, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors explained that defunding police is the central demand of how society can actually achieve "real accountability and justice." "We have spent the last seven years asking for training, asking for body cameras. The body cameras have done nothing more than show us what’s happened over and over again," she said. "The training has done nothing but show us that law enforcement and the culture of law enforcement is incapable of changing."

Wouldn't defunding the police mean more crime?

Though this is a common argument from opponents of defunding the police, many activists counter with evidence that demonstrates that less policing would not actually lead to rising crime. In fact, several examples suggest that defunding the police would actually lead to less crime, rather than more; a 2017 report, for instance, studied a period of time from 2014 to 2015 during which the NYPD pulled back on "proactive policing," and found that there was a significant decrease in civilian complaints of major crimes during this time.

Moreover, several other examples demonstrate that investing in social services and providing more resources for the community decrease crime on its own. A 2016 report from the Obama White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, for example, found that “a 10 percent increase in wages for non-college educated men results in approximately a 10 to 20 percent reduction in crime rates." Other studies have shown that increases in the number of nonprofit community organizations effectively lead to reduction in crime rates across 264 cities, demonstrating the value of reallocating police funds to community resources and social programs.

How are lawmakers addressing the calls to defund police?

In the face of urgent demands for change from protestors and activists, more and more lawmakers across the United States have been answering the pressing calls to defund police. In Minneapolis, the City Council has already unanimously voted to disband its police force. Los Angeles city officials recently cut $150 million from its police budget to reallocate the funds to services and programs for communities of color. Other cities have followed suit, with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio vowing to slash $1 billion from the NYPD's budget and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announcing a plan to redistribute $12 million from the police budget to community programs.

As of early June, at least 17 U.S. cities — including Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston — have proposed some form of action to defund the police. Such recent changes certainly demonstrate that protests and calls for change are being heard and considered by governments and law officials.

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