What does 'defund the police' mean? The rallying cry sweeping the US – explained

<span>Photograph: Joe Burbank/AP</span>
Photograph: Joe Burbank/AP

The call to “defund the police” has become a rallying cry at protests across America this week, and some lawmakers appear to be listening.

Activists who have long fought to cut law enforcement budgets say they are seeing an unprecedented wave of support for their ideas, with some elected officials for the first time proposing budget reductions and divestments from police. Here’s what we know about the movement, and how cities and states are responding.

What does it mean to ‘defund the police’

Related: US police have a history of violence against black people. Will it ever stop?

For years, community groups have advocated for defunding law enforcement – taking money away from police and prisons – and reinvesting those funds in services. The basic principle is that government budgets and “public safety” spending should prioritize housing, employment, community health, education and other vital programs, instead of police officers. Advocates argue that defunding is the best way forward since attempts to reform police practices over the last five years have failed, as evidenced by the brutal killing of George Floyd. Groups have a range of demands, with some seeking modest reductions and others viewing full defunding as a step toward abolishing contemporary police services.

How much does America currently spend on police? 

In the past four decades, the cost of policing in the US has tripled and is now $115bn, according to a recent analysis. That steady increase comes as crime has been consistently declining. In most cities, spending on police is significantly greater than spending on services and other departments ($1.8bn on police in Los Angeles, for example, which is more than half the city’s general fund). The Covid-19 economic crisis has led cities and states to make drastic budget cuts to education, youth programs, arts and culture, parks, libraries, housing services and more. But police budgets have grown or gone largely untouched – until pressure from protests this week.

How are lawmakers addressing the calls to defund? 

Almost overnight and in direct response to protests, some mayors and other elected leaders have reversed their position on police funding. The mayor of LA said he would look to cut as much as $150m from the police, just two days after he pushed forward a city budget that was increasing it by 7%. A New York councilman has called for a $1bn divestment from the NYPD. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, San Francisco and other cities, local policymakers have expressed support for some form of defunding or opposing police budget increases. Most radically, in Minneapolis, councilmembers have discussed potentially disbanding the embattled police department altogetherColleges, public school systems, museums and other institutions are also divesting from police.

A woman holds a placard reading ‘Defund the Police’ during a demonstration in Manhattan over the death of George Floyd.
A woman holds a placard reading ‘Defund the Police’ during a demonstration in Manhattan over the death of George Floyd. Photograph: Maria Khrenova/TASS

How do proposed cuts align with activists’ demands? 

The change in direction is monumental, but the size of the proposed cuts is not, activists have said. In LA, Black Lives Matter has been pushing for a “people’s budget” that allocates just 5.7% of the general fund to law enforcement, instead of the 51% of the mayor’s plan. More broadly, longstanding abolitionist groups, such as Critical Resistance and MPD 150, argue that the cities should not be looking for minor savings and cuts, but should be fundamentally reducing the scale and size of the police force and dismantle the traditional law enforcement system. That can start with finding “non-police solutions to the problems poor people face”, such as counselors responding to mental health calls and addiction experts responding to drug abuse.

Related: Movement to defund police gains 'unprecedented' support across US

If cities defund police, will violence and crime increase? 

Abolition groups argue that policing and prison are at their core racist and harmful and make communities less safe. They also point out that the vast majority of police work has nothing to do with responding to or preventing violence, and that police have a terrible track record of solving murders or handling rape and domestic violence.

While there is no contemporary example of defunding in the US, there are studies suggesting that less policing could mean less crime. In 2014 and 2015, New York officers staged a “slowdown” to protest the mayor, arguing that if they did less police work, the city would be less safe. But the opposite turned out to be true. When the officers took a break from “broken windows policing”, meaning targeting low-level offenses, there was a drop in crime. Researchers posited that aggressive policing on the streets for petty matters can ultimately cause social disruption and lead to more crime. Policing that punishes poverty, such as hefty traffic tickets and debts, can also create conditions where crime is more likely. When New York ended “stop and frisk”, crime did not rise.

How are police unions responding to defunding calls? 

America’s powerful police unions have long resisted even minor reforms and accountability measures, and are predictably arguing, without evidence, that budget cuts at any scale will make cities less safe. They’ve cited looting and property damage amid protests this week to suggest that cities don’t have enough officers. Defunding advocates, however, have pointed out that the highly militarized response to peaceful demonstrations and the aggressive and at times violent ways officers are handling protesters has only provided further evidence that police cause harm (when there is no public safety threat in the first place).

Are there examples of police defunding that US cities can follow? 

America’s legacy of racism and severe gun violence epidemic make it difficult to compare to other countries. But some have pointed out that compared to peer nations, the US spends significantly less on social services and more on public safety programs, and has astronomically higher incarceration rates. These investments in police and prison, however, don’t translate to a safer country. In fact, police in America kill more people in days than many countries do in years.