In the rapid social upheaval that has taken place since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman, an impassioned albeit polarizing rallying cry has emerged, demanding that authorities “defund the police.” But what does that really mean?
The maxim is vague by design. The Minneapolis City Council has already committed, by super-majority, to dismantling and replacing its existing police department, but has released few details about what that might entail, how long it would take, and what a replacement to standing law enforcement might look like. “Defund the police” as a political rallying cry gives leaders some elasticity when it comes to how they address systemic problems in law enforcement.
For instance, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week that he was “committed to shifting resources” away from the New York Police Department and investing the money in youth and social service. He didn’t, however, say how much money would be taken from the police budget or where exactly that money would go instead. The truth is, there is no single, clear image of what “defunding the police” looks like. Let’s explore some of the possible directions.
Divest and Invest
At its heart, the push to defund police encourages local and state powers to divest from police departments and invest that money in areas that would make better use of such resources. The move is not necessarily punitive. In recent years, America’s 18,000 police departments have taken on more community responsibility than they can possibly manage.
Writing for Fortune Magazine, Nicole Goodkind explains that cops are now “fighting terrorism abroad, performing homeless services, working with children in schools, responding to calls for mental health crises, performing social work and welfare checks, mediating domestic disputes, and responding to drug overdoses.” She adds, “Often they’re not trained to perform these tasks.”
Proponents of defunding the police would rather invest in people who are best equipped to tackle these complex, specialized duties. Unarmed specialists trained in social work, education, and drug counseling ought to be handling many of the calls that police officers are currently expected to take.
But as more of these duties have fallen into the laps of police officers, police department budgets have ballooned. On average, American cities spend between 33% and 60% of their annual budgets on policing. In New York City, the annual police budget is $6 billion, which is greater than the budgets of homeless services, housing development and upkeep, youth and community services, health and hospitals, and parks and recreation combined.
Calls to defund the police, then, do not demand a permanent end to all law enforcement, but rather, a revaluation of what a police department’s duties ought to be and how much money is necessary to accomplish their new, more limited role.
Last month, dozens of social services and civil rights groups submitted a letter to the New York Mayor’s Office pointing out inefficient spending and demanding that much of the money allocated to the police be invested elsewhere.
“New York City is currently spending more on policing than on health, homeless services, youth development, and workforce development combined,” the letter expressed. “That’s wrong and unacceptable. Overinvestment in policing and underinvestment in public health, housing, and community needs helps explain why our city has been so devastated by COVID-19, especially amongst elders and in Black, Latinx, and other communities of color. We can’t police our way out of this pandemic. Eliminating the NYPD’s role in social services, ensuring that officers who harm civilians do not continue to remain on payroll for years on end, and reducing the NYPD’s overall budget would both save the city significant resources and free up city budget dollars to be reallocated to agencies that have been starved of resources in recent years.”
Has it been done before?
In 2012, the city of Camden, New Jersey dismantled its entire police force. At the time, the city had one of the highest murder rates in the nation—six times the national average—and reported 175 open-air drug markets in a city of only nine square miles.
The Camden Police Department was replaced by a re-formed Camden County Police Department, under its retained chief, J. Scott Thomson, who hired more officers and placed high emphasis on community engagement. “For us to make the neighborhood look and feel the way everyone wanted it to, it wasn’t going to be achieved by having a police officer with a helmet and a shotgun standing on a corner,” Thomson told CityLab. He said that his officers “identify more with being in the Peace Corps than being in the Special Forces.”
The results of dismantling and replacing Camden’s Police Department have been mixed. On the one hand, murder rates by 2018 had significantly declined to their lowest rate in over thirty years. Most officers in the city now have GPS tracking and body cameras. The department adheres to an 18-page use-of-force policy book, and officers are required to intervene when they witness abuse of power—a reform that is particularly relevant to the recent case of George Floyd, where Officer Derek Chauvin suffocated the victim for nearly 9 minutes while his compatriots did and said nothing. Moreover, the Camden County Police Department retains the right to terminate any officer who acts out of line.
Still, the ACLU claims that Camden has seen a “significant increase in low-level arrests and summonses,” which places a steep financial strain on those living below the poverty line. Some have compared the events in Camden to the “broken windows” police tactics used in New York City during the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani. While violent crime decreased during that era, the NYPD, headed at the time by Commissioner Bill Bratton, saturated poor neighborhoods and communities of color, disproportionately handing out citations and arrests for minor infractions to the city’s most vulnerable residents, and there was ‘stop and frisk.’
A national shift in policing will not occur overnight. But it is evident that a variety of social services would benefit from some of the money and responsibility currently being pumped into police departments. And if officers of the law could relinquish some of the burdens that could be better handled by social workers, drug counselors or medical technicians, they could focus on their most core duties: protecting the communities they serve and judiciously enforcing the law.
As civilians and political leaders alike continue to give their attention to the issue, a clearer image will take shape of how twenty-first century policing should look.