What Does “Defund The Police” Actually Mean?

The slogan "Defund The Police" means different things to different activists. Let's take a look at what reform, divest/invest, and abolition actually mean.
Demonstrator at a George Floyd protest holding up a Defund the Police sign on June 5, 2020 – (Taymaz Valley/Creative Commons)

Demonstrator at a George Floyd protest holding up a Defund the Police sign on June 5, 2020 – (Taymaz Valley/Creative Commons)

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An idea many shudder at without a second thought, “Defund the Police” is neither simple nor new. People have been talking about it for decades.

Take, for instance, activist and scholar Angela Davis, who said in a June 12th interview, “Defunding the police is not simply about withdrawing funding for law enforcement and doing nothing else. And it appears as if this is the rather superficial understanding that has caused Biden to move in the direction he’s moving in.”

So, let’s avoid the superficial. “Let’s just start by saying what we mean,” says poet, activist, and educator Joseph Capehart, “and not conflating ideas to make it more palatable for people.”

There are three major actions in this movement: Reform, Defund, and Abolish.

Reform

“Continue spending money on the police but institute positive change.”

Strategies for this are outlined in the “Justice in Policing Act,” which Congressional Democrats have proposed on Capitol Hill. Directly regarding police departments, it calls for developing “a national standard for use of force,” limiting police use of military weapons, establishing a national police misconduct registry and, most poignantly, banning the use of chokeholds and “no-knock” warrants, which led to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

It also calls for the ending of qualified immunity, which has protected police from accountability for decades. There are a litany of other suggested reforms activists have called for that have yet to be put into legislation that would decrease the power of police unions at the local level and go further than the reforms the Obama Administration implemented at the federal level (and Trump undid).

At the state level, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed police reform measures June 12th – ones that had been on the back burner but now “moved with new urgency.” The measures ban chokeholds, incentivize calling the police only with solid reasoning, make police records more transparent, and establish a special prosecutor’s office “to investigate the deaths of people during and following encounters with police officers.” Reverend Al Sharpton supported the reforms, and spoke at the signing.

Any department of the state’s 500+ that fails to accommodate the reforms by April 2021, Cuomo said, will no longer receive state funding.

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Defund (Divest/Invest)

“Reallocate police funds to other community organizations, thereby spending less money on the police.”

“Where reformists allocate focus and care to the police departments,” explains Capehart, “those who want to defund the police shift that focus and care to the community itself, hopefully lowering the need for police intervention and, subsequently, lowering opportunities for any abuse of power.”

Joe Biden wrote in an op-ed last week in that he would support funding police departments an additional $300 million. The logic? “I’ve long been a firm believer in the power of community policing — getting cops out of their cruisers and building relationships with the people and the communities they are there to serve and protect.”

But defunders challenge Biden here, pointing to failed reforms of the past as their rebuttal. Instead of spending more on the police, they say, defunding should lead the society towards the divest/invest model. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) summarizes the plan, which envisions “significantly reducing the excessive budgets of the police and redistributing them to programs that have been underfunded in Black and Brown communities for decades, including schools, affordable housing, and healthcare options.”

Divest/invest takes into account the fact that the police are often called in on situations they aren’t trained for, such as mental health issues, drug use, and conflicts involving the homeless. Activist and organizer Mariame Kaba writes, “The first thing to point out is that police officers don’t do what you think they do. They spend most of their time responding to noise complaints, issuing parking and traffic citations, and dealing with other noncriminal issues. We’ve been taught to think they ‘catch the bad guys,’” but this is a myth.

The police are expected to be authority figures in whatever situations they’re called in for, and are therefore overworked in situations they don’t understand. And a lack of understanding sometimes leads to unnecessary violence.

Abolish

“The old reforms didn’t work, so let’s completely end policing as we know it, but over time.”

Onto Kaba again. In her June 12th oped, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” she says it all in the title. But she doesn’t say it would be easy or quick.

And we should go deeper into the why, again to avoid superficial understanding – precisely what Trump is exploiting left and right. He’s alarming Americans with accusations of anarchy in the same way he’s alarmed Americans with the country’s loose, disassociated understanding of socialism – “to fight on the ground of white fears.”

As political analyst John Avlon writes, “With less than 150 days to the election, Trump will continue to try and slash and burn his way to a narrow electoral — rather than popular — vote victory. But the fact he’s abandoned his socialist attacks, at least for now, shows some belated, self conscious awareness that Joe Biden’s nomination and the combined Covid-19 and economic crises have him backed into a corner — which is precisely where he is most dangerous.”

And here’s a tweet of Trump retweeting himself.

So, what is abolishing the police, and how? Why?

Let’s work backwards.

Why: Kaba writes, “[E]fforts to solve police violence through liberal reforms…have failed for nearly a century.”

When Obama’s administration concluded its task force on 21st Century Policing, it recommended some changes, such as implicit bias training. But Kaba notes what Tracey Meares, a member of that task force, said in 2017: “policing as we know it must be abolished before it can be transformed.”

“Abolition,” said Andrea Ritchie, author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, “is a process of building, a process of creation, a process of reimagination.” Trump’s cries at anarchy have no ground here. “We are not proposing to abandon our communities to violence. We are naming policing as a form of violence that we all experience.”

How: Instead of funding the police, they say, the society would “redirect the billions” towards “providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place,” writes Kaba. She also discusses the creation of specific committees to do mental health checks and restorative-justice models. A community model.

Let’s address a question that comes up a lot: “Well, what about rape?”

Both Kaba and Ritchie discuss this and find that most rapists don’t go through the criminal justice system, that many survivors who file claims report unsatisfactory police response and follow-up, and that the police themselves have been perpetrators of sexual violence “alarmingly often.”

It’s clear that the police aren’t the ultimate protection against sex crimes. In Ritchie’s words, “People say, ‘What about sexual violence, and what about domestic violence?’…The people who are advocating defund police and abolish police are, for the most part, black women, girls, trans and gender nonconforming people. Many of us are survivors of all those forms of violence.”

What: Abolishing the police isn’t clearly outlined, and can’t be; the current societal conditions won’t allow for it. It would need to be developed over time.

But, in general, it would look like this: instead of calling on the police, communities would call on specific task forces and try suspected criminals through a new justice system.

The Real Alarm: The USA is riding a sea change in societal thinking, about everything from healthcare to justice.

“As a society,” Kaba writes, “we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.” But what, she asks, “would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all?”

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