What ‘Defund the Police’ Actually Means and How it Would Work

As protests continue across the country honoring the countless Black victims of police brutality, a new rally cry immersed: defund the police. Activists have supported the idea for decades but it’s now flooding mainstream media. Many people question what ‘defund the police’ means and what it might look like.

Many critics dismiss the idea as impractical, but just as many believe it’ll be the first step in fixing a corrupt system. Even the city of Minneapolis, home of George Floyd, recently publicized its support of the demand. On June 7, the City Council of Minneapolis announced its intent to disband their police department, replacing it with “a holistic model of public safety that actually keeps us safe.”

So what happens now? What exactly does defunding the police mean? How is this different from police reform? Here’s what you need to know about the demand. 

Defunding vs. Disbanding

A popular myth about the demand to defund the police is that it means getting rid of the police force entirely. Though the ideas are connected, this isn’t specifically what the demand asks for. Defunding the police force would mean reducing multi-billion dollar police budgets and reallocating funds to often neglected areas like public education, housing, public health and community services. Supporters believe that directly investing in communities will help correct societal issues like homelessness, poverty and mental illness and even reduce crime. Officers aren’t equipped to handle these sorts of situations and funds should be allocated to those who are.

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Advocates argue that replacing some officers with trained specialized response teams would help minimize violent police interactions. Emergencies involving domestic violence, homelessness, substance abuse or mental health require attention from specialists who can offer resources or assistance. Policing was never meant to solve any of these problems. Changing certain policies can ensure police officers never respond to emergencies better equipped for social workers or health care professionals. This would drastically change the outcome of emergency situations and provide people with the help they really need.

Why Police Reform Isn’t Enough

The idea of police reform isn’t new. Politicians try using common sense solutions like enforcing body cameras and banning specific violent tactics. These efforts often fail. Body cams have yet to improve police accountability or minimize use of unnecessary force. In the unfortunate case of David McAtee in Louisville, Kentucky, officers simply turned off their body cams. NYPD banned choke holds decades ago which didn’t prevent Eric Garner from being held in one until he stopped breathing. The ‘warrior training’ many officers undergo continues to teach them that all encounters are dangerous and to prioritize their own safety.

A primary factor in the failure of police reform are police unions. Since the 1960s, police unions have used their political and bargaining power to manipulate the justice system. Unions protect officers’ job security “specifically by pushing for safeguards against investigation, discipline, and dismissal.” The most violent officers find protection from oversight groups like police internal-affairs departments under these unions. Police unions having that much power make it almost impossible to punish officers for severe wrongdoing. Having this level of protection gives officers a sense of impunity that caters to the cycle of police violence.

Defunding police departments across the nation is a threat to unions’ power. However, failed reform after failed reform is pushing people to demand change in a bigger way.

History Repeats Itself

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In the South, law enforcement began as a slave patrol. Slave patrols were created to (1) chase down and return runaway slaves to their owners, (2) be a form of organized terror to prevent slave revolts and (3) maintain ‘just’ discipline for slaves who violated plantation rules. Jim Crow laws were enforced by police when slavery was abolished. The most minor infraction could result in severe punishment or even death. Today, Black people are disproportionately profiled, violently assaulted, and arrested by police. This is simply the harsh truth. A long history of violence and racism is ingrained in our law enforcement and we continue to witness its impact. 

Defunding the police aims to nurture our communities and limit unnecessary, violent acts brought on by the presence of police. There are several studies supporting the theory that less policing results in less crime. So why continue funneling billions of dollars into a system that enables violence and has proven to be unjust? Too many bad apples spoiled the bunch and it’s time for a tactic with the potential to generate real change.

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