There is a lot of discussion across the United States about police work – more specifically, about re-imagining how police work is done. That conversation (and that action) is necessary, critically so, and long, long overdue.
As part of that discussion, you may have heard the phrase “defund the police.” You may have even seen the hashtag #DefundThePolice.
Were you struck by that? Did you dismiss it as some radical way-out-there idea? Did you pooh-pooh it as a passing fad? Or, did you embrace it? Did you chant it, put it on a sign?
Here’s the problem: As a new idea and a new slogan, there are lots of misperceptions about it, and some meanings are pushed by people with bad intentions.
Because there is so much misinformation out there about it, AND because it is a slogan with some important ideas behind it, we thought it would be worthwhile to do an explainer about it.
(And note: This is a fairly high-level overview. For a deeper dive, check out some of the resources at the end of this explainer.)
Does this mean doing away with police forces completely?
In most cases, no. There will still be laws, so we will still need law enforcement. As one article says, “This does not mean zeroing out the police budget.”
Note, though, that one city (Minneapolis) is considering completely “dismantling” their current police force, and rebuilding it from the ground up. You could call that “doing away with,” or you could call it “reimagining” (see next section).
And, there is also a call to #AbolishThePolice. This movement basically believes that policing cannot be reformed or re-imagined, and that we have to build a society where public safety does not involve police and prisons. (This article is not going to get into this separate policy proposal, but wanted to include it because it’s relevant to the discussion. See the Resources for more.)
Does this mean re-thinking, re-imagining, re-designing what policing should look like and how it should be practiced?
Absolutely. The combination of various law-and-order movements and the so-called “war on drugs” has produced a culture in many police forces that has degenerated into “us versus them” – and “them” includes many non-police groups, but especially people of color and the poor.
And by the way, this is not a new problem. Five years ago, President Obama formed a task force on “21st Century Policing.” In their final report, the very first recommendation under the first pillar is this:
Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian mindset to build public trust and legitimacy. Toward that end, police and sheriffs’ departments should adopt procedural justice as the guiding principle for internal and external policies and practices to guide their interactions with the citizens they serve.
Go google “police and guardians not warriors” and you will come up with source after source urging police to be guardians and not warriors. It’s time for those recommendations, and most or all of the Obama report, to be actually implemented.
Does this mean taking away some work now done by police and assigning it to other agencies and services?
Definitely. We ask both too little and too much of our police:
- too little, in terms of expecting them to have a culture of guardian and not warrior, of knowing de-escalation techniques, of resorting to force last instead of early;
- and too much, when we ask them to deal with the homeless, the mentally ill, domestic disputes, neighbor disputes, and other situations not involving serious law-breaking.
Why should we call the police to deal with the homeless schizophrenic outside our shop who is off his medication? Why would we not instead call a trained social worker, perhaps even that person’s case worker, to come work with them and get them into a safe place?
Calling 911 is supposed to be for emergencies or for crimes in progress. It’s not there for you to call when your neighbor is getting on your nerves.
Does this mean moving money out of police budgets and into other budgets?
For sure. This is where the “defund” comes from: calls to reduce police department budgets and re-allocate that money to social services. How will we re-allocate the work if we don’t re-allocate the money?
And it’s also a call for re-evaluating our priorities. Why do we spend more and more on policing even as we cut schools and social services? Why would we increase the budgets for police departments when we are looking at budget cuts for everyone else? In the end, what does that say about our priorities?
Is #DefundThePolice a cheap slogan that makes a good meme, or is it a call to systemic change?
That’s up to you. You can chant it, put it on a sign, make fun of it, get mad about it, or ignore it as a passing fad.
Or, you can engage with it. Dig into it, dig into the issues it represents, and do the hard work of being a citizen in a democracy. Listen, learn, speak up, engage.
It’s time to change our policing in this country. We all know it. Let’s all of us, then, be part of the conversation.
The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (PDF) – Serious and in-depth set of research and recommendations. Frankly, should be the starting point for any lawmaker wanting to do something about policing in America.
Defund the police? Here’s what that really means. (Article) – Washington Post article from the director of Georgetown Law School’s Innovative Policing Program. Goes into “abolish the police” as well.
Growing calls to “defund the police,” explained (Article) – Vox’s explainer on the phrase and what it means.
What a world without cops would look like (Article) – Interview with Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale, who advocates for abolishing the police.
Graphic to share – I found this in a conversation about #DefundThePolice, and I thought it was a good quick read on it. Feel free to share. (I’ve not been able to nail down the source; if you know, please contact me so I can give the proper attribution.)