ACLU’s executive director says defunding police budgets will be his ‘North Star’ going forward

The ACLU has long fought against police misconduct and racial injustice by supporting efforts to reform the police through lawsuits against policies like stop-and-frisk and conducting investigations that expose internal corruption. But after witnessing the protests—and the police response—across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero says his organization’s main focus now will be on defunding police department budgets.

“The future is in our hands, and this is not like other crises. I’ve been the head of the ACLU for almost 20 years—I feel like I’ve seen it all. This is different,” he said while speaking on a TED2020 panel on the work to be done in opposing racism, injustice, and oppression, which aired live on Wednesday. Romero spoke to the topic alongside Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and CEO of the King Center; Phillip Goff of the Center for Police Equity; and Color of Change president Rashad Robinson.

“We don’t need another training program on racial bias or implicit bias in police departments. We don’t need to file another lawsuit on qualified immunity. We don’t need to bring another race discrimination or gender discrimination lawsuit to integrate the police department,” Romero continued. “We need to defund the budgets of these police departments. It’s the only way we’re going to take power back. And the more I’ve read over the last couple of weeks about where this country is, the more I’m clear that that is my North Star.”

That doesn’t mean the ACLU won’t take those other actions, he says. It’s always done that sort of work—especially with lawsuits directed at holding police accountable—and will continue to do so. But a root cause of these issues is outsize police budgets, which are holding strong or in some cases growing bigger even as cities slash funding for other departments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Romero pointed to the fact that nationwide, we spend $100 billion dollars on policing; in Minneapolis, 30% of the city budget goes to the police department; and that in New York City, the NYPD gets more money than homeless services, housing, preservation, and development, and the health department combined.

What will that effort from the ACLU look like? Romero gave some hints: “Bills dropped in local legislatures that cut the funding for police, stop these programs that give the federal military surplus to police departments, so they become like little mini armies,” he said. “These don’t look like police officers, these look like standing armies, and the enemy are communities of color.” The ACLU may also create report cards to grade local officials who say they support police reform but then vote to increase police budgets.

The ubiquitousness of police means that they play an outsize role in situations where they shouldn’t even be present, he says, which leads to people losing their lives over the tax on a pack of cigarettes or a possibly forged $20 bill. “Get them out of that business,” Romero said. “Let’s focus on the most important and the most serious of crime, and that’s it.”

That money currently spent police departments, he says, should instead be invested back into communities, a sentiment echoed in recent days by many activists. After calls from protestors, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced late Wednesday that he is scrapping the planned increase to the LAPD’s budget and will redirect $250 million from the entire city budget—$100-$150 million of which will come from cuts to the police department—to invest in jobs, education, and the health of LA’s black communities.

Romero doesn’t expect this change to be easy. “Make no mistake, when you go after their budgets and you start taking away their munitions and their seat at the budgeting table . . . Oh are you going to have a battle on your hands,” he said. But at this moment in history, activists say it’s one way to ensure real change.

“If we hadn’t disinvested from all the public resources that were available in communities that most needed those, then we wouldn’t need police in the first place,” said Goff, cofounder and CEO of the Center for Police Equity, who also voiced his support for defunding police during the TED2020 talk. “Many have been arguing, even more loudly recently, that we don’t, if we would just take the money that we used to punish and invest it in the promise of the genius of the community that could be there.”

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