What Does It Mean To “Defund the Police?”

December 8, 2020

During the movement, the phrase “Defund The Police” has been placed at the forefront of the discussion as the debate proceeds. But what does it mean, exactly?

By Laurence Tan

Sitting behind bars at the New York Police Department’s 7th Precinct, I stared blankly at the wall and wondered if the person who shared the same seat before me had the same questions as I did — why did the police arrest me? And what did I do to deserve this? 

It had been a Sunday afternoon when almost a hundred Black Lives Matter protesters planned to confront a convoy of Trump supporters near Madison Square Garden on the last day of early voting before the U.S. Presidential election. The Trump supporters had decided to change their route, and after a short discussion, the “BLM” protesters decided to march away from the Garden when police officers marched out to disperse the crowd. They arrested eleven people, including two other journalists and me, who were there to document the event.

It seemed to me that in this case, the police caused more disruption than the protesters did, escalating a situation that should have ended peacefully. More than that, it took a great deal of police manpower and resources to arrest the group of us, and I felt what happened to us was just a small part of a larger story.

The Black Lives Matter movement swept across America this past summer, in protests against the repeated deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement. In multiple incidents, footage of excessive force used by police officers outraged the public even more and activists continue their demand to end systematic racism. But how can America achieve those goals? 

During the movement, the phrase “Defund The Police” has been placed at the forefront of the discussion as the debate proceeds. But what does it mean, exactly?

Defund, reform, or reimagine the policing system? 

The phrase “defunding the police” carries different meanings for different people. Does it mean to slash the police budgets and dismantle police departments? Reform the role of the police and diversify the police force while implementing community policing? Reimagine the police and relocate a part of their budget for healthcare, housing, and small businesses? Demilitarize the police and dispatch social workers to confront people with mental health problems? Or some combination of those goals?

For civil rights activists like Shaun King, who gained national fame during the Black Lives Matter movement with over a million followers on Twitter, the phrase “Defund the Police” means precisely that. In his podcast show, “The BreakDown,” King argues that cities should be allocating money for mental health systems instead of police officers who show up with guns, badges, and handcuffs. King said in his program that the public should have a say in how cities spend taxpayers’ money. He added, “the reality in cities and counties and states all over this country, police departments are now taking up 40 and 50, and nearly 60 percent of the entire budget of the city.”

During an interview with WBUR radio station, social activist and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Cullors, said in June that the demand to defund law enforcement and reinvest the money in black communities was a result during their demand for police accountability and justice. Creating the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who murdered Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager who was walking home from a convenience store in Florida, Cullors doesn’t think its possible to solve racism in Police Departments and cultivate law enforcers to be compassionate and caring in black communities. She believes that video footage from body-worn cameras only proves that police officers are incapable in changing their racist behavior. 

America’s Police in Crisis: How We Got Here

For many activists in Black Lives Matters, policing in America has its roots in “slave patrols” in the 18th century when capturing and punishing fugitive slaves was a central feature of a slave-holding society. Even after the abolition of slavery, they say, police forces served the needs of the white majority in keeping down the Black minority. 

Since the rise in crime in the 1960’s, American police forces grew considerably in size and nature. Violent crimes – such as  murder, rape, robbery and assault more than tripled from 161 per 100,000 people in 1960 to 558 per 100,000 people in 1985, according to a study of Harvard’s Kennedy School

In response, some cities in the U.S. re-engineered their police forces — ramping up the workforce, providing officers with military-grade weapons, increasing the number of patrol vehicles, and speeding up their response for emergency calls with better technology. In New York City, the police department hired approximately 12,000 officers from 1980 to 1984, and is currently the nation’s largest police force, with approximately 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Police Departments introduced aggressive law enforcement and controversial strategies such as the “stop-and-frisk” tactics by the NYPD, which allowed police officers to stop, question, and frisk pedestrians or drivers in high crime spots considered to be acting suspiciously and arrest them for low-level offenses such as possession of marijuana. 

Reports from institutions such as Harvard and criminologists tend to argue that those measures made sense as it contributed to crime control and was arguably an effective deterrent for gangs and drugs, while crime rates reached historic lows in New York City this year as the number of violent crimes dramatically fell since 1990, and the serious crime rate fell to 3,808 per 100,000 people by 2006.

However, studies from criminology schools and experts also say that empowering law enforcers to operate based on their gut feelings gave room for racial profiling against people of color and led to human rights violations. In 2013, the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics was ruled in federal court to have violated the constitutional rights of minorities in the city. Reforms were called and patrol officers had to wear body-worn cameras while on duty even though the judge did not order an end to the practice. 

At the same time, the U.S. prison population increased by some 500 percent, going from about 400,000 to approximately 2.2 million in the past forty years. During the war on drugs, Blacks were much more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than whites even though drug use is not higher in the Black population. The scholar Michelle Alexander coined the term “the new Jim Crow,” to describe the impact of mass incarceration of blacks.

The answer, however, to other African-American leaders is to reform – or reimagine policing rather than defund it. 

American Leaders Speak Up 

During an interview this week, former President Barack Obama criticized politicians for using “snappy” slogans such as “Defund the Police” which he said could cause them to lose support from the public. Commenting on Good Luck America, a political news program broadcast on Snapchat, Obama believed that police reform might be a better way of grabbing the public’s attention, “if there’s a homeless guy, maybe we can send a mental health worker there instead of an armed unit that could end up resulting in a tragedy.”

Other African-American leaders warn that taking “defund the police” literally could end up harming the Black community. “To take all policing off is something that I think a latte liberal may go for as they sit around the Hamptons discussing this as some academic problem, but people living on the ground need proper policing,” civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton said during an interview this fall on MSNBC. He says the U.S. needs to “reimagine” policing not reduce it, with a particular emphasis on reducing gun violence in American cities, “I got a lot of attention when I did the eulogy during George Floyd’s funeral, but I also a month later preached a funeral for a one year old kid in Brooklyn who was killed by a stray bullet.”

Many experts agree that policing in the U.S. is flawed, but they don’t necessarily want to take away funding. John DeCarlo, Professor and Criminal Justice Researcher at University of New Haven and former Chief of Branford Police force, said in a phone interview that the phrase, “Defunding the Police” was brought up in the heat of the moment to get rid of the police during the Black Lives Matter protests but works as a slogan more than a policy or a plan.

Being a member of the Branford Police Department for 34 years, including 6 years as Chief Officer, DeCarlo said the police needs to invest more money to provide better training and education and there should be a national requirement for police departments to hire officers with a college degree if we want the police to act professionally. Highlighting the difficulties to impose a national agenda, DeCarlo said the U.S. has 18,000 police departments which are governed independently according to state, county, municipal, and boroughs, unlike other democratic countries like Sweden and France, which has a more centralized system that forces the police to comply with federal government standards.

De Carlo felt that policing was heading in the right direction after President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2015 urged a shift from the “warrior” mindset to that of a “guardian,” with greater oversight from the federal government. The task force was convened in response to the killing by the police of an unarmed black youth Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Police in Ferguson, as in many American cities had been supplied with surplus military equipment from the U.S. Army, creating a feeling among many police departments that their officers were soldiers instead of police officers. In a study by Bernard Harcourt, a professor of law and political science at Columbia University, police forces across the U.S. “stockpiled over 500 military-grade aircrafts, 44,000 night-vision devices, 93,000 assault weapons, 200 grenade launchers, and 12,000 bayonets” between 2009 and 2014.”

But the Obama administration initiative came to a halt under the Trump administration, who did not see a need in questioning the role of the police. Explaining that the incoming Biden administration will need national standardization and political will to improve the police culture, DeCarlo said, “we can’t let all the good police officers in the United States work with people that shouldn’t be (police officers) and we shouldn’t let the enculturation of police officers be a bad enculturation.” He added that government leaders should not depend on phrases but actual literature to make police good for everyone.

The Role of The Police

According to a study by the Brookings Institution in June this year, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington DC, 9 out of 10 calls for service, including “911” calls, are for nonviolent encounters. However, this doesn’t mean the incident will not turn violent. On the other hand, the police presence itself may escalate the situation. In the June report by Rashawn Ray, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, police officers’ skillset and training are usually not in line with the social interaction they end up with. He included that police are mostly trained for worst-case scenarios and use-of-force tactics even though their first interaction with civilians mostly begin with a conversation.

Christopher Harris, an Associate Professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell School of Criminology & Justice Studies, said that the phrase, “Defund the Police,” carries a different meaning for different people but also it represents some connotation on improvements on policing, which may be a reason why the term became so popular. 

Understanding that for some activists, the term  defunding the police actually means to completely abolish the police and get rid of them, Harris said the phrase could also imply not to expand the police budget, to reform the police through community policing, or to use their budget for health issues such mental illness. Identifying in reality that police officers are mainly there to solve problems, such as negotiate disputes between neighbors and landlords, instead of being crime fighters, Harris said the demand to defund the police is a recognition of how the U.S. has not invested enough in other public institutions. 

Raising how police departments require cooperation from the public to do their job, Harris says there is a lack of diversity at the Police Departments even though the police should reflect the communities they are in. Experts agree there is also a lack in transparency and citizen participation with Police Departments and that local governments need honest conversations with the community to reform their Police Departments and rethink the role of law enforcers, instead of being the “24/7 troubleshooting agency.” 

Bringing up the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactic, which was widely criticized for human rights violations and racial profiling, Harris said the strategy did not benefit the image of the police in the long term while data from the court cases found that 94 percent of the people who had been stopped and frisked were found innocent, causing the public to resent the police a little more. “The last thing you want to do is engage in a contravention tactic that might even work or might have some contribution, but ends up being kind of alienating the very people you’re trying to help,” Harris said.

In cities such as New York City, Portland City, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, mayors and governors have found themselves caught in a situation that resulted in efforts to reform the police, cut their budgets or even dismantle the police department.  

In November this year, NYPD’s Deputy Inspector James Kobel was relieved of his command after multiple reports that he posted hundreds of hateful comments and used racist language anonymously on “The Rant,” an online forum where NYPD officers have gone in secret to complain about their jobs.

Appointed as the head of the NYPD workplace discrimination office, Kobel had denied the allegations but was relieved of his command and placed under investigation while New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that the Deputy Inspector would be fired if the allegations were found to be true. In multiple reports, African Americans said the case simply highlights the institutional racism within the police force that has been taking place for years and calls for something more profound, starting with a change in how the police are funded.

According to Citizens Budget Commission, a non-profit organization that analyzes New York City’s finances and government spending, the NYPD currently ranks as the third-largest agency in the city, following after the Departments of Education and the Department of Social Services. In 2020, the city budgeted more than $5.6 billion for the Police Department operating budget, with 88 percent of the money allocated for salaries and overtime wages for NYPD employees and the remaining budget on equipment and vehicle maintenance cost.

After months of protests against police brutality and George Floyd’s murder case, Mayor de Blasio announced in June the city was going to slash $1 billion from its police budget and imposed a hiring freeze. The mayor redirected $500,000 from the NYPD to youth centers and high-speed internet for public housing residents, despite criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump as well communities in the Bronx who say the city needs the police more than ever while innocent children continue to get killed by stray bullets during street shootings. In a report by Fox News, street shootings in New York City spiked by 127 percent this year as they predict violent crimes will continue to rise during the coronavirus pandemic. 

In Minneapolis, where Floyd’s murder sparked massive protests and left the city destroyed, The Washington Post reported in mid-November that homicides rose by 50 percent with almost 75 people killed in the city this year, and the number of violent crimes reached a five-year high with 4,600 cases so far in 2020 as the police department began cutting its budget since June. 

Now What? The Years Ahead

Perhaps the most crucial question is, what does “Defund the Police” mean for the incoming President? As racial injustice remains as one of the main topics since the 2020 election, President-elect Joe Biden repeatedly says that he does not support defunding the police. During a meeting with the family of George Floyd in Houston, Biden told CBS news in June that he supported federal aid for the police to meet the basic standards of decency while protecting everybody in the community. 

In an opinion piece published on USA Today, Biden proposed an additional $300 million to provide more training on community policing, recruit more diverse police officers and buy more body-worn cameras. The incoming President also said the police should not always be the first responders during 911 calls, and they may also need social services providers to respond to call services with police officers. “We should be building rehab centers, not more prisons,” Biden said on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah a day after publishing his op-ed piece, adding that the crime rate had dropped when they funded more money in community policing.

In early October, Biden said during a Town Hall meeting he plans to bring peaceful protesters, police chiefs and union leaders, and civil rights groups to the White House to improve policing while investing more in community policing. “The idea is you get the police, you get to law enforcement together with the community, so they know one another,” Biden said while bringing up the need for better communication among the different groups.

In the survey published in The Guardian, poll numbers show that while 80 percent of people from a group of Democratic voters agree that racism exists in the criminal justice system, 60 percent had a favorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the November report, most people who participated in the pre-election survey say they do not want to abolish the police, while 70 percent said they support reducing police funding and reallocating it to social services and other agencies to reduce the number of police on the streets.

During a TV interview, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris told ABC News in June that America needs to reimagine the police force and public safety while investing more resources into public education, small businesses, and homeownership for everyone instead of placing more police on the streets. “When I talk to law enforcement, they know that they don’t want to be, nor are they skilled to be the ones who are responding to someone with mental illness or substance abuse, or the homeless population,” Harris said. She added that many cities in the U.S. are not directing enough public resources for healthcare issues such as mental health and substance abuse and social problems and homelessness.

Through interviews with criminologists and the public, and hearing the opinions of activists and the incoming President, it seemed clear that change is necessary. However, the democratic system that allowed the police to evolve may also be why it is difficult to implement change as activists who support defunding the police say they will not go away until their demands are met. 

The fact is that change for policing in the U.S. remains difficult when there are around 18,000 police departments across the nation and only 1 percent of local police departments are subject to community oversight. “We have to decide ultimately, what we want police to look like, but we can’t do that 18,000 times. We have to do that once and then go with that idea. Because if we do it 18,000 times, we’re gonna get 18,000 opinions,” DeCarlo said, adding that the U.S. needs to research policing over the last hundred years before applying any nationwide policy.