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Ongoing protests in response to the killing of George Floyd have brought the issue of police violence into the national spotlight. The unrest renews attention to a long list of reforms aimed at limiting the number of people killed by police, including banning chokeholds, establishing use-of-force policies and increased accountability for officers who take someone’s life.
The protests have also raised awareness for the movement to “defund the police.” Over the course of just two weeks, the idea went from being largely unknown outside of activist circles to the center of debate about how to solve one of the nation’s most pressing issues.
Defunding the police, at its essence, means what it sounds like: reducing the size of police departments by cutting their funding. But details of what that would actually look like and what role police would have vary widely depending on which group is advocating the policy.
To some, defunding is a proposed step in a plan to fully eliminate police altogether — a view typically referred to as abolition. Others suggest shrinking departments so they focus only on the most critical law enforcement tasks, like investigating murders, and using the extra money to create emergency response programs to lessen potential violence. Less ambitious proposals call for reducing police funding to avoid budget cuts to other areas of government like schools and anti-poverty initiatives.
Why there’s debate
Despite disagreement over the scope of their proposals, advocates for defunding the police generally agree that reforming the existing system isn’t enough to eliminate police violence. Regardless of what use-of-force policies are in place or how much training is required, the mere presence of a police officer creates a life-or-death scenario, especially for black people, they argue. The wide variety of tasks police officers are asked to carry out — everything from traffic control to homelessness response to domestic abuse calls and mental health crises — means there are many opportunities for situations to turn violent.
Supporters of defunding believe that many, if not most, emergencies should be handled by response teams designed to resolve problems without violence, that are staffed with social workers, health care workers, mental health experts and conflict resolution specialists. This would not only reduce the risk of a situation like a mental health check turning deadly, but also free police to focus on solving violent crimes like murder and rape, advocates say.
Defunding police has been largely rejected by conservatives, who argue that cities would be overrun with crime and chaos without law enforcement to maintain order. The idea has also been met with skepticism by prominent Democrats, despite partywide agreement that major police reform is needed. House Democrats this week unveiled a bill to address police violence, but the proposal would not affect funding for law enforcement.
A common critique of defunding is that it would deny departments the resources they need to carry out changes that may prove to be more effective. Some even argue that increasing funding would be a better way to prevent police violence. Others say the idea is politically untenable and that pushing it too hard could undermine public support for police reform in general.
The push to defund police has gained some early ground in two of America’s biggest cities. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has agreed to slash as much as $150 million from the LAPD budget and reinvest those funds into other programs. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also said he will divert an unspecified amount of money from police to other social services. Whether these moves are the beginning of a larger nationwide movement to reconsider police budgets is unclear.
Money spent on police would be more helpful if invested in communities
“Instead, we need to provide our communities with opportunities to flourish. We need more funding for economic programming and community development. We need more funding for educational programs. We need more funding for social services that help victims of poverty and violence. We must prioritize the people over the police.” — Justin Brooks, The Appeal
Reforms won’t solve the problem of police violence
“We’re not going to fix these problems by jailing a couple of killer cops or giving them body cameras or making them take implicit bias training. Instead, we need to directly challenge the scope and power of policing. We need to take their budgets away, take their toys away, take their authority away in as many dimensions as we can.” — Sociologist Alex S. Vitale to The Nation
We ask police to do far too many things
“The city relies too much on the Police Department. Officers direct traffic. They check fares on Metro subways. They’re sent to do welfare checks on the homeless and people experiencing a mental health episode. Do we need law enforcement officers doing those jobs? Or could the work be better done by civilian specialists?” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times
Defunding police is far less radical than most people think
“For casual observers, this new direction may seem a bit disorienting — or even alarming. Be not afraid. ‘Defunding the police’ is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds, and engaging on this topic is necessary if we are going to achieve the kind of public safety we need.” — Christy E. Lopez, Washington Post
Fears of lawlessness and rampant violence are overstated
“Opponents to such a profound restructuring of policing cite concerns about how serious offenses like rapes and murder would otherwise be prevented or investigated. But arrests for violent crimes like these make up no more than five percent of arrests nationally. The vast majority of police arrests are for crimes ranging from drug offenses to failure to pay traffic fines.” — Gabrielle Bruney, Esquire
We need to completely change our attitude toward public safety
“This is in one sense a last-resort policy: If cops cannot stop killing people, and black people in particular, society needs fewer of them. But it is also and more urgently a statement of first principles: The country needs to shift financing away from surveillance and punishment, and toward fostering equitable, healthy, and safe communities.” — Annie Lowrey, Atlantic
The ultimate goal should be completely eliminating the police
“Abolitionists whose work brought us to a moment in which ‘defund the police’ is a demand being considered on soft-focus morning news shows, do mean it literally, though. They are explicitly working toward a ‘Police-Free Future.’” — Melissa Gira Grant, New Republic
Defunding police would cause a massive spike in crime
“A political drive to defund police risks a return to the high-crime era of the 1960s and 1970s that damaged so many American cities.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal
Social programs will not be enough to keep people safe
“We can pump money into all sorts of programs, but human nature will not change. And if you eliminate the hand that keeps human nature in check, otherwise known as law enforcement, we will collapse into anarchy, and every single one of humanity’s worst instincts will run rampant.” — Kaylee McGhee, Washington Examiner
Defunding would make police discrimination worse
“If, in an attempt to reduce the reach of the government, we defund the police partially, we would be forcing officers to prioritize which laws they uphold and which they do not. Not only would that be a poor way to get rid of rules that we dislike — the way to do this is to repeal those rules — it would almost certainly lead to people in more heavily policed areas being harassed, and to those in wealthier and better-connected areas being left alone.” — Charles C.W. Cooke, National Review
Defunding isn’t the best way to improve policing
“If you look at expert recommendations for improving policing in the United States, calls for broad-based budget cuts are often not on the list. And by the same token, the evidence that putting more cops on the beat helps reduce crime is fairly overwhelming.” — Matthew Yglesias, Vox
The idea is politically toxic
“No matter how many times I hear ‘defund the police,’ it scares me, politically for going too far and personally — because when something goes bump in the night, I want to call 911.” — Margaret Carlson, New York Daily News
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