You Keep Hearing 'Defund Police'—Here's What That Really Means

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

For many people, when they hear someone say “defund the police,” they immediately envision a Mad Max-type scenario — post-apocalyptic anarchal chaos, with death and danger lurking around every corner.

That’s… not what defunding the police means. Nobody is suggesting we shut down police departments tomorrow and from now on when you call 911 all you get is a dial tone.

Though there are degrees of “defunding police,” most are not calling for a complete dismantling of law enforcement. For most, the idea is to take something that up to now has been a militarized solution for the management of crime and reallocate the resources used to fund that system to services that prevent the development of crime in the first place. It’s about providing an upstream proactive solution for what has always been a downstream reaction.

Before we clarify what that looks like, let’s take a quick look at what constitutes a crime and how that intersects with our collective expectations of law enforcement.

Crime vs Policing

Here in the U.S., we criminalize or police behaviors that should not be criminal and should not intersect with policing — mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, domestic disputes (even without violence), troubled school children.

We expect police to be deescalation experts, social workers, psychologists, school resource officers, friends to the community, but also take-no-guff authority figures. We expect them to accomplish this from within a militarized system which at its very least must be able to out-gun its citizens. No easy task in a land where there are fewer people than guns.

If a decorated combat veteran suffering a PTSD-related psychotic episode can end up dead after a brutal confrontation while under police custody instead of receiving care for his illness, we can safely conclude our system isn’t working. This is not a hypothetical scenario — this happened. What if a mental health team had shown up instead, before the situation escalated out of control?

But the giant elephant in the room is that policing is racist. This is a fact. The system itself was built upon openly racist ideologies, evolved under sometimes open and sometimes slightly more covert racist ideologies, and continues to operate under a system designed to specifically target Black people. Our police system contains within it racist individuals, some openly so, many of whom could probably pass a lie detector claiming they are not racist. From top to bottom, from back to front, policing is racist.

Add to it that the environment police serve — our entire social structure — is also racist. The Black community is subject to underfunded schools due to the legacy of redlining, biased lending practices, hiring prejudice, and even substandard, prejudiced healthcare, all barriers to their financial, physical, and mental well-being.

Defunding police won’t fix all of these larger inequities (we have so much work to do), but if we reallocate funds normally funneled into what has become a militarized police system into community services designed to provide people with equity of opportunity so they may shape the life they choose, that would be a start. Because, contrary to what too many in this country would like to believe, race and crime are not correlated. Poverty and crime are. And, spoiler alert: Black communities didn’t make themselves poor. Poverty was deliberately inflicted upon those communities. Defunding police is largely about finally providing our Black community with equity of opportunity.

The system we have isn’t working for Black people. And if it isn’t working for Black people, it isn’t working for any of us.

Upstream Solutions Rather Than Downstream Reactions

MPD150 is a Minneapolis-based organization that has long been working toward abolishing local police. Law and order isn’t established via law enforcement, they say, but through education, employment, and mental health services. They point to a 2017 report that studied several weeks in 2014 and 2015 when the New York Police Department descaled “proactive policing” and discovered a sizable decrease in crime complaints during that period.

Advocates of defunding police want to opt out of investing in more and heavier armed police and instead invest in social services like mental health, homelessness, and domestic violence. Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, noted in an interview with WBUR, Boston’s public radio station, that police are typically first-responders to each of these issues. “We have an economy of punishment over an economy of care,” Cullors said.

Defunding police is about addressing problems before they begin. Poverty begets crime, and crime begets crime, so instead of overly prosecuting crimes, many of which shouldn’t be considered crimes in the first place, we need to ensure equity of opportunity. This is the goal of reallocating funds that would otherwise go to policing to social services and infrastructure that contribute to community safety, trust, and well-being.

When it comes to defunding police, where are we now?

In Minneapolis, nine members of the 13-member city council pledged at a rally to dismantle their police force, which had a budget of $189 million in 2020. Lisa Bender, the City Council president, said she hopes to reallocate those funds to other needed services.

In Austin Texas, 911 responders now ask callers whether they need police, fire, or mental health services, a change added last year as part of an overhaul of public safety aimed at better addressing mental health issues. Camden, New Jersey’s police departments underwent training that asked police to hold their fire. Eugene, Oregon has long had a system called CAHOOTS — Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets — wherein medics and crisis workers trained in deescalation are deployed to emergency calls. This program is believed to decrease the police department’s overall budget.

Black Americans do not feel served or protected by the police. We tried training and body cameras, and that changed nothing. Our current method of policing is not working.

Defunding police could divert funds from our dysfunctional police system and instead use those resources to provide upstream solutions that actually contribute to a community’s actual safety.

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