What We Mean When We Say Defund the Police

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Across the country, as people continue to protest daily against police brutality, calls to “defund the police” are becoming louder day by day. This concept has made its way from small meetings with community organizers, to protest signs at Black Lives Matter rallies, to the lexicon of the general public in a matter of weeks.

As an abolitionist organizer working to end policing, incarceration, and surveillance and to create lasting alternatives, I know that “defund the police” is not just a slogan—or even the end goal. It is a strategic demand that gets us even closer to our mission of abolishing police and prisons. Yes, “defund the police” is a rallying cry, reminding us that we are deserving of a world without cops. But it is also a concrete step toward abolition. It is up to us to fight for that world every chance we get.

Why do we want to defund?

In 2019 alone, police were responsible for nearly 1,100 civilian deaths. Recent coverage of the police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota have reinvigorated a preexisting movement to affirm the value of Black lives. Amid the movement, demands to defund the police have been seeing real traction in several cities across the country.

Minneapolis groups like Black Visions Collective, an organization dedicated to Black liberation and healing justice, and MPD150, local abolitionist organizers, are already making progress in their state, with the Minnesota City Council announcing their plans to defund the police this week. Black Visions Collective, MPD150, and other organizers in favor of defunding the police realize that one of the reasons incidents of police brutality and killings are so high in their city is because of its extremely large police budget.

While some supporters of prison reform may want to defund the police only to start over with a more diverse and better-trained version, abolitionists disagree. We are organizing for a world without policing, not an improved version of policing. We believe in the power of creating community-based solutions to harm that recognize people’s humanity and dignity, while taking into account all of the reasons someone may commit a “crime.” We also recognize the institution of policing as being inherently violent and anti-Black, a dehumanizing system that profits off of the suffering of one class of people with no chance of being reformed. To put it more simply: Abolitionists understand instances of police violence and murder to be the rule, not the exception.

How are police funded?

While police departments are partially funded through fines, fees, and civil asset forfeitures, the bulk of their funding comes from legislative budgets. Each fiscal year, federal, state, and local governments allocate a large chunk of their funds towards policing. In many cities, the budget for policing is substantially larger than meaningful public services like education or housing.

For example, in New York City, Mayor Bill DeBlasio cut the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), a program that would have supported and empowered nearly 75,000 youth, but set the NYPD budget to $5.64 billion for next year. SYEP advocates point out that many of the program’s participants would have come from low-income families of color.

Cities determine funding through a variety of measures, but most budgets are rooted in greed. Police unions bully politicians to vote for police funding year after year, and threaten to take away their support and political capital if elected leaders don’t listen to their commands. Reformist nonprofits pressure public officials to listen to their behests over the demands of abolitionists for fears of being “unrealistic.” Politicians do not take the time to engage with abolitionist theory or organizing, and instead vote like others have voted in the past.

Support for the police knows no political party, as Democrats and Republicans are both typically against lowering police budgets, since they both have distorted views of crime and safety. Police budgets are subjective and reflect the government’s priorities: caging Black and brown people.

What does it look like to defund?

Defunding the police is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: Politicians would shrink police budgets within a certain time frame until the police department has a budget of zero. Police officers would no longer be given pensions, and forces would not hire new people. Departments would also suspend the use of paid administrative leave, and would no longer invest in police militarization programs.

Where do we want that money to go?

Many abolitionists across the country are pursuing a “divest and invest” strategy. This strategy not only calls for the divestment of funds from the police and their vision of “public safety,” but also advocates for investing that money in public goods—like health care, education, and housing—that help communities thrive. The hope is that these investments will improve life for community members, and lessen their interactions with the oppressive arms of the state, creating actual safety.

Abolitionists in favor of divest/invest argue that local government’s budgets reflect of the government’s priorities: Through funneling more money into the prison industrial complex, local governments are using the police to oppress marginalized members of society instead of providing them the quality of life they deserve.

While there isn’t one single answer for where abolitionists want police budgets to go, we are certain that defunding the police is the first step.

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