Across the United States, protests demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racism have featured a common rallying cry: “Defund the police.”
It is an argument that activists have been making for years, but it has gained new momentum following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and in response to the violent tactics that police forces have used against protesters in cities across the country.
Now, the idea is being considered by the leaders of major US cities, including New York and Los Angeles, and it has become an issue in the US presidential race.
What does it mean to ‘defund the police’?
Proponents of the idea argue that racism is a structural feature of America’s police forces, and that the huge amount of money spent on police each year should instead be diverted to areas like education, public health and social services, which have been chronically underfunded.
“It is important to remember that modern-day policing has its roots in slave catching. These systems were created to hunt, maim and kill Black people,” Kailee Scales, managing director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, told HuffPost.
“As we have seen in the example of George and many others in this month alone, the police are a force of violence that profiles, harasses and inflicts harm on Black communities without accountability – and with far too many resources.”
The amount of money spent on police is striking. Collectively, the United States spends $100bn every year on policing, or $1tn in the past decade.
By contrast, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual budget for dealing with infectious diseases is just $2.55bn.
The average state spending on higher education rose less than 6% between 1986 and 2013, while the average spending on policing increased by 141%, according to a 2018 analysis.
Although budgets for policing exist on the federal and state levels, the majority of funds spent on policing come from US local authorities, through tax revenue.
Councillors and candidates have typically shied away from the topic of defunding the police, for fear of being labelled as soft on law and order. However, a local Washington, DC election recently proved that candidates who want to defund the police can win city council posts that give them direct power over police funding.
“We need and demand deep investment in education, employment programmes, and real, meaningful and equitable universal healthcare,” Scales said. “We need to divest from police in public schools and invest in more teachers and counsellors. We need to divest from the criminalisation of mental health and provide mental health and restorative services.”
What about other police reforms?
On Monday, Democrats in Congress introduced legislation aimed at addressing police misconduct, which offers incentives for racial bias training and places restrictions on the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local police forces.
Activists have argued that such changes aren’t enough, however. Miski Noor, a member of the Minneapolis-based Black Visions Collective, said the idea of defunding the police gained traction after earlier reforms, including training on de-escalating confrontations and recognising implicit racial biases, failed to produce structural change.
This week, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council announced that it would dismantle the city’s police department.
“Decades of police reform efforts have proved that the Minneapolis Police Department cannot be reformed and will never be accountable for its action,” the city council said jointly at a rally on Sunday. “We are here today to begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department and creating a new transformative model for cultivating safety in our city.”
Other cities are following suit. In Los Angeles, city officials have proposed cutting up to $150m from the police department’s $3bn budget, as part of a broader wave of spending cuts. Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Democrat, said the goal was to free up money “so we can invest in jobs, in health, in education and in healing”.
In New York, city council members pushed back against Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans to cut the police budget by less than 1% while slashing youth services by a third. Council members instead proposed a 5% to 7% cut for all agencies, including police.
One city official, Scott Stringer, has proposed a more sweeping overhaul, saying the city could save more than $1bn over four years by reducing the number of police officers and cutting overtime. He proposed the savings be put towards “social workers, counsellors, community-based violence interrupters and other trained professionals”.
What would police cuts do to crime levels?
Critics argue that defunding the police could lead to a rise in crime. “There will be a backlash as you see crime go up,” Houston police chief Art Acevedo, who also serves as president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, told the Reuters news agency.
“Police, in all forms, have been a way to keep property safe, and keep a subsection of society safe, but it hasn’t kept all communities safe and healthy,” Joseph said. “We have to break that notion apart that police equals safety.”
Moreover, police have taken on responsibilities that go far beyond crime prevention, which would be better handled by trained social service providers, reformers argue.
“We over-rely on police to handle a range of social problems that they are simply incapable of addressing,” Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and current associate law professor at the University of South Carolina, said.
“They don’t have the expertise, the training, the equipment, the organisational capacity to deal effectively with mental illness or poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, school discipline – a whole range of things that we socially have made police issues.”
The current protests also highlight the fact that, far from fulfilling their sworn duty to protect the public, police officers often represent a threat to the lives of American citizens.
What do politicians say?
US politicians are coming under increasing pressure to address the issue of defunding the police.
Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey was booed at a protest on Saturday after he refused to commit to defunding the city’s police department. Demonstrators chanted: “Go home, Jacob. Go home!”
The idea has even become an issue in the presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Biden met the family of George Floyd this week, and he has been sharply critical of Trump for stoking racial divisions and encouraging police violence against protesters.
But he said this week that, while he acknowledges the need to address racial injustice, and supports police reform efforts, he was not in favour of defunding the police.
“No, I don’t support defunding the police,” Biden said in an interview on Monday. “I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honourableness.”
Trump, by contrast, has sought to portray himself as a law-and-order president who will protect the country from violent extremists.
On Monday, the president met law enforcement officials at the White House and praised them as “great, great people”.
“There won’t be defunding,” Trump said. “There won’t be dismantling of our police. There’s not going to be any disbanding of our police.”
With reporting from HuffPost US and Reuters.