A police officer with their back turned.
Image Source: Fred Moon / Unsplash

What “Defunding the Police” Actually Means

During President Biden’s State of the Union address, he forcefully denounced defunding the police. Scorning the demands of the largest protest movement in U.S. history, Biden celebrated the $350 billion allocated to law enforcement in the American Rescue Plan. He received resounding, bipartisan applause (Yahoo! News). 

At the heights of the protests of 2020, liberal politicians, celebrities, and corporate executives loudly declared their support for racial justice. But now that the election has passed, Democrats are looking with apprehension towards the midterm elections as news stories circulate about rising crime rates, even when perceived increases in criminality aren’t reflected by the facts (San Francisco ChronicleFiveThirtyEight). Though the national crime rate is far below what it was in the 1990s, liberal politicians are rushing to deflect accusations of being “soft on crime,” meaning that talk of defunding or, more fundamentally, reimagining police no longer holds the immediate electoral advantage it once did (NBC News). This shameful about-face is an opportunity to remember why calls to defund the police gained such traction that the president would feel compelled to denounce them now. 

TAKE ACTION

Sign the ACLU petition to drastically reduce law enforcement funding and reinvest in the communities they harm.

• Learn about conversations that may be happening around defunding the police in your local community.


What does defund the police even mean?

Defunding the police is a call to fundamentally change the law enforcement system by limiting its access to money, resources, and weapons. Reallocation of police resources could be accompanied by abolishing no-knock search warrants (which is how Breonna Taylor was murdered), ending military-style raids on alleged suspects’ homes, restricting military gear to police departments, and banning the use of military equipment on protesters (NYTimes). Money divested from police budgets could be invested back into necessary infrastructure, including violence prevention programs, public housinghealth caremental health care, and educationLearn more >


“It’s not just about taking away money from the police, it’s about reinvesting those dollars into black communities. Communities that have been deeply divested from, communities that, some have never felt the impact of having true resources. And so we have to reconsider what we’re resourcing. I’ve been saying we have an economy of punishment over an economy of care.”

Patrisse Cullors, in a conversation on WBUR Here & Now

What does abolishing the police mean?

This is a more long-term and radical call for not just shifting our investment in law enforcement but completing reimagining the entire criminal justice system. Abolitionists are calling for more than just cutting budgets in the short term. This article from The Nation from 2015 is a good overview.


Does defunding the police mean getting rid of police officers entirely?

No. 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”, says Christy E. Lopez, a Georgetown Law professor and co-director of the school’s Innovative Policing Program.

MPD150, a Minneapolis-based initiative by organizers aiming to bring “meaningful structural change” to police in the city, focuses on who responds when someone calls 911. Instead of sending a police officer, they’re advocating that we could send social workers, mental health care providers, or victim or survivor advocates, among others.

This decreases the burden placed on police officers, who are currently tasked to respond to their community’s wide range of requests. Learn more on this in this USA Today article.


But not all police are bad! Why change everything over bad apples?

Yes, not every police officer is racist. Not all police officers kill black people. But this is not the argument. This isn’t a conversation about bad apples but a poisoned orchard. The police system has systematically hurt black communities throughout time because it’s built on a system of racism and white supremacy. Consider:

  • 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police (PNAS).
  • Minneapolis Police Use Force Against Black People at 7 Times the Rate of Whites (NYTimes).
  • Policing in southern slave-holding states had roots in slave patrols – groups of white volunteer vigilantes who helped enforce slavery (The Conversation).

The “bad apples” argument perpetuates white supremacy while discrediting the pain, suffering, and grief these “bad apples” cause. People do bad things in every walk of life. Being a police officer is probably where workplace malpractice does the most damage. Still, it’s also the only profession where the government habitually prevents wrongdoers from seeing any accountability whatsoever. 

One thing to note is that the phrase “bad apples” comes from the saying “one bad apple can spoil the bunch,” an idiom about how a single rotten apple left to fester can corrupt all those around it. 


But won’t there be more crime if there’s less law enforcement?

Unlikely. Many citizens are concerned that a decrease in law enforcement will increase crime. There’s no relationship between the amount of police and crime — New York City reduced the number of police officers, and crime fell (USA Today). But defunding the police would free up resources for other systems of support, making interpersonal harms and conflicts less common.


If we want to retrain the police, don’t we need to give them more funding? 

Biden claimed that if we want to stop police brutality, we need to increase funding for law enforcement training and resources (Yahoo! News). 

Police chiefs like D.C.’s Peter Newsham agree that bad policing will only stop if police departments get enough money to train officers differently (Deist). 

This suggests that police violence exists because police officers don’t have the proper knowledge or tools to stop murdering people of color. For decades, police departments have claimed that they’re one innovation away from eradicating racist police brutality. These have included civilian oversight boards, dash cams in police cars, diversifying local police forces, Tasers, and, most recently, body cameras (The Progressive). 

Many of these reforms have been widely adopted. They did not save the lives of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. We can’t fix police violence by rewarding police with new gadgets and training retreats when they kill innocent people. Defunding the police is about moving resources away from a harmful institution.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Defunding the police allows communities to re-invest in other forms of community support.

• The police system is deeply rooted in racism and white supremacy.

• These initiatives unburden police officers from responding to a wide range of community calls.

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