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What does it mean to ‘defund the police’?

Protesters are demanding that police departments be defunded and abolished. How would that work and where does the idea come from?

People walk on the words ‘defund the police’ that was painted in bright yellow letters on 16th Street as demonstrators protest on Sunday, June 7, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.
Maya Alleruzzo, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — In Minneapolis, the city council wants to defund the police. In Los Angeles, the mayor wants to cut up to $150 million from the police budget and divert it to programs that help the black community. And in Salt Lake, a movement to cut police spending by $30 million is picking up steam.

All this is happening in the wake of protests that have gripped the nation and generated fierce debate about police brutality and systematic racism in policing.

Members of prominent groups such as Black Lives Matter and the ACLU say that incremental changes don’t work. They point to cities, such as Philadelphia or Los Angeles, where piecemeal reforms have been instituted and note that each year there are still more cases of unarmed black citizens being killed in the streets, in their cars, and even in their own homes.

In 2015, 104 unarmed black people were killed according to a report from Mapping Police Violence. And according to the data collected by The Washington Post, police fatally shot nearly 1,000 people last year, 23% of whom were black.

Minneapolis Council member Jeremiah Ellison tweeted, “We are going to dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response.”

As politicians begin to more seriously consider the demands of activists to defund the police, some are still wondering where the idea came from. Why do protesters want to defund the police? What does it mean? And are politicians truly on board?

What would ‘defund’ actually mean?

There are several different proposals for defunding the police across the country, but the unifying theme is reallocating funds spent on policing to social welfare programs.

“At all levels of government, the country spends roughly double on police, prisons and courts what it spends on food stamps, welfare and income supplements,” economic policy reporter Annie Lowry wrote in The Atlantic last week.

One of the first steps in defunding the police would be changing who responds to emergencies that “involve substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness or mental health,” according to an opinion editorial in The New York Times written by Phillip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris, a doctoral candidate at Yale and strategist for the Movement for Black Lives, respectively.

Instead of a police officer responding to a call about a person experiencing homelessness, a social or health care worker would show up to help. They point out that in some cities — like Dallas, social workers are already responding to 911 calls involving mental health issues.

“The only way we’re going to stop these endless cycles of police violence is by creating alternatives to policing. Because even in a pandemic where black people have been disproportionately killed by the coronavirus, the police are still murdering us,” they wrote.

Most advocates of the movement don’t want to completely eliminate police officers, according to Christy E. Lopez, director of Georgetown Law School’s Innovative Policing Program. Rather, Lopez argues in The Washington Post, “Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need.”

Some proposals recommend setting up an alternative number to 911, creating forums for nonviolent crimes where a community can decide together how best to resolve a conflict, and decriminalizing drug use and making it a public health issue instead. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drugs and its HIV infection rates and overdose deaths drastically decreased, according to The Guardian.

Why protesters don’t want to stop at reform

Calls for alternatives to policing have been in the conversation since at least 2014 during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. However, the protests of the past few weeks have pushed the idea further into the mainstream.

8 Can’t Wait,” a series of proposed police reforms proposed by Campaign Zero, an organization focused on police reform, that could be implemented immediately with little cost — from banning chokeholds to requiring deescalation, quickly went viral.

But critics of the campaign said the measures don’t go far enough and they don’t trust police departments to actually comply.

Alex S. Vitale, author of “The End of Policing,” told the Nation that “After six years of attempted police reforms, we have nothing to show for it. Even if some of these reforms were capable of working in theory, police leaders refuse to properly implement them. The only leverage that remains is to starve the beast.”

Are politicians going to meet protesters demands?

On the local level, mayors and city council members in cities like Minneapolis and Los Angeles are opening up the possibility of reducing police funding.

“Our efforts at incremental reform have failed. Period,” Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender said.

However, national politicians have been loath to openly support the call. On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign announced he did not believe the police should be defunded according to CNN.

Progressive district attorneys also have not backed the calls, The New York Times reported, nor did potential Democratic vice presidential pick Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who chose instead to focus on the disparity of police budgets with those mental health, public schools, and job creation resources in recent interviews.

On Monday, congressional Democrats released a police reform bill that included a ban on chokeholds, a provision that would make it easier to prosecute police officers who kill someone, and would stop the distribution of military equipment to police forces.

However, the bill did not include a plan to reduce police budgets, according to NBC.

In Salt Lake City, Chief Mike Brown told the Deseret News, “Now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions. Now is the time to listen, learn and bring all parties to the table in order to ensure equity of change.” Brown is among the police chiefs calling for “evidence-based” reforms to policing.

But for some, that may not be enough.

As Patrisse Cullors, Black Lives Matter co-founder, told WBUR, “We have allowed, the public has allowed, for us to have militarized police forces in our communities and we have to stop it.”