In light of recent events encompassing the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and now the near-fatal shooting of Jacob Blake at the hands of police officers, the internet and America’s political climate alike have been buzzing with the phrase “defund the police.” As the ideological stances of young people move further to the left, seemingly “radical” concepts become frequently-used staples of our political vernacular. For many people, though, the idea of defunding the police is unfamiliar and often confusing, regardless of how many times we’ve seen it in a hashtag. So let’s break down the term and learn what our country and our communities would look like if we defund the police.
What does it mean to defund the police? Is it the same as police abolition?
Essentially, defunding the police means taking the financial resources that are normally invested in traditional policing and reallocating them to other areas of government services, all in the interest of addressing the root causes of crime instead of reacting to them after they happen. A large portion of American policing relies on what happens after a crime: how the evidence is gathered, how the arrests are made, and how the justice system decides to take the next steps. Defunding the police would shift the focus of law enforcement from reactionary measures to preventative ones that would build community trust in the institution and protect often-targeted minorities. Although some activists and researchers see defunding the police as a stepping stone to police abolition, the concept can still stand on its own as an independent plan of action.
How does it actually work? As in, where would that money go to prevent crime?
To answer this question requires a close examination of the systemic issues that cause crime in the first place: poverty, the school-to-prison pipeline, domestic issues, and structural sources of inequity that impede people’s ability to live unencumbered lives. The reality is that crime is a symptom, not the disease itself, and defunding the police is one way to treat it. Does that seem backwards? Yes, but when we look closer at budget allocation for law enforcement versus other public service infrastructure, it becomes more clear. In 1980, during a national spike in crime rates, the United States spent roughly forty-seven billion dollars (adjusted for inflation) on policing, with only a small proportion being appropriated by the federal government in grants for cities and states. In 2015, the nation was spending somewhere around 143 billion dollars- an increase of more than two hundred percent- on the same thing, even as crime rates had dramatically increased. By that point in time, state and local governments were paying for approximately two-thirds of policing expenses. On their own, these numbers probably seem appropriate and reasonable, but when they’re stood up next to the proportions that state and local governments invest into services such as public education, social welfare programs, and reform measures, an apparent disparity is found. While it’s not always the case that more money is spent on policing than, say, the upkeep of a state’s public schools, it’s often true that nevertheless, money funneled into policing is taken out of budgetary categories that likely need and deserve it more. When governments don’t have to consistently siphon off funds from social service programs to finance an ever-growing police presence, there is more bureaucratic wiggle room to improve and create institutions that address the root issues of crime, poverty, and systemic bias.
But wouldn’t it be dangerous to take money away from the police? Don’t they need it?
In short: no. American policing has become so militarized and hyper-focused on mass incarceration that the cost of upkeep for police departments extends far beyond what community law enforcement actually requires. Due to a program initially created by President Clinton and reinstated by President Trump, police departments across America regularly receive around five billion dollars worth of surplus military equipment per year. Multi-million dollar military assets, most of which go unused, are paid for by state and local governments to maintain, even after they were freely given by the federal government. Beyond what local police departments get for free from the feds, millions of dollars have been pushed into militarizing the force in recent years, leading to officers and departments being equipped with tactical riot gear, automatic weapons (submachine guns, assault rifles, flashbang grenades and grenade launchers), water and aircraft, and other military-style resources. American policing hasn’t always been like this: the militarization of police began with the War on Drugs and the subsequent trend of increasingly-aggressive policing as mandates from the federal government encouraged heightened police presences in majority black communities in the 1980s and 1990s. The notion that police departments need all of this expensive and aggressive equipment is frankly absurd. In fact, multiple studies have found that militarized policing increases the probability of violent encounters with the public and is disproportionately deployed into neighborhoods and communities with majority POC populations. In this case, defunding the police will make communities safer and will allow for structural measures to change the aggressive, militaristic approach to policing in America.
If we defund the police, what would happen when I call 911?
Exactly what should happen: a caller would explain to the operator what the issue is, and the operator would then direct the issue to a corresponding first responder who can address the problem at hand, not show up with weapons and hostility. That first responder could be a medical professional, a social worker, an addiction/drug specialist, or someone who is trained in de-escalation techniques to address domestic disputes. None of these people would be armed or militarized, but they would all be equipped with the skills to get to the root of the problem and solve it without violence. In the case that an armed first responder is required, there’s no problem- the police are still available, they’re just no longer the default presence at every 911-worthy situation. For too long, American cops have worn the title of not only law enforcement, but also that of first-aid authority, marriage counselor, addiction expert, legal scholar, and childcare professional, all packed into the training and expertise of a paramilitary officer. It’s a simple fact that police training doesn’t cover all of these areas adequately enough for officers to fill every role, so it only makes sense to develop separate teams of specialized first responders who can address the situations that fall outside of police training. The average local police department in the United States only requires about six hundred hours of training, which isn’t nearly sufficient when considered the undertaking police officers are tasked with once on the job.
Will defunding the police solve the problem of racially-motivated police brutality?
Not entirely. Supporting the demilitarization of the police and putting those resources towards specialized first responders will definitely reduce the amount of incidents of racially-motivated police brutality, but the work will not stop there. In order to truly solve the problem of racist policing in this country, there needs to be systemic deconstruction of white supremacist and racially-profiled mindsets. A defunded police department is still dangerous to its community’s POC population if the officers are overwhelmingly white and the culture of policing relies on racial stereotypes which always paint Black citizens as criminals and miscreants. Even higher than that, there must be change in local, state, and federal code to dismantle the laws that give cops the license to be racist and violent in their enforcement of them. This means decriminalizing non-violent drug offenses, actively fixing the redlining of school districts so that disciplinary issues don’t send black kids to jail while sending white kids to the principal’s office, and allowing paroled felons to vote in state and federal elections nationwide. The other component to ending racially-motivated police brutality- one which is much harder to mandate or legislate upon- lies in the minds and worldviews of each American. In recent years, there have been countless occasions of white citizens exercising implicit bias towards people of color in their interactions with law enforcement, from the white women who call the police on black kids with a lemonade stand to “neighborhood watch” Facebook groups that allow racially-profiled statements to end in the cops being brought in because someone saw a black man walking down the street in a predominantly white area. At best, these incidents are inconveniences that create rifts in communities, but at worst (and arguably more common) they end in the murder of black people by state-sanctioned proponents of violence. The idea that black people are inherently more inclined towards acts of criminality is deeply-ingrained in the minds of millions of Americans, and this mindset enables the racist systems of law enforcement and policing in this country.