Defund the police! The rallying cry that not only spread to seemingly every corner of America, but to every corner of the world. But what does it actually mean? You’ve probably heard it a million times by now, but what exactly does the policy recommend?
Maybe you think it calls for completely abolishing the police force, reallocating the funds and creating a new system, from the ground up. Maybe you think it means just reallocating some or most of such funding but keeping the same system. However, both are wrong. According to a video on the official Black Lives Matter website, an organization that has become well known for protesting and using catchphrases, defunding the police really means taking a portion (in some cases, just 5%) of local law enforcement’s budget and putting that money into public education, mental health services, and restorative services.
If you thought it meant something different, you’re definitely not alone. When Americans were asked by ABC News whether or not they supported defunding the police, 64% opposed while 34% said they supported the idea. But when PerryUndem researchers asked if Americans thought a portion of taxpayer money currently going to the police department should be directed to other services, such as mental health, 72% supported the idea. So there's definitely a disconnect as to what people think the phrase means and to what it actually does.
Where does this phrase originally come from? Defunding the police is not a new idea. Ideas like these, although never fully entering the public consciousness, were actually thought of long ago. For example, in the early 1900’s, W.E.B. Du Bois, the famous African American writer and civil rights activist, often wrote about police brutality and what can and should be done to stop it. He believed that the only way for African Americans to be treated fairly and equally in America was for institutions that directly impeded them to be either radically reformed or removed. Although widely read about, the idea never really materialized.
In the late 1960’s, members of the Black Panther Party, a now disbanded but previously highly influential racial-justice political organization, were some of the first people to physically act out against police brutality. In Oakland, California, they engaged in ‘copwatching’; they would arm themselves and observe the actions of police officers. This seemingly peaceful action often turned violent and it resulted in a rise of police fatalities by 39%. The then governor, now former president, Ronald Reagan, responded by passing the Mulford act, which repealed a law that allowed people to carry loaded firearms in public. After this, the issue failed to garner further national attention, and though it never really went away, it was no longer at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.
The deaths of Eric Garner in 2014, who was choked to death by a police officer after being caught illegally selling cigarettes on the side of the road, and twelve year old Tamir Rice also in 2014, who was shot by police at a park after someone called about a young boy playing with a “gun”, resulted in big protests for a couple of weeks, until they subsequently faded out of the news. But these protests, it turns out, were only a taste of what was to come. There was to be one name, one story that was going to throw the nation into months of protests. George Floyd.
On May 25, 2020 was caught a forty six year-old African-American man was arrested for attempting to use a counterfeit bill. Following a brief struggle with officers, Floyd was shoved onto the ground on his stomach. Now former officer Derek Michael Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s neck. For eight minutes and forty six seconds, Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd called for his mother who had died a few years earlier and was repeatedly heard saying “I can't breathe.” After, Floyd was rushed to the hospital, but died because of “asphyxia due to compression of the neck.”
George Floyd’s killing and the gruesome video that captured it caught the nation by surprise. The desperation of his pleas for air made people finally understand the gravity of the situation, more than just hearing about it on the news. Protests swept, and continue to sweep, across the country, and you still can’t go a day without hearing about them on the news. Most protestors want major police reform and in some cases abolition. The police reform for which they advocate includes increased training and defunding the police. But will these police reforms have the outcome that they’re hoping for?
In Camden, New Jersey, it appears that they did. In 2012, Camden completely disbanded their police department, firing all workers and rehiring only forty percent of them. They redirected a lot of the funds back into the community and also made sure that police officers were way more directly involved with the people they were protecting. They now do things like knock on doors, introduce themselves, and hand out business cards, offering help whenever and wherever it is needed. Since these changes, the crime rate has dropped by 50% and the murder rate has dropped by 70%. Although this is clearly an impressive accomplishment for any city and police department, it is just one example of a city that defunded their police force. What happened in Vallejo, California resulted in a completely different outcome.
Twelve years ago in Vallejo, California, a relatively large town in the San Francisco Bay Area, officials decided to defund their police department. Although it pleased protestors, it was done for a more practical reason than the ones that they were led to believe. After the financial crisis of 2008, Vallejo was not able to pay its bills, which forced it to file for bankruptcy. Therefore, with little money, they cut their police force by nearly 50% (150 officers down to fewer than 80). The town was facing high crime rates at the time, and the community had hostile feelings towards the police and the budget cuts. Soon, there was a dramatic increase in officers using deadly force. In their town from 2009 to now, there were twenty fatal police shootings. Six of them alone occurred in 2012. That’s thirty percent! Danté R. Quick, a baptist pastor from Vallejo, was quoted saying “Our police department is woefully ‘defunded’ — which has led to overworked, underpaid and therefore under qualified police officers. Do I really want a man or woman who’s worked 16 hours straight, with a gun in their hand, with state-sanctioned ability to take my life, who is tired — do I want that person authorized to police me? The answer to that is no.”
So while defunding the police can go well, like in Camden, it can also go badly, like in Vallejo. So it is nearly impossible to answer the questions “Does it actually work?” and “Is defunding the police effective?” For the moment, all we can do is base our judgements on the limited examples that we have. If more cities with varied demographics tried it, then, and only then, would I or anyone else be able to give you an answer to that question. As in science, the only way to get a definitive answer is through experimentation. I leave you with a quote from Dan Brown, the American author of books such as the Da Vinci code, who said, “What we don’t understand, we fear. What we fear, we judge as evil. What we judge as evil, we attempt to control. And what we cannot control…we attack.”