It’s as straightforward as it sounds: Instead of funding a police department, a sizable chunk of a city’s budget is invested in communities, especially marginalized ones where much of the policing occurs.
Does defunding the police mean disbanding the police?
That depends on who you ask, said Philip McHarris, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Yale University and lead research and policy associate at the Community Resource Hub for Safety and Accountability.
Some supporters of divestment want to reallocate some, but not all, funds away from police departments to social services. Some want to strip all police funding and dissolve departments.
The concept exists on a spectrum, but both interpretations center on reimagining what public safety looks like, he said.
It also means dismantling the idea that police are “public stewards” meant to protect communities. Many Black Americans and other people of color don’t feel protected by police, McHarris said.
Why defund police?
McHarris says divesting funds ends the culture of punishment in the criminal justice system. And it’s one of the only options local governments haven’t tried in their attempts to end deaths in police custody.
Trainings and body cameras haven’t brought about the change supporters want.
McHarris grew up in a neighborhood where there were “real, discernible threats of gun violence,” and he said he never thought to call the police — that was for his own safety. Instead, he relied on neighbors who helped him navigate threats of danger.
What if, he said, those people could provide the same support they showed him on a full-time basis?
“That history is engrained in our law enforcement,” Bryan said.
Where would those funds go?
Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, said defunding the police means reallocating those funds to support people and services in marginalized communities.
Those dollars can be put back into social services for mental health, domestic violence and homelessness, among others. Police are often the first responders to all three, she said.
Those dollars can be used to fund schools, hospitals, housing and food in those communities, too — “all of the things we know increase safety,” McHarris said.
Why disband police?
Disbanding police altogether falls on the more radical end of the police divestment spectrum, but it’s gaining traction.
MPD150, a community advocacy organization in Minneapolis, focuses on abolishing local police. Its work has been spotlighted since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police custody.
Rather than “strangers armed with guns,” the organization says, first responders should be mental health providers, social workers, victim advocates and other community members in less visible roles.
It argues law and order isn’t abetted by law enforcement, but through education, jobs and mental health services that low-income communities are often denied. MPD150 and other police abolition organizations want wider access to all three.
Would defunding police lead to an uptick in violent crimes?
Defunding police on a large scale hasn’t been done before, so it’s tough to say.
The study defines proactive policing as the “systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations” and heightened police presence in areas where “crime is anticipated.”
That’s exactly the kind of activity that police divestment supporters want to end.
Will defunding the police come to pass?
It’s radical for an American city to operate without law enforcement, but it’s already being discussed in Minneapolis.
“We can totally reimagine what public safety means, what skills we’re recruiting for, what tools we do and don’t need,” he wrote. “We can invest in cultural competency and mental health training, de-escalation and conflict resolution.”
It’s not a significant dent in the budget, but it’s proof that officials are listening, Bryan said.
“A week ago, defunding the police in any capacity would sound like ‘pie in the sky,'” he said. “Now we’re talking about it. Defunding police in its entirety still might sound like ‘pie in the sky,’ but next week might be different.”