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This is what people mean when they say they want to defund the police

June 8, 2020, 8:23 PM UTC

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The killing of George Floyd by a white police officer has led to a radical shift in thinking about the role the police play in neighborhoods and cities across the United States. Just 14 days after four officers of the Minneapolis Police Department took part in their deadly interaction with Floyd, who had been accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill, a veto-proof majority in the the city council announced that they planned to “dismantle” the police department and build a new system of community-focused public safety. 

There’s been a lot of talk around defunding, dismantling, abolishing, and reimagining what police forces look like, and a lot of confusion about what each concept actually means. 

Minneapolis city council members said as much to the press on Sunday. Aside from their pledge, they explained, they were still working out the details of what the new iteration of their city’s public safety system would look like. The council plans to figure that out over the next year by consulting with members of their community and other experts. 

“We recognize that we don’t have all the answers about what a police-free future looks like, but our community does,” said the council members at a community meeting. “We’re committed to engaging with every willing community member in the City of Minneapolis over the next year to identify what safety looks like for you.”

The vagueness of these terms, however, gives politicians a lot of wiggle room to use the language without defining what they’ll actually do.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week that he was “committed to shifting resources” and would move some money from the New York Police Department budget to focus on youth and social services, but he did not specify how much money would be shifted, where it would come from specifically, and what programs it would go to. 

So, what do people mean when they say ‘defund the police’?

Defunding the police is shorthand for a divest and invest model: divesting money from local and state police budgets and reinvesting it into communities, mental health services, and social service programs.

The idea is that American communities have come to rely on their more than 18,000 police agencies to do much more than police. They’re fighting terrorism abroad, performing homeless services, working with children in schools, responding to calls for mental health crises, performing social work and welfare checks, mediating domestic disputes, and responding to drug overdoses. Often, they’re not trained to perform these tasks. 

Those who call for police defunding say they would rather have some duties handled by nonviolent specialists trained in social work, education, or drug counseling.

As the police take on more work, their budgets have also grown substantially. The U.S. spends an estimated $100 billion on their police forces annually, with another $80 billion spent on incarceration. Policing typically accounts for one-third to 60% of American cities’ annual budgets. 

The New York Police Department, for example, has a $6 billion budget—that’s more than spending on homeless services, housing development and upkeep, youth and community services, health and hospitals, and parks and recreation combined.  

Between fiscal years 2014 and 2019, NYPD spending increased by 22%, according to New York City comptroller Scott Stringer. Personnel costs account for about 89% of the agency’s budget, he said, with a 6% increase in headcount between those years. Stringer proposed reducing the police force from 36,461 to 35,000, a number “that prevailed between 2011 and 2016, when crime continued its steady decline.”

And even though New York City is in a budget crisis which was exacerbated by an estimated $7.4 billion drop in tax revenue owing to COVID-19, the city proposed cutting the NYPD budget by just 0.3% in fiscal year 2021. The city’s proposed education budget is five times as large as the police budget, but the mayor proposed cutting 27 times from education what he is from the police department.  

In a letter addressed to the city council last month, dozens of social services and civil rights organizations pointed out the disparities and asked for a change in budget priorities. 

“New York City is currently spending more on policing than on health, homeless services, youth development, and workforce development combined. That’s wrong and unacceptable. Overinvestment in policing and underinvestment in public health, housing, and community needs helps explain why our city has been so devastated by COVID-19, especially amongst elders and in Black, Latinx, and other communities of color,” the letter said. “We can’t police our way out of this pandemic. Eliminating the NYPD’s role in social services, ensuring that officers who harm civilians do not continue to remain on payroll for years on end, and reducing the NYPD’s overall budget would both save the city significant resources and free up city budget dollars to be reallocated to agencies that have been starved of resources in recent years.”

The letter noted that the NYPD’s budget is not itemized by program area, and so much of what the money is spent on is unknown to most residents of the city. 

There’s also big money going to politicians from police unions. A spreadsheet created by progressive activist Aaron Fernando shows that more than 50 elected officials have accepted campaign money from police and corrections unions. Police unions and related associations also donated more than $600,000 to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his gubernatorial runs.

Read: What U.S. police spending looks like in 3 charts

Why not just reform police and provide more training?

Many advocate for more legal oversight of what police can and cannot do, with more training as a solution. But those in favor of defunding the department argue that reform and laws don’t stop police from illegally killing citizens. 

The police department in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, instituted significant reforms and training programs based on President Barack Obama’s task force on policing in response to the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. The police force required bias and de-escalation training and the use of body cameras. It tightened its use-of-force standards, diversified its leadership, and started collecting demographic data. In 2015, it spent $4.75 million on a project led by procedural reformer Phillip Atiba Goff to strengthen the ties between the police and community.

Elected officials in New York City also say training has not helped.

Daniel Dromm, chair of the New York City council’s finance committee, told the New York Times last week that he didn’t think training measures were working to prevent police brutality. “The culture in the New York City Police Department has not changed,” he said. “The white shirts, the commanding officers, they kind of get it and talk the talk, but the average beat cop doesn’t believe in it, and we’ve seen this over and over again.”

According to polling, the majority of Americans support outfitting police with body cameras and training them to avoid force, but nearly two-thirds oppose cutting police funding. 

Has this been done before?

Camden, N.J., a city of 75,000 which once had a murder rate more than six times the national average and 175 open-air drug markets within the city’s nine square miles, dismantled its entire police force in 2012. Murder rates declined significantly, and by 2018, the city experienced its lowest rate since 1987. 

Robberies, violent crimes, and property crimes also declined. 

After the police department was disbanded, chief of police J. Scott Thomson created the Camden County Police Department where he hired more officers with lower pay and placed an emphasis on community policing. 

“For us to make the neighborhood look and feel the way everyone wanted it to, it wasn’t going to be achieved by having a police officer with a helmet and a shotgun standing on a corner,” Thomson told CityLab. Officers “identify more with being in the Peace Corps than being in the Special Forces.”

Most officers in the city now have GPS tracking and body cameras. There is an 18-page use-of-force policy, police are required to intervene when they see abuse of power, and the department has the authority to fire any officer who acts out of line. 

Still, not everything is perfect. A report by the ACLU found that the city had a “significant increase in low-level arrests and summonses,” which can be particularly painful for residents living below the poverty line. 

Will Congress do anything?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a sweeping Democratic reform package on Monday that would ban choke holds and no-knock warrants in drug cases. The bill, titled the Justice in Policing Act, would also require police departments to send the federal government use-of-force data and would create a grant program to allow state attorneys general to independently investigate police misconduct. A racial bias training program would be instituted for all federal police officers, and they would also be required to wear body cameras. The bill does not reduce funding. 

“The martyrdom of George Floyd gave the American experience a moment of national anguish as we grieve for the black Americans killed by police brutality today,” Pelosi said. “This moment of national anguish is being transformed into a movement of national action as Americans from across the country peacefully protest to demand an end to injustice. Today, with the Justice in Policing Act, the Congress is standing with those fighting for justice and taking action.”

The House will not meet until at least June 30, so there will be no vote before then, and if it does pass, the bill will most likely be blocked by the Republican-led Senate. 

Where do Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump stand?

President Donald Trump has referred to himself multiple times as the “law and order” President, and his administration ended many policies instituted during the Obama era to increase police accountability. 

“This year has seen the lowest crime numbers in our Country’s recorded history,” the President tweeted Monday, without mentioning that the numbers coincide with shelter-in-place orders resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. “Now the Radical Left Democrats want to Defund and Abandon our Police. Sorry, I want LAW & ORDER!”

Joe Biden said on Monday that he did not support defunding the police but did think reform was necessary. 

“As his criminal justice proposal made clear months ago, Vice President Biden does not believe that police should be defunded,” Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates told Axios. “He hears and shares the deep grief and frustration of those calling out for change, and is driven to ensure that justice is done and that we put a stop to this terrible pain.”

Bates said that Biden is advocating for more funding for police departments to institute programs of reform. “This also means funding community policing programs that improve relationships between officers and residents, and provide the training that is needed to avert tragic, unjustifiable deaths,” said Bates. 

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