What ‘Defund the Police’ Really Means

Reallocating the budgets of police departments isn’t a new idea, but one that’s reached the mainstream

A participant holding a Defund The Police sign at the protest. Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Brooklyn on June 2, 2020, in a massive march to demand justice for George Floyd, killed by Officer Derek Chauvin and to make a loud call for the defunding of the police force. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images

The recent police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis outraged the country, sparked global protests, and became the latest symbol of the centuries of systemic violence toward Black Americans. It also reignited calls to defund the police — an idea that may be new to public discussion, but not to the many activists and academics who have pushed for and studied what this significant change could look like nationwide.

On Sunday, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council answered those calls with a vow to defund and dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and to create a new public safety system. It’s a move that has been misinterpreted by some.

“It is not a call for anarchy. It is a call to rethink the assumption that Black and Latino communities can be ‘helped’ by this punitive occupying force,” Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Brown University and author of Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court, tells ZORA. “When people say defund, what they’re saying is, ‘Please break this mold and redesign it based on the health of communities.’”

In plain English, defunding the police means taking money usually allocated to the police department — or the sheriff’s department — and shifting it to other agencies. That could look like moving money from police to better finance public schools or mental health clinics or grief counselors. Given that police are called to respond to every kind of incident — from cats in trees and alligators in pools to shootings and car accidents — defunding the police calls for providing more money to the appropriate agency. This way, the remaining police can focus.

The idea of defunding, though, lies on a spectrum. Some do seek to completely abolish policing, saying that communities can police themselves when given the resources to do so. Others want millions sowed back into divested communities and into a new public safety structure. If the current model of policing isn’t working, they say, we need to start over and build a new system.

This idea is not a novel one — especially for Black people. In The Souls of Black Folk, written in 1903, W.E.B. Dubois discussed policing’s direct ties to slavery and the double system of justice where Black people experienced “undue severity” and “injustice.” Activist and scholar Angela Davis has long spoken out about how police target Black people and has advocated for the abolishment of police and prisons altogether.

And in 2016, two years after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Movement for Black Lives included an Invest-Divest plan in its policy platforms — a reallocation of money from policing and incarceration and an investment in programs for education, restorative justice, and employment in Black communities.

“It’s not brand new. Black Lives Matter has been saying this all along,” Gonzalez Van Cleve says. “What is new is that a mass amount of people are willing to take it seriously.”

Advocates say the money to do this is there. Police department budgets in many cities are often far greater than the budgets for education, health, social services, and other resources, according to an analysis by the Center for Popular Democracy, an advocacy group. These amounts are in addition to the millions paid to settle police misconduct.

Chicago, for example, spends about 40% of the city’s total budget on the police department. That budget has increased annually, hitting $1.7 billion this year. Added to that is the significant cost of police misconduct: Chicago paid $113 million on police misconduct lawsuits in 2018. Not counted in these rising costs is the $2.85 million per year that the city will need to pay an annual monitor to oversee a federally mandated consent decree that outlines reforms for the department.

The situation is the same in other large metro areas. In New York City, the police department budget is $6 billion. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization — which also works to provide safety from a health standpoint — has an annual budget of $2.4 billion and has to stretch that to cover the globe; not just one city.

“Imagine if you could solve social problems with that money — $113 million or $1.7 billion? We might question our choices,” Gonzalez Van Cleve says. “Do we need a militarized police department if we know that we still have things like shootings and other types of violent crimes and police are unable, through their tactics, to be able to manage it?”

With the effectiveness of traditional policing strategies questioned, investing in those communities are often seen as violence prevention themselves. Sociologist Robert Vargas, in his book Wounded City: Violent Turf Wars in a Chicago Barrio, shows how (because of gerrymandering) blocks within the same neighborhood can receive resources for violence prevention while some do not, making a very huge difference in crime and violence.

“[Neighborhoods] have different crime outcomes based on how much resources you put to violence prevention strategies that are not just about policing,” Gonzalez Van Cleve says. “So it shows there is no such thing as toxic communities that breed crime — that is a very racist criminology conception. It’s a fallacy, and I think [Vargas] shows that.”

Education is commonly brought up in the discussion of defunding the police, citing the many studies that show the importance of school systems to a community. In Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice, sociologist Carla Shedd studied how high school students in Chicago feel about the police’s duty “to serve and protect” their neighborhoods and what she describes as an “intertwined experience of education and criminal justice.”

“The schools in Chicago were transformed into almost like punitive states right when they were searching and patting down kids and doing metal detectors,” Gonzalez Van Cleve says. “All these things that made schools feel more like primers to being in prison than they felt then they were places where you’d have educational opportunity or a future.”

While the specifics of how to defund the police may run the gamut, the intent is simple: to take the money out of an unjust system and create a new one in which Black communities have the same opportunities and resources as their White counterparts. Cahoots, for example, is a Eugene, Oregon–based mobile crisis intervention program that has handled mental health calls since 1989. Those calls no longer have to go to the police.

“What many Black Americans are asking for is a system that is equal,” Gonzalez Van Cleve says. “That is not a double system of justice, that has the same types of protections and privileges that White citizens have had since the founding of the nation.”

Arionne Nettles is a lecturer at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, a Chicago-based journalist, and a special needs mama.

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