What Does Defund the Police Actually Mean?

defund the police
Hundreds of protesters flooded the streets of Crown Heights in Brooklyn to demand the defunding of the NYPD and to demonstrate against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's death. Erik McGregor LightRocket via Getty Images

Amid the anger and widespread unrest over the death of George Floyd while being arrested in Minneapolis May 25, 2020, (and then the shooting of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer a mere 25 days later) many weren't satisfied just to see officer Derek Chauvin charged with second-degree murder and three others charged aiding and abetting the crime. (Brooks' death is still under investigation.)

Instead, there's been a growing outcry in Minneapolis and other cities across the United States to "defund the police," a slogan that protesters boldly have painted in yellow letters on streets in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.


Beyond outrage over allegations of police misconduct or excessive use of force, calls to defund the police also reflect discontent about the vast amount of funding and resources that go into their budgets. Proponents of defunding question whether heavily armed police really make communities any safer, while arguing police departments are ill-equipped to deal with the real problems that many urban residents — particularly chronically impoverished neighborhoods — face.

Instead, advocates want to see tax money diverted from departments and spent on other services such as housing for the homeless, mental health clinics, drug treatment programs, education and job training.

Minneapolis city council member Jeremiah Ellison and other Minneapolis council members unanimously passed a resolution commencing a yearlong process "to create a transformative new model" for public safety in Minneapolis, where the city currently spends $193 million a year — 36 percent of its total budget — on cops.


What Does Defunding the Police Mean?

Defunding the police can mean a range of things, depending on whom you talk to. Some argue for keeping departments but drastically scaling back the job they do. Instead of calling upon cops to deal with everything from public intoxication and domestic quarrels to armed robberies and homicides, reformers would have police focus on a narrow range of the most violent threats to citizens' safety.

But others see police departments as too dysfunctional to fix and want to eliminate them entirely and entrust public safety mostly to residents who would maintain order in their own neighborhoods, using nonviolent methods of persuasion, turning to armed force rarely and only as a last resort.


One big problem with police departments as they currently operate is that they're expected to do far too much, explains Rashawn Ray. He's a University of Maryland sociology professor and a Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He has spent a lot of time studying police interactions with civilians and how to improve them.

Ray wants cities to do a systematic analysis of its 911 calls. He believes that in most instances, they'll find that the requests involve non-criminal matters such as potholes and cats stuck in trees, or problems like mental health issues or drug addiction. Relatively few likely involve serious crimes.

The endless grind of dealing with these non-criminal issues can cause police to become overburdened with paperwork, Ray says. And if officers sent to those calls primarily are trained to use aggressive physical tactics, their skillset may be poorly matched for the situations. To solve the dilemma, Ray says he'd like to see cities take a data-driven approach and reallocate some funding to agencies that could better handle the problems those areas face.

"Allow for social services to step in and take some of the stress off law enforcement, and they can spend more time focusing on violent criminal activity," Ray says.

The reallocating and refocusing formula would vary, depending on a particular community, Ray says. A big, well-funded suburban police department might have its own mental health unit, while a smaller town or city might find that it works better to shift money to its social services department. "There are 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., and there's not one size that fits all of them," Ray says.

To curb use of excessive force by police, Ray also says he would change how cities cover the cost of settling lawsuits against officers accused of going too far. Instead of simply paying settlements out of cities' general funds, he says cities should have to carry insurance and pay premiums. That would give officials an economic incentive to get rid of officers who cost taxpayers a lot of money by racking up complaints.

Rayshard Brooks
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held a protest march June 15, 2020, in Atlanta after the fatal shooting of 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks by a white police officer. The death was ruled a homicide by the county medical examiners office.
WES BRUER/AFP via Getty Images


Replacing the Police Entirely

But others aren't satisfied merely to divert a portion of police funding to social programs. In Minneapolis, the community organization known as MPD 150 is working to abolish the entire department.

"Our goal is a completely police-free city, so in that context defunding is a part of that process," explains MPD 150 member Martin Sheeks, who emphasizes that it's important to give a wide swath of the community a say in how the system will evolve.


"The long-term idea is that we create the systems we need to address the underlying causes of crime — namely social inequities and unmet community needs — and then have appropriate emergency responses when people call 911," Sheeks says in an email. "We don't need armed police officers responding to mental health crises."

While Sheeks admits that solving underlying problems won't prevent all crime, he notes that in most cases, police don't actually prevent crime, either; instead, they document it and try to catch the perpetrators. But policing isn't working that well to protect minorities and the poor, "for whom it often causes more harm than it solves," Sheeks says.

"If we're going to have a service that responds to those kinds of calls, they should be equipped to document the events and connect people with the supportive services they need, which is just not something our current policing model does. There are a very, very small number of situations in which you need an armed person ready to kill, and we will have to discuss what our solution to those problems as a city, but it doesn't make sense to shape our entire public safety system around those few edge cases when we could be spending that money on better solutions to more frequent problems."

Another critic in favor of abolishing the police is Jason Sole, an adjunct professor in criminal justice at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a former director of the city government's Community First Public Safety Initiative in Minneapolis. "$193 million is going to a department that doesn't know how to stop killing black people," he says.

Instead of relying upon police to catch offenders after the fact, Sole would focus on creative solutions for crime prevention — for example, local residents who are licensed to carry firearms and insured to act as "peacekeepers" could provide a local emergency response team, though similar measures turned deadly in the case of Trayvon Martin.

In Washington, D.C., a coalition called Defund MPD is pushing the District government to reject proposed budget increases for police, and gradually reduce the department's budget and invest more money "in programs that keep our communities live and well," explains activist CAM Morris in an email.

Morris, current organizing director of the D.C. chapter of Black Youth Project 100, says that "defunding the D.C. police looks like directly impacted communities being able to make decisions about what resources they would like in their communities." That might include more funding for after-school programs, mental health treatment, drug programs and education programs aimed at preventing gender-based violence — "essentially, whatever communities feel they need to be supported and uplifted." People in the community also could receive training on how to de-escalate potentially violent situations, which might eliminate a lot of the incidents to which police currently must respond.

Trayvon Martin
Hundreds marched in NYC to protest the 2012 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who was exonerated of all criminal charges in connection with the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
Viviane Moos/Corbis via Getty Images


Downsides to Defunding the Police

Though George Floyd's death has made many Americans take a more critical view of the police, the defund movement faces some big obstacles. A June 12, 2020, ABC News – Ipsos poll found that both defunding and diverting police funding to social programs are still opposed by a majority of the public. And the idea of defunding has been rejected by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, although he does advocate police reform and for making federal aid to departments contingent on whether they meet "certain basic standards of decency and honorableness. "

Bill Sousa, director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy and a criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is concerned that cutting funding for police could make policing worse instead of better. He explains that departments strapped for resources will be forced to fall back into what he calls a "reactive mode of policing," in which bike patrols and other crime-prevention tactics will have to be eliminated, and officers in cars who are scrambling to keep up with 911 calls will quickly bounce from call to call. Research over the past several decades indicates that when police are in reactive mode, "they're not very effective at managing problems in communities," Sousa explains.


Sousa also cautions that even if police funding is shifted to mental health and other programs, the professionals trained to provide those services may find themselves dealing with dangers they're not equipped to face without police backup. In domestic abuse calls, for example, "sometimes de-escalation won't work. The question then is are you now going to train counselors to use force if necessary, and will they want to use it?"

Sousa says he's also concerned that if police are replaced with local citizen patrols, those could turn vigilantism, or else find themselves dangerously overmatched against gangs and other violent criminals.

Defunding or abolishing police aren't the only potential solutions for police problems, Sousa says. Another option is maintaining police departments but instituting reforms, such as mandating that police wear body cameras, provide training on de-escalation tactics, rewrite policies on use of force and give administrators more authority to fire problem officers.

In law enforcement, "I think everyone agrees, you look at policies and make them better," he explains. "In fact, there's been a fair amount of reform that already has occurred in the past few years." But such efforts take time to have an effect, he cautions.

However, some activists think the time is past and the situation too grave to rely on slow, incremental reform. Sweeping change is needed now. Sole says that while some people can't envision a society without police, "for those of us who've always seen them as oppressors, we don't have a choice but to dream big."

Camden, New Jersey
Roosevelt Nesmith, 53 at the time this photo was taken, poses for a portrait on Aug. 16, 2013 in Camden, New Jersey, the same year that the Camden County Police Department was officially created and the unionized Camden Police department was disbanded.
The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Images