'Defund the police’: What it means and why activists are calling for it

Some activists are calling to reinvest police funds into social services amid national outcry against police brutality, racism

Protesters rally Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Phoenix, demanding the Phoenix City Council defund the Phoenix Police Department. The protest is a result of the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Matt York) (Matt York, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

DETROIT – If you’ve been keeping up with the national protests and conversations regarding police brutality and racism, you might have encountered activists’ call to “defund the police” following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

What does defunding the police actually look like?

Defunding the police means what it says: Divesting funds from police departments and then reallocating them to social services and other community resources where they are needed. The action is being especially encouraged among marginalized communities, where policing -- and police brutality -- occurs more frequently.

Though advocates for the movement share a similar goal, the end results of defunding the police looks different to many. Generally the idea is to reinvest funds into marginalized communities that have been heavily divested from to provide services that can help those community members thrive rather than be criminalized.

Researchers and advocates have suggested reinvesting the funds into housing, education, mental health, homelessness, domestic violence and similar services and programs. Advocates say the movement doesn’t mean police departments would cease to exist entirely or immediately. Instead, the plan suggests incremental change that will eventually phase out traditional police systems -- and the need for them -- as society learns to function in a more equitable way by addressing systemic problems through a reimagined public safety system.

The idea is not new, but it is garnering significant attention amid the national George Floyd protests, after Floyd was killed by a police officer who knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes while he was in police custody, handcuffed and laying on the ground.

MORE: ‘These cases are not easy’: Minnesota AG determined to convict former Minneapolis police officers in George Floyd case

Subject expert and sociologist Alex Vitale told CBC News that before the movement’s recent national attention, activists across the country have been advocating to decrease funding in police departments for years. Specifically in New York City advocates have been working to reinvest nearly $1 billion out of the police department and into other community programs and needs.

In a recent victory for “defunding” advocates, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday that the city would move funding from the NYPD to youth initiatives and social services, while keeping the city safe. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also vowed to cut as much as $150 million that was part of a planned increase in the police department’s budget.

According to a tweet from the ACLU of Minnesota, Minneapolis City Council members announced their intention to disband the Minneapolis Police Department and invest in community-led public safety on Sunday evening.

Demonstrators around the country, and even the world, are demanding an end to police brutality after countless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers. It is the names of those who died that protesters chant during their marches: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Eric Garner. Michael Brown -- and those are only a few. For them, reimagining approaches to public safety is a tangible and equitable solution.

Why defund? Why not police reform?

Some critics of the movement claim that defunding the police is a drastic measure and are encouraging police reform instead. Some reformations have already been made amid the Floyd protests in other states like Minnesota, California and even here in Michigan.

MORE: Michigan Gov. Whitmer backs police changes after deaths of Floyd, others

Minnesota has agreed to ban police chokeholds and neck restraints. California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the state’s police-training program to stop teaching officers a neck hold that blocks blood flowing to the brain. The Michigan Senate passed a new bill last week to require increased police training on implicit bias, de-escalation techniques and more.

Advocates for defunding the police, however, argue that reform does not adequately address systemic racism in the U.S. and therefore won’t effect enough change to make a difference for marginalized communities.

In his interview with CBC News, Vitale points out some potential flaws behind the move to reform police instead of defund them.

“The kinds of reforms that they (Minneapolis Police Department) embraced just aren’t capable of fixing the problem,” Vitale said. "They attempted a whole set of what we often refer to as procedural justice reforms ... things like implicit bias training. That imagines that the problems of race and policing are located in the completely unconscious and unintentional discretionary decision-making of any individual officer, and this belies two problems: One is that we have a problem of explicit racism in American policing, and while all officers aren’t racist, there are clear tendencies toward this problem. More importantly, we have a problem of structural racism in American policing -- and that is the decision by elected officials to turn the problems of Black communities into policing problems.

“When there’s no mental health services, we turn that over to the police; mass homelessness, turn that over to police; problems with young people, we criminalize them. So unless we address those structural decisions, tinkering the attitudes of individual officers just isn’t going to make a difference,” Vitale added.

There hasn’t been much support for the movement from state and federal representatives on either side of the aisle, though some have showed support for rethinking public safety operations.

“Now, I don’t believe that you should disband police departments,” Rep. Karen Bass, of California and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus said in an interview with CNN. “But I do think that, in cities, in states, we need to look at how we are spending the resources and invest more in our communities. ... Maybe this is an opportunity to re-envision public safety."

History of law enforcement

“Defunding” advocates believe the policing system cannot address the root causes of systemic racism solely through reform because the law enforcement system was born from racism.

Law enforcement got its start in early America when people were hired to capture and return slaves that escaped. Once slavery was abolished police then enforced Jim Crow, or racial segregation, laws.

To this day, Black Americans are still disproportionately arrested, sentenced and physically harmed by police.

Advocates believe the country and marginalized communities would benefit more from a new public safety system designed to be inclusive rather than altering an inherently-racist system.

MORE: Demonstrators vow to sustain momentum until change happens

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.