Nationwide, we spend more than $100 billion on policing a year, a statement of budgetary priorities that has come under renewed scrutiny after George Floyd’s death and protests against police brutality across the country. Calls to “defund the police” are gaining traction, but the idea itself is not new. Though it has usually only happened in small doses, some communities have already been chipping away at their outsized police budgets for years, investing that money back into the community rather than into armed cops.
Last year, Durham, North Carolina, officials denied the police department’s request for extra funding to hire new officers. Instead, that money went toward raising the minimum wage of part-time and seasonal city workers to $15 an hour. Over the past two years, the Milwaukee youth organization Leaders Igniting Transformation have helped secure divestments in the funding of police in schools.
In one instance, they gave testimony that pushed their school board to deny a proposed $217,600 contract to put metal detectors in high schools. In another, their work led the Milwaukee Board of School Directors to divest $600,000 from police and security. Rather than pay cops to stand in schools, that money created new mental health jobs that focus on trauma-informed care. Even Minneapolis, in 2018, shifted more than $1 million away from the police department and into a program aimed at reducing domestic violence; legal services for immigrants and refugees; and an Office of Violence Prevention. And members of the city council have now said they plan to disband their police department and start over.
Those are choices elected officials have been making for a long time: to resource these punitive systems, and as a result not invest in the long-term health and well-being of communities.”
These are just a few examples of what’s been going on for years, says Kumar Rao, director of the Justice Transformation program at the Center for Popular Democracy. Still, this work “hasn’t gotten to the scale that we need,” he says.
To people who have never heard of the push to defund the police, it may seem radical, or like too big of a change. It’s hard to picture a future where you don’t immediately call the police for every situation, from domestic violence to a traffic stop. But “defunding” is only the first step in restructuring our cities and our justice system.
“It’s really important to always note and ground ourselves when we talk about defunding that we’re also talking about a concurrent investment and a resourcing of community,” Rao says. That investment has to be both in terms of funding community-led public safety structures that can serve as an alternative to police when it comes to responding to emergencies, and in a “deeper and more deliberate investment” in communities that have long been under-resourced. Black and brown communities face barriers to medical care and affordable housing and education that white communities often don’t—a direct consequence of the choices local officials make about where city money is spent.
“We talk a lot about this in our country, that we don’t invest in communities of color, we don’t invest in black communities. But actually we do, it’s just in criminalization,” Rao says. “We spend close to $200 billion annually on policing and incarceration in this country, and the vast bulk of that is at the local level. That comes with obvious trade-offs. Those are choices elected officials have been making for a long time: to resource these punitive systems, and as a result not invest in the long-term health and well-being of communities.”
There’s also a difference between defunding the police and just restructuring the police. After videos circulated of police arresting and pepper spraying protestors across the country, elected officials and media outlets pointed to Camden, New Jersey—where cops marched peacefully alongside protestors—as an example of where the police department has successfully been rebuilt. But Rao is hesitant to compare Camden and Minneapolis, where city council members recently pledged to dismantle the police department or to use the former as a blueprint for the latter.
“In Camden, they did disband the police department [and] then rebuilt a kinder, gentler version of a police department—but they also increased the power of the sheriff’s department. In the last few years it’s a little bit of a mixed bag in terms of what impact it’s had,” he says. “What’s being put forward in Minneapolis is a wholesale rebuild of a public safety apparatus that can and would exist outside of our traditional concept of policing. That is a very different and unique model.” This might be unprecedented, he adds, but that doesn’t mean that this is too radical or not thought out.
Rao says the way we’ve been policing has actually undermined public health and safety. Police respond to a wide range of incidents, often for things they don’t have the skills to handle or shouldn’t be engaged with at all. If we get police out of these situations, more people, including those who avoid contact with the police now, may actually receive the help they need.
“I think you will see, and are seeing, a recognition and fairly widespread public acceptance of that reality—that police are engaged in way too many aspects of our social life,” he says. “You can easily see . . . a pathway to shrinking police budgets simply by removing policing out of these responses, whether it’s policing in schools or policing of mental health crises or policing of domestic violence or policing vendors and vendor licenses.” The framework is already there to switch over some responsibilities; in New York City, he suggests, couldn’t the Department of Transportation manage street closures for parades and food festivals instead of NYPD?
At its core, defunding the police is about investing in the creation of “thriving and strong neighborhoods” rather than investing in arrests and the criminal justice system. Communities have been doing this slowly, and now that all eyes are on the police and their share of city budgets, we could truly align around this goal, Rao says. “In the wealthiest nation in the world,” he says, “it’s clear that we need to make an intervention around how we use our shared public resources for the betterment of all communities—particularly black communities, given our troubled and horrific history.”