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Growing calls to “defund the police,” explained

Calls to restrict police funding have grown with protests and GOP-imposed austerity.

Police detain demonstrators for being in the street during a protest on May 30 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Amid the anti-police brutality protests across the country, a once-obscure slogan is gaining traction: Defund the police.

The Working Families Party, an institutionalized progressive movement anchored on the left flank of the Democratic Party, especially in New York, and the Sunrise Movement, a climate-focused left-wing youth organization, tweeted the call on May 31.

A three-word slogan is not a detailed policy agenda, and not everyone using the slogan agrees on the details. The basic idea, though, is less that policing budgets should be literally zeroed out than that there should be a massive restructuring of public spending priorities.

Brian Highsmith, writing in the American Prospect, calls for “significant, permanent reductions to existing policing and carceral infrastructures.” Sarah Jones in New York magazine says that in the contemporary United States, “the punitive impulse [the police] embody saturates nearly every facet of American life,” where officers “take the place of social workers and emergency medical personnel and welfare caseworkers, and when they kill, we let them replace judges and juries, too.”

This idea in its most grandiose forms seems unlikely to win the day. But as mainstream Democrats try to respond to the protests and the swirl of vandalism and police misconduct that’s surrounded them, they are likely to find themselves confronted with questions about police budgets.

The idea might be dismissed as politically untenable or lacking public policy backing. But it interacts in a potent way with the other crisis of the moment — the Covid-19 pandemic, which has pushed state and local government budgets into crisis.

Before Floyd’s death, Democrats had a clear position on these crises: Congress should appropriate huge sums of money, as provided for in the HEROES Act, to prevent layoffs of teachers, firefighters, cops, librarians, and other local government workers. But with Senate Republicans blocking action on state budget relief, someone is going to get laid off. And many criminal justice reform activists are bold about saying it should be the police.

What “defunding” police means in practice

In congressional budget-speak, to “defund” something normally means to reduce appropriations to zero dollars, thus eliminating it.

And there are people, like Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale, who favor police abolition. In practice, however, while Vitale supports legalizing a wide range of currently illegal activity, he still envisions things like “sex work that’s regulated just like any other business.” At some level, the way business regulation works is that if you’re sufficiently defiant of the rules, the police will lock you up. And under questioning from Mother Jones’s Madison Pauly, Vitale is cagey about questions like how we are going to handle murders in a zero-police society.

Police abolitionists are proposing a scaling-back of the scope of police activities that is far outside the horizon of current political possibility, so they may not articulate the most fine-grained details.

The “defund” slogan dances ambiguously between abolition-type schemes and just saying officials should spend less money on policing at the margins. The Black Lives Matters #DefundThePolice explainer page argues that “law enforcement doesn’t protect or save our lives. They often threaten and take them.” By contrast, a Justin Brooks op-ed at the Appeal titled “Defund the Police Now” is an extended argument for spending somewhat less money on crime control and somewhat more on social services, as a win-win resulting in less crime, less punishment, and less police violence against civilians.

New York state Sen. Julia Salazar, similarly, describes herself as an advocate of defunding the police, by which she means shifting some money into social services:

I think we need to consider a divest/invest model. When we look at their resources, and how they’re deploying them violently and recklessly, it makes the case even stronger for reducing their budget, and then using those funds for social services, and specifically for things that New Yorkers would want the police to do but the police are not currently doing: harm reduction, community-based public safety.

In the day-to-day of politics, there are always arguments about the details of municipal budget priorities. In that sense, “defunding” the police is more of an effort to convince the public and the political system to shift its priorities.

Historically, police are popular

In Gallup’s annual polls of public confidence in institutions, “the police” rank high — below the military and small businesses — with ratings that soar above the Supreme Court, newspapers, Congress, or other entities that might check them.

Confidence in policing appears to be in gradual long-term decline, and Gallup does these polls every June, so we don’t yet know if the most recent unrest will change opinions. But historically, the police have been a potent force politically, which helps explain why police unions are politically powerful even as they take stands that tend to be at odds with the racially progressive views of the big cities where they often work.

Gallup

Similarly, when Vox and Civis Analytics polled this question in the winter of 2018-2019, large majorities of Americans of all racial groups expressed a favorable opinion of their local police department and were supportive of the idea of appropriating money to hire more police officers and dispatch them to high-crime neighborhoods.

A 2015 Gallup poll showed that among African Americans, those who feel they’ve been treated unfairly by the police are more likely than those who don’t to favor an increased police presence in their neighborhood.

These views about policing may change in response to recent protests and police violence. But the 2015 poll suggests that many African Americans view inadequate protection and inadequate service levels as part of the larger pattern of mistreatment.

Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy’s 1998 book Race, Crime, and the Law argues that underpolicing of black neighborhoods and underprotection of black crime victims is a critical but underconsidered dimension of racial inequity in the United States.

Jill Leovy’s more recent book, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, documents a vicious cycle. Clearance rates for serious crimes like murder are much lower in black neighborhoods, creating a situation in which black civilians don’t feel that it’s safe to cooperate with the police. That frustrates police officers and makes it difficult to clear cases. Black civilians then encounter police presence primarily in the form of aggressive enforcement of small-bore infractions, rather than as protecting people from serious violence.

A strain of thought among black Americans appears to have been more in line with those kinds of narratives than with radical police abolitionism. And that created a terrain in which the clear political safe space for Democrats was to push for better policing, rather than less policing.

Protesters want big change

The current round of demonstrations was set off by the killing of George Floyd, an incident of police misconduct so egregious that most everyone in American politics has denounced it.

But while former officer Derek Chauvin is under arrest, the protests are tackling a wide array of diffuse grievances related to race and policing. Police officers in turn have in many cases responded to the protests by acting less as neutral public servants than as well-equipped counterprotesters, using the cover of law and occasional looting incidents to mount a broad crackdown on public protest.

In the face of both long-simmering anger and the radicalization dynamic set off by abusive police conduct in the face of protest, it’s natural that many people would like to rally behind a big idea and an eschatological vision of change, rather than a laundry list of incremental reforms.

Police officers, police chiefs, and police unions, meanwhile, have been fairly clear that they don’t think there’s any kind of problem that merits any discussion of solutions. Most voters have mixed feelings, and say that while protester grievances are merited, they also like their local police. But those who don’t like their local police want a big gesture of accountability.

“Defund the police” fits the bill, especially because the Covid-19 pandemic has made some kind of major reworking of budget priorities essentially inevitable.

State and local budgets are in crisis

Economic downturns always hurt state and local government budgets.

But the widespread business closures of this spring were a particularly intense and devastating form of downturn. And certain forms of activity that tend to be particularly highly taxed — in particular, drinking in bars, staying in hotels, and renting cars — is likely to stay depressed for a long time even under very optimistic pandemic scenarios.

The result is that politicians are now facing tough budgetary trade-offs. The decision that mayors in even liberal cities like Los Angeles and New York were making as of early May was to propose deep cuts in essentially every major category except the police.

But it’s not as though huge cuts in youth services, housing, public health, or education are popular, either. Even in a world where broad ideological hostility to spending money on police departments is relatively rare, a situation in which cutting police spending is the only way to save funding for other agencies naturally creates a broader coalition for spending less on the cops.

We don’t yet really know what national opinion thinks of the protests and disorder that have engulfed the country since those initial proposals were made. But we do know that there’s a widespread sentiment in left-of-center circles — see my colleagues Dylan Scott and Ezra Klein for illustrative examples — that police departments’ conduct during the past week has mostly reflected poorly on them.

You might expect big cities whose electorates are well left of center to consider a more equitable distribution of budget cuts. There’s a huge difference between “cut the police budget somewhat because all agencies are facing cuts because of the pandemic” and a broad mandate to “defund the police.” But police abolitionist rhetoric that would have been a total nonstarter in February has some real bite in June.

It is, however, worth emphasizing that the budget crisis is something the federal government could easily avoid.

We have better choices than this

If you look at expert recommendations for improving policing in the United States, calls for broad-based budget cuts are often not on the list. And by the same token, the evidence that putting more cops on the beat helps reduce crime is fairly overwhelming.

That said, slashing spending on schools or parks or transportation isn’t good policy either.

When the overall labor market is robust, cutting back on wasteful or ineffective government services can be broadly helpful because it helps reallocate resources to more productive sectors of the economy. What’s happening right now, however, is that the unemployment rate is about 20 percent. Anyone furloughed from working in a library or a rec center or a fire department or a school or a police department adds to the ranks of the jobless.

At the same time, the interest rate paid on federal debt is currently less than the overall rate of price inflation — meaning Congress can essentially borrow money for less than nothing.

The obvious economic policy solution would be to follow House Democrats’ proposal to send huge sums of money to state and local governments, allowing them to avoid making big cuts at a sensitive time. Then reforms to police procedures — different training, different enforcement priorities, more transparency and accountability — could be discussed as a life-or-death matter about the security of communities, rather than as a desperate scramble for scarce funding. Senate Republicans, however, insist they don’t want to deliver aid on large scale, which is going to force jurisdictions everywhere into sharp cuts to something — likely including police departments along with everything else.