Menu Menu

What does ‘Defund the Police’ mean?

Defund the Police, one year later. This is a short guide to the demand that continues to shake America.

Last summer at the height of the BLM movement, the phrase ‘Defund the Police’ became a rallying cry of protesters against police brutality.

One year later, and the demand has not died down. Support from Representatives such as Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as a strong backlash from both sides of the political spectrum, highlights the continued prevalence of the debate.

But what does ‘Defund the Police’ actually mean?

Where did it come from?

The official slogan ‘Defund the Police’ was popularised by Black Visions Collective shortly after the murder of George Floyd, but the roots of the idea go way back into American history.

In 1935, African-American activist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about ‘abolition-democracy’, which advocated for the removal of institutions rooted in racist and oppressive practices.

Du Bois was referring to white police forces, which had their origins as slave patrols, as well as prisons and convict leasing.

30 years later, civil rights activists openly advocated for the defunding or complete abolition of police departments, notably Angela Davis.

Fast forward to today, and several members of the Democratic ‘Squad’ – including AOC and Cori Bush – join grassroots organisations in their calls to ‘Defund the Police’.

What does it mean?

Defund the Police represents a movement that advocates for the divesting of funds from police departments to different forms of community support and public safety.

The reallocated funds would go towards social services, housing, education and youth services, healthcare, and other community support networks.

It is believed that this investment into communities would act as a much more efficient crime deterrent than policing by addressing social issues such as poverty, mental illness, and substance misuse.

Like many social movements, ‘Defund the Police’ is an umbrella term that covers a range of views united under the same general principle.

Whilst some activists seek modest defunding and reallocation, more radical thinkers advocate for complete divestment as the path towards the abolition of police services as we know them today.

Activists Phillip McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris espouse that a shift in funding to social services that would ameliorate mental health, addiction and homelessness is a much better use of taxpayer money than policing.

Why do people support it?

Some of the reasons for the wave of primarily grassroot support for defunding the police comes from the perceived inefficiency of the current police force, and of any alternative attempts to reform it.

Advocates are quick to point out the low success rate of the police in America: the national “clearance rate” (aka cases solved) of homicides was 64.1% in 2015, compared to 90% in the 1970s.

Approximately 70% of robberies and 47% of aggravated assaults go uncleared every year, and 90% of those stopped in the stop-and-frisks conducted by the NYPD were committing no crime, and had no weapon on them.

In fact, when in 2014 and 2015 the NYPD staged a “slowdown” to prove that the city would be less safe if they did less police work, the opposite was actually shown to be true.

The officers took a break from targeting low-level offenses (“broken-window policing”) to prove that crime would go up, when in fact there was a 3-6% drop.

Moreover, as highlighted by the case of George Floyd and countless others, the police force is repeatedly accused of institutional racism, from police brutality against black Americans to the masses of unsolved cases of missing Indigenous women.

Dr Rashawn Ray also points out that because of the huge funding that goes into the police force, over other social services (in the past four decades, the cost of policing in the US has tripled), the police are summoned to deal with numerous non-police-related matters.

“They respond to everything from potholes in the streets to cats stuck up a tree,” he explains, and more pressingly “police officers are increasingly asked to complete paperwork and online forms.”

The case of Breonna Taylor, whose mostly blank reports listed her injuries as “none”, shows that this crucial documentation is being neglected.

Ray suggests that reducing the officer workload through initiatives like defunding and reallocation would increase the likelihood of solving violent crimes,

Clearly, there is a strong sentiment that the police are not doing their job well enough. So what about reform?

Well, that’s not the solution either according to professor and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, Alex S. Vitale.

“Attempts to reform police practices over the last five years have failed.”

Minneapolis, the state in which George Floyd was murdered, had previously undergone training on implicit bias, de-escalation, and crisis intervention. They had diversified the department’s leadership, adopted body cameras, brought in reformers and enhanced early warning systems to identify problem officers. They helped lead a national campaign for repairing relationships between the police and the communities they are supposed to serve.

Clearly, these reforms did not work.

Supporters of the movement argue that reform of a broken system will never yield results- instead there needs to be a complete overhaul of the way we confront crime.

Investment in education and services for youth to prevent the school-t0-prison pipeline, investment in rehabilitation centres to help tackle addiction and substance abuse, and investment in affordable housing to prevent homelessness or trapping people in abusive homes are just some of the examples of reallocation of funds that the movement has in mind.

Will it happen?

President Joe Biden has firmly distanced himself from the ‘Defund the Police” movement, along with the “majority” of Democrats, but this does not mean the cause is over.

Grassroots movements in cities across America have led to real change on local and regional levels.

Austin, Texas has directly cut roughly $20m from the police department, and moved $80m out of the department by transferring some services out of law enforcement.

This money has instead gone to mental health first responders, substance abuse programs, services for the homeless, medical services for COVID-19 and more.

More recently, New York City has trialled sending mental health professionals instead of police teams to mental health calls.

Along with Austin and New York City, there are at least 11 other cities across American that have pledged to defund the police force since August 2020.

Clearly, there is still a long way to go and many obstacles, but ‘Defunding the Police’ is more than a slogan. It is a movement that has history, momentum and support, and in the last few years, it has had progress.