What Is ‘Defund the Police'?

"Defund the police" refers to a call for the reallocation of money that currently goes to police budgets in the United States to structural improvements for underprivileged communities. The phrase encompasses a lot of different visions about police reform that include a disinvestment from police budgets, an increased investment into social programs covering health and economics, and reform of policing practices around issues such as mental health, drug addiction, and homelessness.

Supporters of the principle believe that policing has historically been crucial to upholding structural oppression faced by communities of color. They believe that police continue to be responsible for demonstrable amounts of violence in these communities, making systemic change vital to improving conditions. It is also a rallying cry connected to others, such as “I can't breathe,” which came to international attention after the killing of Eric Garner in New York in 2014.

In addition to “defund,” the verbs “dismantle” and “abolish” have also been used. There is overlap among the three, all of which are "designed to provoke immediate and sweeping police reforms.” However, it is important to note that “defund” generally does not mean completely divesting resources from the police. Rather, it connotes limiting the scope and budget of those forces in the United States.

Key Takeaways

  • “Defund the police” supporters want to reallocate money that currently goes to police budgets to structural improvements for underprivileged communities.
  • The slogan came to international prominence during the 2020 protests following the killing of George Floyd.
  • There’s a long history of calls in the U.S. to rethink policing practices in light of their effects on communities of color.
  • Many “defund the police” advocates do not contend that policing should be completely abolished.

History of ‘Defund the Police’

Not a New Idea

Calls to center the power of policing forces in America in the hands of the communities they police go back a long way, but they all entail the idea that police reform or retraining alone may not be enough to fix issues such as crime and police-caused deaths. Those in favor of disinvestment have cited the connection between modern American policing and slave patrols, the historical groups of White Southerners who returned runaway slaves to their chains. The role played by Jim Crow laws, the militarization of the police, and President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs in entrenching racial inequality also come up, as does the use of police forces to control protestors. 

The idea has evolved over the last century. W.E.B. Du Bois, the prominent American civil rights activist and Pan-Africanist, wrote a book, Black Reconstruction, published in 1935, that argued for the abolition of systemically racist institutions, including prisons. In 1969, in a speech at Northern Illinois University, Fred Hampton advocated “decentralizing” American police forces, which he thought would empower local communities to control the conditions in which they lived. Chairman of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter who was killed in his apartment by the Chicago police, Hampton is frequently cited as an intellectual precursor to the movement.

In 2017 Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale’s book The End of Policing argues that policing has expanded over the last four decades to encompass issues such as homelessness, untreated mental illness, and youth violence while simultaneously becoming more militarized and aggressive. Vitale contends that political leaders have abandoned attempts to fix these issues, offloading the responsibility to police, who are not equipped to solve them. To address these problems in a way that doesn’t involve violence, Vitale says that we need to stop using police and seek other solutions.

Mounting Protests

While protests such as the 1965 Watts riots and the 1992 Rodney King riots also highlighted racial tensions with police, protests over the relationship between policing practices and communities of color have intensified over the past decade as the number of widely known police-caused deaths of Black individuals grew. Black Lives Matter, which supports defunding the police, was formed after Treyvon Martin’s 2012 death in Florida. In 2014, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, led to riots in Ferguson, Mo. Eric Garner’s death by chokehold in New York later that same year caused pressure for change to build further. His last words, “I can’t breathe," became a rallying cry of Black Lives Matter protestors.

A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report found racial bias in the treatment of the Black community in the Ferguson Police Department. In 2020 the shooting of Breonna Taylor would also kindle protests, and on May 25, 2020, the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes sparked international protests. Advocacy groups described Floyd’s death as a “breaking point” in relation to defund-the-police initiatives.

Understanding ‘Defund the Police’

“Defund the police” advocates view criminal justice matters as structural issues that are caused by social conditions. They say that these issues cannot be solved by more or better-trained police attention, which is merely a stopgap. Instead, there needs to be a new understanding of the role of police and greater investment in social service programs. This would include public safety programs and social services, which would address issues such as mental health, for which the police are often called. What is needed, proponents argue, is nothing less than a new understanding of the relationship between society and the police.

Police militarization

Since the riots in Ferguson, attention has focused on federal programs 1033 and 1122, which have allowed police departments to acquire military gear. In the wake of Operation Desert Storm, the war on drugs escalated, and military equipment, ranging from office furniture to military vehicles, was made available to American police departments (officially it is for antidrug and anti-terror purposes). The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which manages 1033, estimates that the assets transferred to law enforcement agencies were worth $7.4 billion when they were initially acquired (they do not offer figures on the value of this property with depreciation). According to the DLA, 82,000 federal, state, and local agencies across 49 states and four U.S. territories participate.

Program 1122 allows for agencies to purchase new equipment using federal discount rates for antidrug purposes under the National Defense Authorization Act. Between 2009 and 2014, White House estimates say that the federal government passed nearly $18 billion in funds and resources to law enforcement agencies for them to acquire military gear.

According to figures from the U.S. Census of Governments, state and local governments allocated about $115 billion for police, almost all of which went to operational costs, such as salaries and benefits, and another $127 billion for corrections and courts.

Divestment and reinvestment

Attempts to translate “defund the police” into concrete policy differ, but they center on refocusing public safety away from a militarized police force and toward social programs: for instance, moving funds from police budgets to departments that handle health, housing, homeless services, and youth development programs. In particular, supporters of these ideas stress the focus on mental health and homelessness services. They claim that a greater emphasis on these services would “decriminalize” these communities and free up the police to focus on violent crimes.

The Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended looking into “community-based initiatives” on poverty, education, and health and safety. That report emphasized the role of public trust in functioning policing services. A 2018 study from the Urban Institute highlighted several approaches for redirecting funds to community-led public safety measures that do not fall within the typical criminal justice system. That report recommended reinvestment in institutions with strong ties to the community and an emphasis on building relationships with community stakeholders.

Some advocates have argued for targeting police union contracts as a means for making police more accountable, as reported on Salon.com. In this view, removing the ability of the police to close ranks on each other and opening them up to more civilian oversight would assist in reducing the antagonism between communities of color and police.

The Minneapolis City Council, among several cities, indicated that it might follow a defund the police–type program when, as reported by NPR, it cut about $8 million from its police budgets in 2020 after the protests over George Floyd’s death. However, it unanimously voted in favor of spending $6.4 million on police recruits in 2021, as reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. This move was not unusual for cities that had said they would embrace these programs. Data from Bloomberg City Lab reported that while the aggregate of the 50 largest cities in the U.S. did shrink their policing budgets by 5.2%, they actually increased their police budgets as a share of general expenditures by 0.1%. The shrinkage was attributed to coronavirus-related attempts at cost-saving, while the increase was said to be due partly to the Jan. 6th Capitol riots and mixed feelings over policing.

The Opposition

Although the ultimate impact of “defund the police” and its policy proposals remains unclear, proponents have seen pushback. Opposition remains at the federal level; President Joseph Biden has expressed objections, explicitly rejecting the notion of disinvestment in a Feb. 16, 2021, CNN Town Hall. In 2021 the administration’s criminal justice plan outlined its intention to invest $300 million to “reinvigorate” community-organized policing, which includes hiring more officers.

Mixed feelings over policing have informed cities’ reluctance to adopt these measures, while some legislative discomfort with them also remains. A Congressional bill, “Defund Cities That Defund the Police,” was introduced in the House of Representatives in July 2020. It seeks to place limits on the ability of state or local governments to defund or abolish police departments.

The Bottom Line

Polling from June 2020 suggests that most Americans reject the movement but are willing to consider embracing its underlying ideas. A Gallup Poll from 2020 reveals that ambiguity over the precise meaning of “defund the police” may play a part in this. However, it also points toward split support for the principle along racial and partisan lines.

Other 2020 Gallup polling shows that the majority of Black Americans want the police to maintain or even increase their presence in their neighborhoods, despite believing that policing needs reform. According to Gallup, this implies that the main issue is the quality, not the quantity, of police interactions in communities of color, indicating a preference for reform rather than disinvestment. The next steps remain unclear. What is clear is that the issues have not gone away.