Here’s What “Defunding the Police” Actually Means
Here’s what defunding the police could look like—and the arguments in favour of this plan.
Photo: Cooper Neill/Getty Images
Defund the police, explained
One month after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, the Minneapolis Black man who died in police custody, protestors and pundits have amplified one resonant action item: “defund the police and refund the people.” For some who are listening, it sounds like an expensive government giveaway. For others, this rally cry sounds like an appeal for anarchy.
Rest easy: “defund the police and refund the people” is not a call for police-free pandemonium, nor is it a sly trick to decrease taxes. This movement actually seeks to increase public safety by redirecting existing public dollars toward health, human services and other innovative solutions.
“We need to see a shift from massive spending on police that don’t keep us safe, to a massive investment in a shared vision of community safety that actually works,” says Monifa Bandele, senior vice president of the Seattle-based MomsRising. “Rather, investing in health care, mental health services, education, addiction treatment, housing, re-entry support, and food security helps to keep families and communities safe.”
Bandele also sits on the Leadership Policy Team of the Movement for Black Lives, a network of over 150 Black-led organizations from across the United States. “Right now, some police budgets exceed the budget for these critical services combined,” she adds.
Doesn’t more police funding reduce crime?
Bandele says no. “In fact, the data shows that reducing the numbers of police officers and the size of police departments could actually reduce crime,” she reports. “Back in 2014, the New York Police Department staged a halt of aggressive police tactics as part of a protest. But the effect wasn’t what they expected: Crime actually went down when cops took a more passive role.”
Where should the funds go instead?
MomsRising supports the “defund the police” movement because diverting funds from policing and using that money to support children and families benefits society. “Most people don’t know that 1.7 million students [in the United States] are in schools with cops, but no counsellors,” Bandele explains. “Three million students are in school with cops, but no nurses. Six million are in schools with cops, but no school psychologists. Ten million are in schools with cops, but no social workers.”
Overspending on police in communities where children’s basic needs are not met will not reduce crime. Instead, reallocating a portion of that money to support families—in areas like health care, for example—reaps dividends that benefit society by reducing crime over the long haul.
SOPA Images/Getty Images
What about police reform?
Extensive reform efforts have tried and failed, according to Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick, principal and founder of Co-Creating Inclusion. “For example, the Minneapolis police department has spent millions of dollars on exactly the kind of work that I do as a DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] consultant—data gathering, training, policy changes, community dialogues, etc,” Fitzpatrick says. “What I know from my work is that while we can create a lot of change at the institutional level, there are systemic limitations.”
“Defunding the police is not just about taking money away from the police,” she adds. “It is about redirecting it to other systems such as housing, employment, healthcare, education, etc. that can reduce the need for the police in the first place.”
Is this change starting to happen?
According to the results of a recent survey by Léger and the Association for Canadian Studies, a majority of 72 per cent of Canadians—including 71 per cent of Quebecers—say they support the anti-police brutality protests. People aged between 18 and 34 are most in support, at 78 per cent.
In Toronto, two city councillors have proposed a motion that calls for a 10 per cent cut to the police budget. The group Not Another Black Life, meanwhile, have been leading peaceful ‘defund the police’ protests in the city’s downtown core.
“But I believe in law and order”
“We want communities to be safe for everyone,” Bandele insists. “In the current system, Black people are not safe, even when dealing with those we literally pay to protect us.” Everyone who pays taxes funds the police—and then pays even more when the police they pay engage in misconduct.
Ralph Richardson, an executive producer of American Trial: The Eric Garner Story (and my husband) identifies police brutality as one of the most wasteful expenditures of public funds. “I’ve always asked the question: Why do taxpayers fund bad cops?”
What would a “defunded” police system look like?
The police respond to 911 calls to manage mental health and substance abuse problems, even when no crime has occurred. Why? There’s often no one else to contact for rapid-response help in a crisis.
Back in 2014, the American Psychological Association shared data from a report that found “64 per cent of jail inmates, 54 per cent of state prisoners, and 45 per cent of federal prisoners” in the Untied States have mental health concerns. The same report found “substance abuse is also rampant and often co-occurring.”
Imagine a new system, where health care workers trained and equipped for rapid response could be reached via 911, or even a number like 511. Instead of armed cops barely trained to understand these wellness problems, unarmed support teams arrive to support individuals in crisis and, instead of jail, transport them to facilities where they can receive evaluation and treatment.
For more than three decades, the city of Eugene, Oregon, has reduced costs and decreased violent encounters with the police through a mobile crisis intervention program. Instead of police, residents can call a medic and crisis worker for help for people struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, and/or homelessness.
With an infusion of resources diverted from punitive police forces, cities could use the Eugene model to offer wellness opportunities that produce healthier outcomes that benefit everyone. Several European cities have also implemented some version of the “defund the police” model that North Americans have taken to the streets to demand.
Next, find out why you should stop saying “I don’t see colour.”