The movement to defund police has won historic victories across the US. What's next?

August 15, 2020
Sam Levin

In the days after the killing of George Floyd, an extraordinary wave of mass protests erupted across the US, with demonstrators setting fire to police buildings and cars, shutting down freeways and bridges and storming city halls and neighborhoods.

Amid familiar chants of Black Lives Matter, a new slogan emerged: “Defund the police.”

In Minneapolis where Floyd was killed, those cries had swift and dramatic impact, with councilmembers making a historic pledge on 7 June to entirely dismantle the troubled local police department, declaring at an emotional rally their “commitment is to end policing as we know it”.

That was just the start. In the past two months, a dozen municipal governments voted in favor of proposals that they say will reduce their local law enforcement budgets by a total of more than $1.4bn, including in major US cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

The defunding votes included proposals to remove police as responders for “non-criminal” calls, homeless services, traffic enforcement, mental health emergencies, substance abuse, public transit and other areas of social service that advocates have long argued do not merit armed law enforcement responses.

School officials in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Denver, Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and Philadelphia also followed Minneapolis’ lead, voting to reduce police presence in schools or completely end contracts with local law enforcement agencies.

The cuts mark a significant reversal in American politics, where police budgets have for decades consistently expanded, with governments hiring more officers to respond to all sorts of social challenges, passing laws that criminalize poverty and building larger jails and prisons. The shift is a testament to this year’s sustained protests and the long-term work of Black Lives Matter groups.

The fine print of some of the defunding proposals adopted so far, however, has yielded mixed reactions from activists, including criticisms that the changes are only cosmetic reforms meant to appease protesters, and that the scale of the divestment so far has been minuscule relative to activist proposals.

The movement has also sparked aggressive backlash from some police chiefs and unions, including high-profile resignations, reports of organized “sick-outs” by officers to protest the changes, and unsubstantiated and false claims linking defunding votes to a rise in crime.

“It’s a huge and substantial shift,” said Chris Harris, a community organizer in Austin, Texas, where the city council voted this week to cut $150m from the police budget. “But it needs to just be a first step. This is still a far cry from community demands.”

‘A pivotal point’

The protests for Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other recent victims of police killings have brought mainstream attention to the notion that the systemic racism and militarization that runs through police departments in the US can’t be fixed by minor policy changes.

This idea is not new. As the US has become an international leader in incarceration and killings by police in the last half century, activist groups have organized in response, fed up with the extreme power of these systems and the devastation they cause. Abolitionist groups have long argued that reforms to law enforcement training and policy have been inadequate, and that the best way to reduce law enforcement violence, limit police departments’ reach and minimize harm is to take away funding.

As the cost of policing in America has tripled to $115bn in four decades, local groups across the country protested annual budget hikes at council and commission meetings, arguing funds should go to programs and services that support the health and safety of neighborhoods. For the most part, those activists have had little success until now.

“This is a pivot point,” said Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociology professor and scholar on defunding and abolition. The moment has “put the brakes on the idea that there’s never enough police, and that itself is a huge victory that will pay off with additional dividends in the coming years”.

When Minneapolis lawmakers vowed to disband the police department, supporters acknowledged that the transformation would not happen overnight. But a series of bureaucratic obstacles and political opposition has already posed major challenges to the execution.

The council proposed rewriting the city’s charter to replace police with a new public safety department, but that would require a ballot measure, which a commission recently blocked. And there have been tensions between local community activists who support defunding and other groups that are skeptical of the idea. It’s unclear how the effort will advance next, though some councilmembers have suggested that they would not be abolishing the department but rather dramatically shrinking its mission and power.

In cities that have agreed to some amount of police defunding, the trend is “looking to diminish the unnecessary interactions between police and community members”, said Sarah Johnson, the executive director of Local Progress, a racial justice group that has been tracking defunding and divestment efforts and has catalogued two dozen jurisdictions that have adopted or considered some kind of cut.

“But the call to reimagine public safety implicates hundreds of decisions in each of these cities,” she added. “It’s not going to be answered in any single policy.”

‘We don’t want superficial reforms’

In New York City, home to the largest police department in the country, mayor Bill de Blasio promised to cut $1bn from the NYPD following viral footage and accounts of police brutality against demonstrators. With his new budget, de Blasio argued, he was meeting activists’ demands.

But advocates and other city leaders have criticized de Blasio’s plan as pushing “fake cuts”, arguing that in practice he was reshuffling funds, presenting misleading or false information and relying on “manipulated math”.

The mayor, for example, claimed to cut $300m from police overtime, but an independent budget watchdog noted that police consistently exceed their allotted overtime spending. The mayor also said a $42m cut would come from police reassigning some officers to do increased ticketing enforcement, which would raise revenue in fines. Joo-Hyun Kang, the director of Communities United for Police Reform, said it was false to present new revenue as a cut, and that this change would lead to more harm for communities who are ticketed.

“The fact that the mayor and council felt like they had to make a billion dollar cut and publicly present it that way is historic,” said Kang. “But they didn’t do it. And it’s not going to have an impact. We see this as a very very long road.”

De Blasio’s spokeswoman did not respond to inquiries about the criticisms, but emailed past statements from the mayor defending his NYPD spending, arguing that the overtime reduction is a “goal”, that his new budget “struck the right balance”, and that the city is making a “huge reinvestment in communities”.

In Los Angeles, mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would be decreasing the LAPD budget by $150m and “reinvesting in Black communities”. But that figure, activists have noted, came out of a proposed increase, so did not reflect much of a tangible shift in spending. The overall police budget is $2bn.

“It’s nothing compared to what the full budget is. It’s classic bullshit,” said Albert Corado, a community organizer whose sister, Melyda, was killed by LAPD in 2018 while she was working inside a Trader Joe’s. “We’ve been out here for months and all we get are these really watered down superficial reforms.”

Corado criticized the LAPD’s continued emphasis on “community policing”, which is meant to improve relationships between police and Black neighborhoods, but can lead to more armed officers working in communities that already suffer from high rates of contacts with police: “Just because this is the best version of the worst thing doesn’t mean we have to keep it going. We can’t let people keep dying.”

Garcetti recently said his expansion of community policing was a “dramatic step” in support of “a model that is about co-owning public safety”.

Activists have pushed for cuts that directly eliminate the size of the force and have said they are closely monitoring to ensure the funds are not reinvested into programs that simply replicate police. In Portland, Oregon, where nightly protests have continued since May, the council voted to remove $15m from police. The cuts are aimed at eliminating numerous specialty units accused of targeting people of color and removing armed officers from schools and public transit. Some city leaders scoffed at community groups’ demands for a $50m cut.

But Anna So, a Portland organizer with the abolitionist group Critical Resistance, said the activists’ proposal was not radical given that the budget had increased by roughly $50m in just four years. She argued the militarized show of force by local and federal law enforcement at the Portland protests provided another example of an outsized and harmful police response. So said: “It also shows how hard they are resisting the calls to defund and how much they see it as a challenge to the need for them to actually exist.”

In most cities, the pushback from police unions, which have long opposed reforms, has escalated, with leaders making unsubstantiated threats that any cuts would lead to longer 911 wait times and a rise in crime, and lobbying intense and sometimes personal attacks on the mayors and lawmakers approving the defund measures. Some cities, meanwhile, have rejected calls for defunding and pushed sizable police budget increases, including Phoenix, Houston, San Diego and San Antonio.

While the initial concessions to community demands are not likely to radically transform policing across the US instantaneously, the process has set the groundwork for substantial changes moving forward, said Vitale, the professor.

Even in many cities that have entirely opposed defunding movements , the conversation appears to have shifted. “Politicians are having to grapple with this idea that they can’t just be moderate anymore,” said Jamaar Williams, a member of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Phoenix, where police recently received a $24m increase, despite a deadly record and repeated brutality scandals. “The time is forcing them to say, do you respect the lives of normal working people or are you going to protect the status quo? You can’t get away with platitudes anymore.”

Topics: NYC Budget Justice