“This moment really requires us to reimagine what we mean by public safety,” says one expert who supports “divesting and reinvesting,” though defunding has also drawn criticism from law enforcement

By Sean Neumann and Adam Carlson
June 09, 2020 07:40 PM
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Demonstrators, gathered at Lafayette Park across from the White House, face a police barricade during a protest over the death of George Floyd, on May 30.
| Credit: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Defund the police or abolish them altogether: Both ideas have received widespread attention amid weeks of unrest and protests against racial injustice sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was recorded pleading for air while an officer knelt on his neck.

The three-word proposals sound brief. But what they are proposing is anything but.

Though abolishing and defunding may seem similar, and are sometimes used interchangeably, they exist along a larger spectrum of reforms that includes body cameras for police officers and additional training and oversight.

The difference “really comes down to what we think the root problem is,” says Paige Fernandez, a policing policy advisor with the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports a strategy of defunding — what she calls “divesting and reinvesting.”

In the wake of Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis in late May, and the demonstrations against policing that have spread to all 50 states, the necessity for some kind of reform is being debated by local, state and national leaders.

Many communities have united in agreement that ongoing police misconduct must be met with action. One recent YouGov poll showed majority support among Americans for changes including banning the use of neck restraints (like the one seen in Floyd’s arrest) and designing an “an early warning system” for officers who break the rules.

But the 1,060 adults polled by YouGov also strongly disapproved of cutting police budgets. It remains to be seen which plans, if any, various cities and states may undertake and how dramatically they might reshape their approaches to public safety.

What is clear is the anger and grief at the death of Floyd and other people of color this year has again spotlighted a key question: What should the role of police be in society? Should their duties be minimized, in favor of other community resources; or, in the words of one Minneapolis official, is the “system of policing” itself a failure that requires something entirely new?

In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, the city council said Sunday it would “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department” and replacing it with “a new, transformative model for cultivating safety,” possibly through increased forms of crisis intervention and social services. A full plan or timeline has not been unveiled, however.

The Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti, said he would push for up to $150 million to be cut from the city’s police budget to go toward other initiatives like health care and jobs.

Some officers have been quick to speak out, arguing that reducing their funding or other regulations would make their jobs harder — and would make people less safe overall and could, paradoxically, increase abuse.

“I would caution lawmakers to be very careful moving forward,” Washington, D.C., Police Chief Peter Newsham said last week. “The No. 1 thing that contributes to excessive force in any police agency is when you underfund it. If you underfund a police agency, it impacts training, it impacts hiring, it impacts your ability to develop good leaders.”

At a press conference on Tuesday, a group of New York officers lashed out at what they saw as mistreatment and misunderstanding.

“Stop treating us like animals and thugs and start treating us with some respect," one police union official told reporters. “That’s what we’re here today to say. We’ve been vilified. It’s disgusting.”

President Donald Trump has weighed in, adding a layer of partisanship even though both Democrats and Republicans have broadly condemned police misconduct since Floyd’s death.

President Donald Trump
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New York Police Chief Terence Monahan joins protesters in Washington Square Park on June 1.
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“There won’t be defunding,” Trump said at a law enforcement roundtable at the White House on Monday. “There won't be dismantling of our police. And there’s not going to be any disbanding of our police. Our police have been letting us live in peace.”

Appearing on ABC on Sunday, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said he did “not think that we have a systemic racism problem with law enforcement officers across this country,” though White House senior aide Kellyanne Conway told reporters last week that “it's absolutely the case that there's institutional racism.”

What advocates of major reforms argue is that policing itself is often the cause of social instability and violence in many communities, particularly for people of color and in poor areas. In this view, there are too many officers acting too aggressively in too many places, including in schools and on public transportation — feeding a loop of excessive surveillance and intrusion that erodes trust between the police and public and can increase crime.

Recent statistics from the Department of Justice show that black and Hispanic people are more likely to face threats of or uses of force from police than white people. What’s more, according to a data analysis by Mapping Police Violence, black people are more likely to be killed by police than white people.

Such inequalities are, according to some scholars, by design: They argue the modern policing system is rooted in Southern “slave patrols.”

“When a lot of black people see police, they are scared. They don’t feel a sense of safety,” Fernandez, with the ACLU, tells PEOPLE “They don’t feel like the police are here to serve them, because the police aren’t here to serve them.”

The End of Policing author Alex S. Vitale told NPR last week that, in his assessment, the definition of policing has been perilously stretched.

“Part of our misunderstanding about the nature of policing is we keep imagining that we can turn police into social workers. That we can make them nice, friendly community outreach workers. But police are violence workers,” he said. “That's what distinguishes them from all other government functions. ... They have the legal capacity to use violence in situations where the average citizen would be arrested.”

“So when we turn a problem over to the police to manage, there will be violence,” Vitale continued, “because those are ultimately the tools that they are most equipped to utilize: handcuffs, threats, guns, arrests. That's what really is at the root of policing. So if we don't want violence, we should try to figure out how to not get the police involved.”

A 2017 report titled Freedom to Thrive analyzed the budgets of 12 major cities and counties in the U.S. and found that “the choice to invest in punitive systems instead of stabilizing and nourishing ones does not make our communities safer.” According to the report, for example, Houston spent nearly 17 percent of its budget on its police department compared to 4.7 percent combined on its health, housing, library, neighborhood and parks departments.

Nationwide, spending for police has tripled since 1977, according to an analysis published by Bloomberg News — even though violent crime is at some of its lowest levels, and down drastically from a modern peak in the early ‘90s.

Protesters and police during a May 29 demonstration in New York City in response to George Floyd's death
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“I'm certainly not talking about any kind of scenario where tomorrow someone just flips a switch and there are no police,” Vitale told NPR. “What I'm talking about is the systematic questioning of the specific roles that police currently undertake, and attempting to develop evidence-based alternatives so that we can dial back our reliance on them.”

“While we're not using police to manage slavery or colonialism today, we are using police to manage the problems that our very unequal system has produced,” he said.

Fernandez explains the call for defunding this way: “Crime isn’t random. A lot of the times it stems out of poverty or when somebody can’t meet their basic needs, so by divesting and reinvesting those services, we can meet peoples’ basic needs and we can help people thrive so that they don’t have to rely on behaviors and actions that have been criminalized by the government.” (“A huge amount of burglary activity is driven by drug use,” Vitale noted.)

Some top police officials have echoed Vitale and others that officers are not equipped to handle every problem.

In a 2016 interview with CityLab, former Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay — who said talk of police reform “mistakenly creates the inference that the problem is the police” — nonetheless said, “A lot of the problems left at the doorstep of the police are social issues, rather than problems with the police proper. We’re just that point of friction.”

As former Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in 2016, “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve.”

In the view of Fernandez and other activists, reallocating money has the potential to help solve both over-policing and the prevalence of crime that has made police the solution for too many problems.

“This moment really requires us to reimagine what we mean by public safety,” she says. “What does that actually mean and what does that actually look like? I think that looks like providing communities with life-affirming programs and investing in programs that will help communities thrive, investing in education, housing, health care, instead of investing in punitive measures when things go wrong. How do we ensure things don’t go wrong in the first place? That’s where the solution of reinvestment comes in.”

What happens next will be up to a plethora of governments at every level; there is no consensus on the best path forward, and police unions in recent years have been vocal that their officers are being unfairly scapegoated and maligned.

Congressionally, lawmakers have proposed further reforms — including banning certain lethal tactics like using chokeholds and bolstering accountability for officers on duty.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, the state’s former attorney general, told The View on Monday that “we need to reimagine how we are achieving public safety in America,” but she stopped short of giving a “yes” or “no” on defunding police departments, instead pushing back on the term as a simplistic shorthand for a larger discussion.

"Look, not all law enforcement officers are racist," former Vice President Joe Biden told CBS on Tuesday. "My lord, there are some really good, good cops out there. But the way in which it works right now is we've seen too many examples of it."

Departments have made major changes before. In Camden, New Jersey, for example, the city police force was disbanded amid economic and corruption issues and replaced in 2013 with a county department that some advocates say has helped improve community relations as they’ve also driven down crime.

Minneapolis, one of the country’s 50 largest cities, will be the most prominent example of what abolishing a department would look like. The process is likely to be involved, despite the city council’s swift pronouncement.

Council members there have pointed to the work being done in Eugene, Oregon. For nonviolent issues, Eugene dispatches members from a nonprofit emergency management organization called CAHOOTS, which stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets. CAHOOTS, which reportedly handles about 20 percent of the community’s 911 calls, sends a team consisting of a medic and a crisis worker with years of experience in the mental health field to respond to nonviolent issues for which other cities would usually rely on police.

“There’s a strong argument to be made from a fiscally conservative perspective,” CAHOOTS’ operations coordinator, Tim Black, told The New York Times. “Public safety institutions generally have these massive budgets and there’s questions about what they are doing.”

Tear gas is fired during a clash at a demonstration against the death of George Floyd on May 26 in Minneapolis.
| Credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty

Not everyone is convinced. Wolf, the Homeland Security secretary, told Fox News on Sunday he found the newly prominent push for defunding “absurd.”

“It makes no sense to me,” he said. “I think it’s a very political statement to make, but it does not protect our communities at the end of the day.”

But in Minneapolis — a city again roiled by despair and distrust, with Floyd’s death only the latest in a history of high-profile police killings — local leaders say they were moved to act.

Speaking with the Star Tribune, City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins acknowledged “the conversation” to come among the city’s residents, and she said that not everyone agreed with them about dramatic police reform. Even she was unsure about what to do next. But she said she knew something had to be done.

“This is the moment. This is the time. Because nothing has worked. We’ve got to change this,” she said. “It’s possible to be conflicted and know what the right thing to do is.”