As Americans focus this summer on responses to police brutality and racial inequalities in law enforcement, some voices call for rethinking the profession. A confusing phrase – defund the police – is used as shorthand for changing how cities spend money to serve and protect residents. The idea is to separate crime-fighting from social service issues such as mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, relationship disputes, school misbehavior and nuisances that aren't dangerous crimes (drunkenness, noise, graffiti, blocked driveways).
"Defund police" concepts vary widely. Some advocates want to steer part of police budgets to unarmed professionals trained in de-escalation as a way of reducing their contact with the public and decreasing risks of police violence. Others press for a starting-over approach to create a new model of community-led public safety. Both camps are more about reforming or reinventing law enforcement than about abandoning police forces.
A few spots appear ready to move beyond talk. Nine of the 12 city council members in Minneapolis vow to replace their police department -- which was responsible for the May 25 death of George Floyd, sparking nationwide protests – with a new system. "Our commitment is to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe," says Council President Lisa Bender. "Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period." In New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio pledges to cut his force’s $6-billion annual budget. "We're committed to seeing a shift of funding to youth services, to social services," he says. And in San Francisco, some officers will be replaced with trained, unarmed professionals to handle noncriminal matters involving mental illness, homelessness, school discipline and neighbor disputes. "This is a concrete, bold, and immediate step towards true reparations for black people," says Supervisor Shamann Walton. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pledges to reduce his department's almost $2-billion budget by as much as $150 million and redirect the money to health and education programs. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh announces that $12 million in police spending will be directed to social services in the next budget year.
Resistance to the idea comes from the Trump administration and many Democratic and Republican politicians. Most law enforcement leaders also object, unsurprisingly. "We won't be defunding our police,” President Trump says. "We won't be dismantling our police.” Cutting police budgets would make communities less safe, says Attorney General William Barr, adding: "Police chiefs and officers understand the need for change, and there has been great change. And I think defunding the police, holding the entire police structure responsible for the actions of certain officers is wrong. I think it's dangerous to demonize police.” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden "supports the urgent need for reform," a campaign aide says, but he opposes cutting police funding. Biden endorses more spending to improve law enforcement and community policing, the spokesman adds. At The Washington Post, columnist
Megan McArdle suggests offering police "a significant salary boost in exchange for accepting stricter standards and oversight" – a way to "co-opt the [police] unions rather than trying to break them."
Activist says: "It's not just about taking away money from the police, it's about reinvesting those dollars into Black communities. Communities that ... have never felt the impact of having true resources." -- Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter movement
Columnist says: "Something is wrong when three million American students are in schools that have a police officer but not a nurse. . . . Whatever terminology we use, it's long past time to reimagine policing in America." – Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times
Civil rights activist says: "The slogan may be misleading without interpretation. I don't think anyone other than the far extremes are saying we don't want any kind of policing at all." – Rev. Al Sharpton