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What it actually means to 'defund the police'

Hundreds march with the Coalition of Black Youth in Boston on June 10, 2020 in Boston. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Boston Globe

As the U.S. grapples with the recent killings of Black Americans George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by local law enforcement, calls to "defund the police" have gained momentum in progressive circles across the country.

Reallocating some of the police's funds to other community resources is seen by some as critical in the movement against police brutality. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, police use force against Black people seven times as often as they do against white people, city data reveals. The Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to dismantle its police department and create a new public safety model.

Defunding the police has been a demand of the Black Lives Matter movement. On Twitter, calls to defund the police increased from near zero between May 25, the day Floyd was killed, to almost 740,000 on June 8, according to data provided to CNBC Make It by ListenFirst Media, a social analytics company. 

At the same time, 64% of Americans oppose defunding police departments, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll released Friday, June 12.

Even the specifics around how and what it means to defund the police has itself been a topic of discussion and debate. Some activists want to see police departments completely dismantled. Others ask that some of police departments' ever-increasing budgets be diverted to other under-funded social services, like education, mental health services and housing. Everyone calling for defunding the police, though, is advocating for a reimagining of what policing and public safety could be.

Over the past few weeks, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to reduce the Los Angeles Police Department's almost $2 billion budget by as much as $150 million and redirect the money to health and education programs. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh announced $12 million from the police budget would be reallocated to social services in the upcoming fiscal year. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to cut the New York Police Department's $6 billion budget in some capacity. 

But what does "defunding the police" actually mean? Here's what some activists and legal organizations are calling for, and why they say it would help.

What it means to defund the police

Activists would like cities to stop increasing police budgets each year, and for large percentages of the budgets to be diverted to other causes. Exactly how much local groups believe could be reallocated varies by locality and each individual city's current budget.

Over the past few decades, police department budgets have made up an ever larger share of many cities' overall budgets. Nationwide, an estimated $100 billion is spent on policing each year. In fact, police budgets comprised up to 20% to 45% of discretionary funds in cities across the country in 2020, according to a report from the Center for Popular Democracy Action, an advocacy group that promotes progressive policies.

Garcetti's original proposed 2020-2021 budget for Los Angeles allocates $3.14 billion out of $10.5 billion total to the police, double the budget for public works, the second-largest line item, and far more than the $30 million allocated to economic development.

In Chicago, the police and corrections departments received 40.5% of the city's general fund in FY 2019 according to an analysis from Local Progress, a progressive policy network. Mental health services received 0.9% of of the general fund, while youth and jobs programs received 2.4% of the general fund.

The funding discrepancies are common in smaller cities, too. Over 33% of St. Louis's general fund was allocated to the police and corrections departments in fiscal year 2019, per Local Progress's data, while mental health services and jobs programs received 0%.

Some legal organizations and activists say this is a big problem, especially when it comes at the expense of funding other services, like mental health care and educational programs. Reallocating funds from the police to other social services is the first step to rethinking "the meaning of public safety" entirely, according to New York University's School of Law's Policing Project, an organization that promotes transparency and accountability around policing.

At the same time, more radical activists are calling for disbanding police altogether. Defunding departments is simpler, as some cities have already demonstrated by promising to reduce budgets this year.

Where the money would go instead

Activists pushing to defund police departments are advocating for the money to be invested in other types of programs in marginalized communities, like alternative emergency response services. Rather than dial 911 and have a police officer respond to an overdose, for example, a medical professional would respond.

Those in favor of reform say this could prevent the use of unnecessary force and violence, and potentially death, from police first responders who are not necessarily trained to handle social issues including domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness or a mental health crisis effectively. Instead, community workers and others trained in de-escalation techniques would respond.

"So much of policing right now is generated and directed toward quality-of-life issues, homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence," Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told NBC's "Meet the Press" last week. "What we do need is increased funding for housing, we need increased funding for education, we need increased funding for quality of life of communities who are over-policed and over-surveilled."

Earlier this month, a letter signed by hundreds of current and former de Blasio staffers demanded New York City's mayor reduce the portion of the FY2021 budget going to the NYPD by at least $1 billion, and that the funds be reallocated to "essential social services, including housing support and rental relief, food assistance and health care." In a letter to staffers, de Blasio promised to make the city "fairer and more just for communities of color."

Alternatives to defunding the police

In the wake of civil unrest, many politicians, including presumptive Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden, have advocated for reforming police departments over defunding them.

There are many different policies being circulated, but one popular form is community policing, which is when officers are assigned to engage more frequently within certain neighborhoods in non-policing capacities, like attending community meetings, in the hopes that they will form stronger bonds. Many of these reform initiatives would actually increase police budgets, because they would not reallocate any of the funds already going to police departments, but instead give more for training and buying new gear like body cameras.

Congressional Democrats recently introduced a bill that would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases by police, among other measures. It does not call to defund police, but it also does not provide any additional funding to police departments. 

Biden supports giving more funds to departments for body cameras and training on community policing. 

"I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness," Biden said in an interview with CBS Evening News last week. "And, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community."

What critics say

Attorney General William Barr, in an appearance on Fox News last week, said that defunding police departments would make communities less safe.

"Police chiefs, the rank and file officers understand the need for change and there has been great change," he said. "And I think defunding the police, holding the entire police structure responsible for the actions of certain officers is wrong, and I think it's dangerous to demonize police."

President Donald Trump, most Republican and Democratic politicians, and police unions are also against defunding the police on the same grounds.

"We won't be defunding our police," Trump said last week. "We won't be dismantling our police." 

The assertion that communities would be less safe if with fewer police is not necessarily supported by research. In fact, the national violent crime rate dropped by 37% between 1997 and 2016, at the same time that the number of police officers per 100,000 residents fell from 242 to 217, according to an analysis by USA Today and The Marshall Project.

Ultimately, reducing police budgets is largely a local government issue, according to the Policing Project. How or if cities will reallocate funds remains to be seen. 

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