One year after George Floyd’s murder, the ‘defund the police’ movement falters

May 25, 2021, 9:50 PM UTC

One year ago, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while being arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill. The incident led to a summer of massive protests around the globe and a radical shift in thinking about the role the police play in neighborhoods and cities across the United States. 

At least 20 large U.S. cities have since reduced their police budgets, adding up to $840 million in cuts, and over 25 cities canceled contracts with local police departments operating in schools. Local elections around the country this year are further forcing political candidates to discuss the future of their police forces on a public arena. 

Still, critics say that more work needs to be done to keep Americans, and minority Americans in particular, safe. 

In May 2020, Chauvin, a white officer who had 18 complaints previously filed against him, kneeled on George Floyd’s neck and back, crushing his airway and lungs for nearly 10 minutes. Two officers assisted Chauvin, as Floyd pleaded with them, begging “please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me.” Another officer, Tou Thao, prevented bystanders from intervening as Floyd was murdered in front of them. 

In 2020, police killed 1,127 people in America. The majority of those killings began as responses to suspected non-violent offenses, according to data compiled by the Mapping Police Violence project. Black people were more likely to be killed by police, more likely to be unarmed, and less likely to be threatening someone when killed. Although Black people make up just 13% of the U.S. population, they accounted for 27% of killings by the police. Those numbers remain remarkably consistent with data tracking fatal interactions with the police between 2015 and 2019. 

But this event, caught on camera by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, presented an undeniable reality to the public and awoke a nation that had largely become numb from being inundated with news of police killings.

Ahead of Floyd’s killing, Americans had been quarantined at home for three months watching footage of morgues so overwhelmed with bodies that refrigerated trailers had to hold the overflow. They witnessed hospital staff wrapped in garbage bags as makeshift protection. They knew people who had died of COVID-19 and people who lost their jobs and struggled to feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads. And they heard President Trump repeatedly deny and bend these realities. The image of the government entity, the source of authority, looking out for the best interests of Americans was shattered. Floyd’s death came at the height of a pandemic that upended the status quo for all Americans, causing them to question the systems of power previously accepted as immutable. 

Talk of defunding, dismantling, abolishing, and reimagining police forces was thrust into the national spotlight. It was discussed at protests, on legislative floors, and even on Fox News. Progressives pushed Democratic politicians, who had previously responded to police brutality by throwing more money into training with no real results, to consider new alternatives

American communities typically ask their more than 18,000 police agencies to do much more than police. Police forces fight terrorism abroad, perform homeless services, work with children in schools, respond to calls for mental health crises, perform social work and welfare checks, mediate domestic disputes, and respond to drug overdoses. Often, they’re not trained to perform these tasks. 

Meanwhile, police force budgets have also increased 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 (NYPD), 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. 

Those who call for the defunding of the police force say that at least some of that money can go to nonviolent specialists trained in social work, education, or drug counseling who can replace untrained police officers in a number of situations. 

But while many states and cities have slashed and reallocated budgets, none have gone so far as to fully defund or abolish their forces. A lot of initial talk following the protests was not followed through on by government officials, and the cuts that have been made have been met with strong resistance. 

Many cities that cut their police budgets following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests like Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, and Austin saw those changes coincide with significant increases in homicide and violent crime rates as huge increases in poverty and joblessness due to the pandemic ravaged communities and stay-at-home orders abated, ending a very quiet previous year. Americans have also significantly increased gun purchases in the past year, which experts say has led to an increase in crime. Still, pro-police advocates point to reforms in police budgets as a culprit, and liberal politicians are bending.  

In Minneapolis where Floyd was murdered, the city council slashed $8 million in funding from its police department and reinvested $2 million into a mental health response team and violence prevention programs. But critics have come from both sides: Mayor Jacob Frey has argued that the cuts hurt an already understaffed police force, and activists say that the cuts are superficial because the money saved hasn’t been fully reinvested into other crime reduction and aid programs. The city now has plans to expand officer recruitment in 2022.

Murders grew 36% in Los Angeles last year, and just one year after the city reduced its police budget by $150 million, or about 8%, officials have agreed to hire 250 new officers, essentially undoing the cuts that followed the protests.

In New York City, homicides grew by nearly 45% last year. After the protests, Mayor Bill De Blasio promised to strip the NYPD budget by $1 billion, but he ended up cutting less than half of that in a larger COVID budget package. His spending plan for fiscal 2022 keeps all police headcount and operations budgets intact. Police funding dominates the mayoral race conversation, but just one candidate, Dianne Morales, has openly campaigned to defund the NYPD. 

Seattle’s City Council agreed to a 50% police budget cut last year, but has instead reduced spending from its general fund by 11.2%.

Austin, Texas cut $20 million from the police department and moved $80 million to bolster services outside of the police’s jurisdiction. Prior to the protests, the city spent 40% of its entire budget on the police; now it spends 26%. 

But that too may soon change. A bill passed on Monday by the Texas legislature and backed by Republican governor Greg Abbott will ban police funding cuts in larger cities through a series of tax and annexation measures. “A LOT of residents in the City of Austin will soon have the chance to de-annex from their over-taxing, over-regulating, do-nothing-about-the-homeless city,” wrote Abbott on Twitter. “One of the penalties on cities like Austin that defund police is that residents who’ve been annexed can choose to leave.”

Still, there is hope for those who want to decrease police funding: The 50 largest U.S. cities reduced 2021 police budgets by 5.2% in total, many as part of larger emergency COVID-19 budget cut packages, and cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles have successfully diverted money from police salaries to social programs that predominantly serve communities of color. 
Researchers at Interrupting Criminalization, an initiative at the Barnard Center for Research on Women Social Justice Institute, say that this isn’t going to be a change that is seen within a budget cycle or two, and that attempts to point to increases in police funding only obscure very real victories the movement has made. Organizers and activists are laying the groundwork, they say, for future change. Their fight isn’t stopping anytime soon.

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