While smoke still billowed from buildings in Minneapolis and pepper spray choked the air from Los Angeles to New York, a movement to reshape policing coalesced around a demand conveyed in hashtags and spray paint.
“Defund the police” was a rallying cry and a policy prescription long before the killing of George Floyd ignited protests in all 50 states. But as the demonstrations continue into a third week, the once-obscure idea has gained support with the public and a number of city leaders.
In Minneapolis, nine members of the City Council agreed to dismantle the Police Department and replace it with a new system of public safety built on community input. San Francisco Mayor London Breed plans to present a budget later this summer that would redirect dollars from the police to city services that address the needs of black residents. Council members in Nashville, and Denver are debating spending proposals that would divert police funding to school coffers or alternative first responders. Portland, Oregon is moving $7 million from its Police Department to programs that benefit people of color and will disband the force’s Gun Violence Reduction team, which drew claims of disproportionately targeting young black men.
A rival set of proposals that focus on imposing more oversight and restrictions on police is also gaining traction. Congressional Democrats have advanced a bill that would ban chokeholds, create a national directory of police complaints, and end no-knock warrants like the one used by the Louisville, Kentucky, officers who shot and killed Breona Taylor. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asked whether she supports shrinking police forces, deflected. “Have those debates at the local level,” she said.
But in a short time, the defund movement has dramatically reshaped those deliberations, including in cities that aren’t moving to disassemble or downsize their departments. Police budgets have been a third rail of municipal government, rising so routinely that cumulative spending on state and local law enforcement now surpasses $115 billion a year. Even progressive mayors who campaign on police reform and racial reconciliation, like New York’s Bill de Blasio, can wind up pouring more money into their police departments while in office. Suddenly, thanks to the protests, law enforcement spending increases that were once automatic have become untenable in many city halls.
“It has become clear to people that the cities have more or less lost control of the police,” said Mark Funkhouser, a former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, who previously was that city’s auditor. “It’s not clear that the police are delivering on safety.” De Blasio, who had proposed shaving less than a half-percent of the NYPD’s spending to help balance a tight city budget, now vows to make deeper cuts and just put an additional $10 million into the Cure Violence program, which employs outreach workers to head off conflicts. Other mayors have made similar moves. Los Angeles is freezing its police budget under pressure from the community. Philadelphia’s defund movement won concessions that erased a proposed increase to police spending and will bring sweeping reforms to the department. In Washington, D.C., the mayor has so far resisted calls to slash the police budget, but activists have ignited a political battle between her and a council that pushed through its own aggressive police reforms.
“We need police departments that have to defend their rights to exist,” said Keesha Ha, a former professor at Rowan College who is organizing campaigns to defund police departments. “We don’t believe the police are serving the greater public good, so let’s see your budgets. Let’s have you explain your worth.”
Most advocates of defunding aren’t literally calling for eliminating all cops, and the slogan itself elides budget making minutiae that vary by city. The general idea is to cut off the purchases of military-grade armaments that police use to suppress dissent and spin off functions, like mental health and substance abuse calls, to other agencies or nonprofits. Critics say paring down departments will put neighborhoods with high rates of violent crime at greater risk. “We need to slow down and think about the impact on those communities,” said Anthony Barksdale, a former deputy commissioner with the Baltimore Police. “You think things are bad now in cities like Baltimore and Chicago, you take away the police, people will suffer.” Proponents counter that shrinking the scope of policing will reduce contacts between officers and civilians, in turn reducing police killings and harassment.
“‘Defund the police’ is an idea that has been percolating for years,” said Alex Vitale, professor of sociology and the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing. “There were dozens of cities that were asking cities to shift funding from policing to a range of community needs. People were already pushing for this.”
In Minneapolis, Floyd’s death was part of a pattern of police conduct. Officers there use force against black people at a rate seven times higher than they do during encounters with white people. In response to those abuses, activists have for years been pushing the city to curb its dependency on traditional policing. In 2018, the City Council cut $1 million from the police budget by not filling positions vacated by retiring officers and investing the savings in community-led gun violence prevention programs. The department responded by spending more than its allocation. For 2020, the city passed a budget that sought to appease the Minneapolis PD by adding more officers and to heed reformers by investing another $540,000 in anti-violence initiatives. After Floyd was killed, activists made it known that the half-measures were not enough.
“I think you should get rid of it, all of it,” Sagirah Shahid, a member of the advocacy group Reclaim the Block, said during a budget hearing in 2019. “Our youth are traumatized, especially our youth of color.”
Like Minneapolis, Milwaukee began scrutinizing its spending on law enforcement prior to this spring’s uprising, trimming its police budget in 2019 by limiting overtime and not filling 60 vacant positions. But Milwaukee has a homicide rate more than twice as high as Minneapolis, and calls for more dramatic reshaping of the city’s public safety spending have not persuaded elected leaders. After black activists demanded $25 million in police cuts and reinvestment last year, a coalition is now pushing to have the Milwaukee Police Department’s $297 million budget reduced by $75 million. “I would have to see where we could get the money from,” Mayor Tom Barrett told a local news station. Under its current budget, the city spends $400,000 a year on gun violence interrupters.
“Everybody thinks the police stop crime, but police don’t stop crime — they respond to crime,” Bilal Qayuum, who runs the Father’s Day Rally Committee in Philadelphia, said in an interview with The Trace. “Do we need a certain level of policing, yes. How many, I am not sure.” As it is, the city has about 6,300 sworn officers on a force with a history of violence toward civilians. A federal report found that the Philadelphia Police averaged nearly 50 officer-involved shootings from 2007 to 2014, a rate that has fallen by more than half in more recent years, according to department data.
Community gun violence has also taken a heavy tool on the city, which recorded 356 homicides in 2019, the highest total in more than a decade. Last year, Mayor Jim Kenney rolled out a blueprint for reducing the bloodshed that he declared a “new approach, markedly different than initiatives that primarily rely on policing.” His plan called for a model informed by public health, in which residents of the neighborhoods most harmed by shootings are hired to stop the spread of violence by diffusing conflicts.
Years of research indicate that police abuse can contribute to the conditions that make everyday gun violence harder to stop.
But when the economic devastation of COVID-19 starved the city of tax revenues, Kenney froze $1 million in grants to community led gun violence prevention programs and cut another $2.5 million as he slashed the new city budget that takes effect in July. Spared the axe, at least initially, was the $19 million bump Kennedy was set to give the Philadelphia Police.
After 14 members of the Philadelphia City Council signed a letter telling the mayor they would not support expanding the police budget at the expense of social services, Kenney reversed the planned increase. He also agreed to a slate of reforms that includes a more diverse police force, a permanent police oversight commission, and the creation of a position in City Hall to monitor officer misconduct. “This has been a humbling experience for me and members of my administration,” Kenney said in a statement. “Many of us have realized that, as progressive and inclusive as we think we are, we still have a lot to learn.”
City Hall has yet to renew its commitment to street outreach, however. That’s angered groups struggling to reverse rising homicides without the support Kenney had promised. “This happens in a city with all the murder and the killings,” said Dorothy Johnson-Speigth, founder of Mothers in Charge, which works with women to slow violence in Philadelphia. “Other cities across the country are investing dollars into gun violence prevention and getting results, but we don’t get that.”
To Vitale, Kenney’s about-face on funding violence prevention groups is in line with how many local officials view community-led interventions. Rather than core components of cities’ public safety strategies, gun violence interrupters are regarded as an expendable add-on to policing, subject to political whims and fluctuations in the budget.
“The attitude of too many mayors is this a bone that we can throw to a constituency when we have some extra money. It’s a type of patronage that we can toss to a group of people,” Vitale said. “When the budget is under pressure, it’s the first thing to go.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot swept into office in 2019 after an insurgent campaign during which she promised to fire police officers who commit violence or misconduct, quell gun violence, and invest in neglected neighborhoods. A former prosecutor who had headed the city’s Police Accountability Task Force, she has remained tough on police officers who step out of line, demanding the removal of officers who covered their badges and flipped off protesters during the ongoing demonstrations. But Lightfoot has also committed to increased funding for the nation’s second largest police department, whose budget grew to $1.8 billion during her first year. In the same budget, Lightfoot established a new Office of Public Safety and put $11.5 million into street outreach workers — a fraction of the $50 million that advocates hoped the city would spend to scale up programs seeded by private funders. Lightfoot is now asking city councilors to allocate a slice of Chicago’s federal coronavirus assistance to shore up violence prevention efforts. The city had its bloodiest day on record on May 31, when 18 people were killed.
In Washington, D.C., advocates found a vivid way to get their message to Mayor Muriel Bowser. After officers tear-gassed protestors on a plaza near the White House, Bowser had “Black Lives Matter” painted on the asphalt in giant yellow letters. Activists answered with their own street art, declaring “Defund the Police.”
On June 9, the D.C. Council unanimously passed an emergency bill that temporarily prohibits District police from using chokeholds and requires the swift release of officers’ names and bodycam footage following police shootings. Day earlier, a young democratic socialist won a council primary after running on a defunding platform. Bowser, who chastised the coucilmembers for pushing through the reforms without public hearings, defended the Police Department, saying it had “instituted many reforms that others are now starting to consider.” In May, she proposed a $25 million hike to the District’s police budget, which would go toward buying new cruisers, motorcycles, and “specialty support vehicles.” The spending plan would trim funding for community-based intervention programs.
Pressed on whether the protests have shifted her budget plans, Bowser told NPR, “We fund the police at the level that we need it funded. And my council has my current budget proposal in front of them to give every neighborhood in Washington, D.C., the police support that they need. And so my budget doesn’t fund it a penny more than we need, and certainly not a penny less.”
Last year, Washington, D.C., had 166 homicides, giving the city its highest murder rate in more than a decade.