Amid protests against police brutality and systemic racism, there’s a nationwide rallying cry: “Defund the police.” .
According to supporters, defunding the police is part of a solution to fixing police brutality and racial injustice.
Depending on who you ask, the answer may be different. Some supporters advocate for abolishing entire police departments. But most say it’s about reallocating money away from police departments and putting it toward social services, and reexamining the role police play in society.
“ Public safety isn’t just policing,” says Bryan Mercer, executive director of the Movement Alliance Project. “Meanwhile, we have cops that are effectively made to do the job that social workers, health-care professionals, and community organizations should do, without the training.”
For many, this fight is not about eliminating the police force but about reimagining it. Do all 911 calls warrant a police response? Are there times where unarmed social workers could deescalate a mental health crisis instead of using armed police officers? Instead of police, should it be housing counselors and mental health workers who help people experiencing homelessness? These are the kinds of questions advocates are pushing city government to consider.
“It’s about changing the way we understand which human behaviors should be targeted by police, such as robbery, rape, and murder, and which ones should be targeted by increased social services and social spending, such as homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness, and which ones should be tolerated, decriminalized, or otherwise ignored,” says Matt Wray, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University.
Advocates want to tackle crime and mental health at their root. They want to see an increase in resources for job training to decrease the city’s poverty level, and housing for those who can’t afford it. They want counselors to take precedence over police in schools where budgets are tight.
“Crime is not random. It’s due to the lack of education, the lack of jobs,” says Kevin M. Moseby, assistant teaching professor of sociology at Drexel University. “If communities have the right social infrastructure, they wouldn’t be getting into situations where police are serving in places where they shouldn’t really be.”
Police aren’t trained social workers, nor should they be, says Moseby. Real change, he says, comes from building up the community so that to an extent, the community polices itself.
“This isn’t anarchy or a call to let violent activity run amok,” says Moseby. “This is about providing resources that will actually make us safer and healthier as a society.”
Police reform efforts, like training and body cameras, aren’t enough, say advocates, and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are evidence.
“George Floyd’s violent death was a breaking point — an all-too-familiar reminder that for black people law enforcement doesn’t protect or save our lives,” Black Lives Matter wrote on its #DefundThePolice page. “We demand investment in our communities and the resources to ensure black people not only survive, but thrive.”
Some are: Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti recently agreed to slash between $100 million and $150 million from proposed police funding, and New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to move some police funding to youth and social services.
In Portland, Ore., police officers will no longer serve in high schools. And in April, the mayor of Chicago gave $7.5 million to local groups working to reduce violence.
Few Philly activists expect a response like Minneapolis, where city council vowed to disband the police force, whose officers were responsible for the death of George Floyd. Minneapolis has not yet addressed what a new law enforcement system may look like.
But just over the river, Camden shows what can happen when a city dismantles its police force and starts over. In 2013, a county-run police force was created, training new officers in deescalation tactics and community policing. And since then, violent crime has dropped. That’s not to say Camden’s system can’t be improved. There was minimal public input, which advocates say isessential for dissolving trust issues. The county police force also remains whiter than the city it serves.
Still, some believe it’s a good start, and many residents say the department has improved relationships with the community. For other cities to follow Camden’s model, however, it often means fighting powerful police unions and pro-police legislators.
One-sixth of the city’s annual operating budget goes to the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD), the nation’s fourth largest force, employing more than 6,300 officers. For the 2020 fiscal year that ends June 30, the PPD’s budget was $741.2 million. With cost overruns, that went up to $748.6 million. Since 2016, it’s increased by about $120 million.
On Tuesday, after days of protesting, Mayor Jim Kenney announced he’s scrapping a $19 million budget increase he proposed for the 2021 fiscal year, which drew strong criticism from both activists and Council members. A budget must be approved by June 30.
“The police want $760 million at the same time that the pandemic is causing major cuts for social services, our parks, rec centers, our libraries,” says Kris Henderson, executive director of the Amistad Law Project.
“Is Philly’s police budget for next year going to go to zero dollars? No, but could there be significant cuts.”
Kenney said he wants to review policies on gun use, discipline, and civilian oversight. Activists say the changes need to go much deeper.
“We have to unwind this system we have built, and the best leverage we have to do that is in how we budget and allocate tax dollars. It will have to be accompanied by shifts in policies ... to return policing efforts to where they rightfully belong — that is in protecting all citizens from violent offenders,” says Wray.
One question for social scientists, Wray says, is: Will defunding help reduce anti-black violence by police?