Defund the Police – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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A “defund the police” banner at a Miami, Florida, Black Lives Matter protest.
Source: Mike Shaheen, “Miami Protest, June 7, 2020,” Creative Commons, June 7, 2020

Amid the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020, calls to “defund the police” began to populate protest signs and social media posts. 

While there are multiple interpretations of “defund the police,” the basic definition is to move funding away from police departments and into community resources such as mental health experts, housing, and social workers. In the larger scope of the civil rights movement, some advocates would reallocate some police funding but keep police departments, others would combine defunding with other police reforms such as body cameras and bias training, and others see defunding as a small step toward ultimately abolishing police departments and the prison system entirely. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] 

According to the most recent data available, police departments received about $114.5 billion nationwide in 2017 from state and local governments, up from $42.3 billion in 1977. Police budgets have made up around 4% of total state and local budgets since 1977. About 97% of police budgets go toward operational costs such as salaries and benefits. However, individual cities or counties may allocate more funds to police departments. The 2017 Los Angeles city budget, for example, provided 23% of the budget to police, while 9% of Los Angeles county’s budget went to policing. [7] [8] [9]

64% of Americans oppose the abstract idea of defunding the police, while 34% support the movement. 60% are against reallocating police budget funds to other public health and social programs, while 39% are in favor. [10]

Should Police Departments Be Defunded, if Not Abolished?

Pro 1

Police departments are historically oppressive and violent. Defunding them could reduce violence against people of color and overall crime.

Paige Fernandez, MPP, Policing Policy Advisor for the ACLU, noted, “American policing has never been a neutral institution. The first U.S. city police department was a slave patrol, and modern police forces have directed oppression and violence at Black people to enforce Jim Crow, wage the War on Drugs, and crack down on protests.” [11] Police departments are also often outfitted with surplus military equipment, increasing police firepower and the attitude that police are at war with communities, which can escalate situations to violence. [12]

Organizations such as mpd150, which surveyed the Minneapolis Police Department’s conduct since its inception in 1867, argue that the police system is actually not broken–it’s working as it always has, because “[t]he police were established to protect the interests of the wealthy and racialized violence has always been part of the mission.” mpd150 states that the police system puts millions of people of color in prison, which limits or deprives them of voting rights, employment, education, and access to housing, among other privileges given automatically to white people. [13]

According to an Aug. 20, 2019 study, black American men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men; black women 1.4 times more likely than white women. [14] A 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows police officers were twice as likely to use force against people of color than against white people. [15] [16] In 2019, US police officers killed 1,098 people, 24% of whom were black despite African Americans representing only 13% of the US population. [17]

The American Public Health Association declared police violence a public health issue in 2018, stating, “[a]lmost 10 percent of all homicides in the US are committed by police. Even if some may be ‘lawful,’ it’s not ok that we kill 1,000-1,200 people a year by police.” [18]

Defunding the police could result in fewer crimes and less violence from police. During several weeks in 2014 and 2015, when New York City police pulled back on “broken windows” policing that focused on actively patrolling for low-level crimes, about 2,100 fewer major crimes were reported, which represents a 3-6% drop in a matter of weeks. If police are not actively patrolling for minor crimes and are responding to fewer major crimes, there are fewer opportunities for violence. [19]

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Pro 2

Police officer and police department reforms have not worked.

Mariame Kaba, a “prison industrial complex abolitionist,” states, “Enough. We can’t reform the police. The only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police. There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against black people.” [20]

Kaba notes the first major police misconduct investigation was in 1894 in New York City, the Lexow Committee, in which over 100 officers were collectively convicted of 56 charges of third-degree assault, 45 charges of second-degree assault, as well as multiple charges of criminal neglect, oppression, and attempted rape. Only four officers were dismissed as a result, three because they’d assaulted other officers. [20] [21]

Philip V. McHarris, PhD candidate at Yale University, and Thenjiwe McHarris, from Movement for Black Lives, argue, “Look at the Minneapolis Police Department, which is held up as a model of progressive police reform. The department offers procedural justice as well as trainings for implicit bias, mindfulness and de-escalation. It embraces community policing and officer diversity, bans ‘warrior style’ policing, uses body cameras, implemented an early intervention system to identify problematic officers, receives training around mental health crisis intervention, and practices ‘reconciliation’ efforts in communities of color.” [22]

And still George Floyd and 51 other black men, along with 15 American Indian men, and 9 Hispanic men were killed by Minneapolis Police Department officers between Jan. 2000 and May 31, 2020. [23] Further reforms have been recommended to the Minneapolis Police Department repeatedly to lower use-of-force violations but none were implemented. [24]

In July 2014, Eric Garner died from a chokehold performed by a police officer after New York banned the hold in 1993. Austin and Los Angeles police were shown firing projectiles at people’s heads, which is prohibited in both jurisdictions. Increased diversity on police forces did little to curb unnecessary police stops of people of color in Ferguson or Baltimore. [25]

Two 2016 Harvard University studies found that anti-bias techniques meant to fight stereotypes reduced implicit bias for a few hours to a few days, but not longer. [26] Such training has little to no effect on racial bias in traffic stops or marijuana arrests. [27]

Some, including Stuart Schrader, PhD, Associate Director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship at Johns Hopkins University, argue that reforms are not wholly intended to change the departments for the better, but are an excuse for the departments to maintain power and acquire a bigger budget. Reform programs come with more money and little accountability for police departments, continuing the historical cycle of oppression. [28]

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Pro 3

Police are not trained and were not intended to do many of the jobs they perform. Defunding the police allows experts to step in.

Police currently deal with calls about mental illness, homelessness, domestic disputes, barking dogs, neighbors playing loud music, and various non-criminal activities, on top of actual violations of the law ranging from minor shoplifting by kids to speeding to murder.

In a 2016 interview, former Dallas Police Chief David Brown stated, “We’re just asking us to do too much. Every societal failure, we put it off for the cops to solve. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.” [2]

Alicia Garza, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter, stated, “So much of policing right now is generated and directed towards quality-of-life issues, homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence. What we do need is increased funding for housing, we need increased funding for education, we need increased funding for quality of life of communities who are over-policed and over-surveilled.” [29]

The people who respond to community issues should be those best equipped to deal with the concern, whether that is a social worker attending a mental health crisis, an EMT arriving at a domestic dispute, or a housing facilitator helping an unhoused person. [5]

Greg Casar, Austin, Texas, City Council Member, stated, “We should be treating homelessness not with policing, but with housing. We should be treating addiction not with policing, but with treatment. We have dedicated so many of our public dollars simply to policing, and that hasn’t made us actually more safe.” [1]

Further, defunding the police allows more money to go to community programs that prevent the need for police. Patrick Sharkey, Professor at Princeton University, notes, “When neighborhood organizations engage young people with well-run after-school activities and summer jobs programs, those young people are dramatically less likely to become involved in violent activities. When street outreach workers intervene, they can be extremely effective in interrupting conflicts before they escalate. When local organizations reclaim abandoned lots and turn them into green spaces, violence falls. When community nonprofits proliferate across a city, that city becomes safer.” [30]

He adds, “If we ask community organizations and leaders to take over primary responsibility for creating a safe community, they should be given equivalent resources.” [30] Defunding the police would free up budget funds to appropriately pay community organizations.

Annie Lowrey, staff writer for The Atlantic, explains, “A more radical option … would mean ending mass incarceration, cash bail, fines-and-fees policing, the war on drugs, and police militarization, as well as getting cops out of schools. It would also mean funding housing-first programs, creating subsidized jobs for the formerly incarcerated, and expanding initiatives to have mental-health professionals and social workers respond to emergency calls.” [3]

For a World without Police, an abolitionist group, states, “Police violence stems not just from bad apples or bad attitudes, but from what police must be and do in America. The only way to stop the violence is to abolish the police, and transform the conditions that gave rise to them.”[57]

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Con 1

When police departments’ budgets are cut, violence and civilian injuries increase, and departments turn to “taxation by citation” to raise money.

Police officers in smaller jurisdictions, or those primarily populated by people of color, are frequently paid less. In Hillsdale, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, new officers earn $13.50 an hour after a probationary period, less than hourly workers at Target. [31] [32] Low wages force many officers to take extra jobs, leaving them tired and unprepared to deal with a high-stress police situation. [31] [33] David Harris, JD, University of Pittsburgh Law Professor, stated, “We should not assume that the most poorly-paid cops are the worst cops. But the chances increase that you don’t attract the best officers.” [33]

During the 2008 recession, many police departments were forced to cut officers as federal funding decreased. In Memphis, use-of-force complaints almost doubled as officers in an understaffed department were required to work overtime. [34]

In England and Wales, 2010 police budgets were cut, resulting in 20,592 (14%) fewer officers in 2017, and 20% more gun, knife, and serious violent crimes. The homicide rate also rose 39% from Mar. 2015 and 2019. [35] [36] In Mar. 2020, the Home Office acknowledged a correlation and committed to hiring 20,000 officers. [36]

Illinois State Police Director Jonathon Monken reported an increase in fatal car accidents due to a decrease in motorcycle traffic officers after 2010 budget cuts. In order to raise funds for the department, Monken implemented a policy wherein $15 for each citation (such as a speeding ticket) written goes to the state police. [37]

Called “citation taxation,” departments taking a cut of each citation written is a common fund-raising strategy. Such tickets often cost residents more than expected: a $100 traffic ticket cost a California resident $100 in state assessment fees, $70 in county assessment fees, $50 in court construction fees, $20 for emergency medical fees, among other fees resulting in an almost $500 ticket for rolling through a red light. [38] While no one wants to pay a $500 traffic violation ticket, communities of color are especially hard hit and ill-equipped to pay such tickets.

Officers also write more tickets when department revenue is at stake. In St. Ann, a St. Louis suburb, speeding tickets almost tripled while the suburb’s population decreased. In New Miami Village, Ohio, 45,000 tickets were issued in 15 months to a population of about 2,000 people. [38] If appropriately funded, police could focus on crime rather than fundraising.

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Con 2

The level of police misconduct is overstated, more (not fewer) police are being called for in crime-ridden areas, and reforms are both possible and supported by a majority of Americans.

In Camden, New Jersey, the local police department was disbanded due to police corruption and rising crime rates. The county now runs the department, and implemented de-escalation training, defined chokeholds as deadly force, and required that officers step in if a colleague is using excessive force. Officers were tasked with patrolling on foot, introducing themselves to residents, and hosting community barbecues. Violent crime dropped 42% between 2012 and 2019. [39] In comparison, the FBI estimates nationwide violent crime fell 9% from 2009 to 2018. [40]

Sam Sinyangwe, co-founder of We the Protestors, explained, “if you look at the 30 largest cities, police shootings have dropped about 30 percent, and some cities have seen larger drops. In some of these cities, like Chicago and Los Angeles, activists with Black Lives Matter and other groups have done a lot of work to push for de-escalation, stricter use-of-force policies and greater accountability.” [41]

Contrary to the publicly asserted “war” on black people by white police officers, few are actually murdered by white officers each year. An analysis of the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, police department found white officers were least likely to shoot an unarmed black person, with a threat perception failure (TPF) rate of 5.2% with black suspects. Black officers had an 11.4% rate, and Hispanic officers a 16.7% rate. [42]

According to a June 2020 poll, 82% of Americans agree that police use of chokeholds should be banned. 83% support racial profiling bans. 92% agree that police should wear body cameras. 89% agree on requiring officers to give their name, badge number, and a reason for the stop during police stops. 91% support independent investigations of misconduct in departments. And 75% support allowing police misconduct victims to sue departments for damages. [43]

If police departments were reformed to focus on policing black neighborhoods the same way they police wealthy white neighborhoods, police violence would decrease. [44] Black neighborhoods suffer from underpolicing as police officers focus on traffic and drug stops. 

Jill Leovy, author of Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, explains that police focus “on nuisance and vice—the cheap and easy, low-hanging fruit of the trade,” while murders in predominantly black neighborhoods go unsolved: “From 1988 to 2002, the number of unsolved homicides in the L.A. Police Department’s South Bureau was 41 per square mile. Even as many white neighborhoods remained untouched by killings during this period, some predominately black ones had three unsolved cases per block—seven at the especially violent intersection of South San Pedro and East 84th streets.” [44]

Amid the George Floyd protests in May 2020, Chicago registered the city’s most deadly weekend in six decades: 110 shootings (85 wounded, 25 killed). Nearly all of the victims and shooters were black. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest and social activist in the South Side of Chicago, stated, “On Saturday and particularly Sunday, I heard people saying all over, ‘Hey, there’s no police anywhere, police ain’t doing nothing.’” [45]

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Con 3

Police departments should not be disbanded, but held to standardized national regulations, which should comply with international human rights laws.

President Obama formed the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing after the Aug. 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The May 2015 final report suggested that the Department of Justice should “[e]stablish national benchmarks and best practices for federal, state, local, and tribal police departments,” among 58 other nationally standardized requirements. [46] [47]

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) suggests many federal reforms, including ending the transfer of military equipment to police departments, a national comprehensive policy on use-of-force, a law banning lethal force, a requirement that police departments acknowledge their racial inequalities and injustices, mandatory racial biases training, and eliminating qualified immunity, which protects officers from being sued for wrongful death. EJI states these reforms can help to “change the culture of policing to build trust, legitimacy, and accountability.” [48]

Ed Pilkington, Chief Reporter for The Guardian US, stated, “The need for restrictions on police power has been recognized in international law for 40 years. Two basic human rights are involved: the right to life and personal security, and the right of freedom from discrimination. Those rights have also been enshrined in core United Nations standards. All 193 member nations of the UN, including the US, have signed up to a code of conduct for law enforcement officials adopted in 1979.” [49]

A review of police departments in 20 of the largest American cities in 2017 and 2018 found that “not one met the minimum standards established by human rights law.” No state had a human rights compliant use-of-force law, only 12 cities had policies restricting use-of-force to an immediate threat, and only two cities, Los Angeles and Chicago, had the necessary external reporting requirements to meet international human rights standards. [50]

Data compiled by The Guardian found that 59 people in the US were shot and killed by police in the first 24 days of 2015, compared to 55 people fatally shot by police in England and Wales in the past 24 years. 97 people in the US were fatally shot by police in Mar. 2015, compared to 94 in Australia between 1992 and 2011. [51]

Police in other countries do not routinely carry guns, choke-holds are banned, and use-of-force policies are stricter than in the United States. In Finland, an officer must get supervisor approval before using deadly force and, in Spain, officers must fire a warning shot or shoot a non-vital body part before using lethal force. Officers in Europe train for an average of three years, compared to about 19 months for Americans. [52] These policies result in fewer citizen deaths in those countries.

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The 2020 Democratic and Republican presumptive nominees support reforms over defunding. Joe Biden has said he “supports the urgent need for reform,” while a campaign spokesperson elaborated that Biden is against defunding. [53] Donald Trump plainly stated, “There won’t be defunding. There won’t be dismantling of our police, and there’s not going to be any disbanding of our police. Our police have been letting us live in peace, and we want to make sure we don’t have any bad actors in there.” [54] 

Even more progressive former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called for reforms and not abolishment: “I think we want to redefine what police departments do, give them the support they need to make their jobs better defined. So I do believe that we need well-trained, well-educated, and well-paid professionals in police departments.” [55]

Presumptive Green Party nominee, Howie Hawkins, supports defunding the police, tweeting, “Defunding the police means to stop paying police to harass, exploit, and control poor communities of color over non-criminal behavior and low-level offenses like homelessness, drug possession, and mental health crises. It means investing the savings in real solutions.” [56]

Discussion Questions

1. Should police departments be defunded? Why or why not?

2. Are any police reform efforts helpful? Which reforms? Explain your answers.

3. Do you think abolishing police departments would resolve or create more problems for communities of color? Explain your answer.

4. Do you think defunding or eliminating police departments would lead to greater violence in our cities?  Explain your answer.


Sources:

1. Clare Proctor and Juan Pablo Garnham, “For Those Texas Organizers and Officials, Defunding the Police Means Remedying Effects of Racism,” texastribune.org, June 13, 2020
2. Amanda Arnold, “What Exactly Does It Mean to Defund the Police?,” thecut.com, June 12, 2020
3. Annie Lowrey, “Defund the Police,” theatlantic.com, June 5, 2020
4. Melissa Gira Grant, “The Rush to Redefine ‘Defund the Police,” newrepublic.com, June 9, 2020
5. Scottie Andrew, “There’s a Growing Call to Defund Police. Here’s What It Means,” cnn.com, June 17, 2020
6. Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna, “The Deep Roots--and New Offshoots--of ‘Abolish the Police,’” politico.com, June 12, 2020
7. Urban Institute, “Police and Corrections Expenditures,” urban.org (accessed June 17, 2020)
8. Polly Mosendz and Jameelah D. Robinson, “While Crime Fell, the Cost of Cops Soared,” bloomberg.com, June 4, 2020
9. Richard C. Auxier, “What Police Spending Data Can (and Cannot) Explain amid Calls to Defund the Police,” urban.org, June 9, 2020
10. Kendall Karson, “64% of Americans Oppose 'Defund the Police' Movement, Key Goals: POLL.” abcnews.go.com, June 12, 2020
11. Paige Fernandez, “Defunding the Police Will Actually Make Us Safer,” aclu.org, June 11, 2020
12. ACLU, “Police Militarization,” aclu.org (accessed June 17, 2020)
13. mpd150, “Enough Is Enough: A 150 Year Performance Review of the Minneapolis Police Department,” mpd150.com, 2017
14. John Hagan, “Risk of Being Killed by Police Use of Force in the United States by Age, Race-Ethnicity, and Sex,” pnas.org, Aug. 20, 2019
15. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Contacts between Police and the Public, 2015,” bjs.gov. Oct. 2018
16. Alexi Jones, “Police Stops Are Still Marred by Racial Discrimination, New Data Shows,” prisonpolicy.oeg, Oct. 12, 2018
17. Mapping Police Violence, “Police Violence Map,” mappingpoliceviolence.org (accessed June 17, 2020)
18. Sarah Beller, “The American Public Health Association Declares Police Violence a Public Health Issue,” filtermag.org, Nov. 15, 2018
19. Amina Khan, “In New York, Major Crime Complaints Fell when Cops Took a Break from ‘Proactive Policing,’” latimes.com, Sep. 25, 2017
20. Mariame Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” nytimes.com, June 12, 2020
21. Marilynn S. Johnson, Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City, 2004
22. Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris, “No More Money for the Police,” nytimes.com, May 30, 2020
23. Jeff Hargarten, et al., “Every Police-Involved Death in Minnesota since 2000,” startribune.com, May 31, 2020
24. Vera Bergengruen and Tessa Berenson, “'It Was a Tinderbox.' How George Floyd’s Killing Highlighted America's Police Reform Failures,” time.com, June 4, 2020
25. Sam Levin, “‘It’s Not about Bad Apples’: How US Police Reforms Have Failed to Stop Brutality and Violence,” theguardian.com, June 16, 2020
26. Kirsten Weir, “Policing in Black and White,” apa.org, Dec. 2016
27. Alex Vitale, “Why Police Reform Is Not Enough,” yesmagazine.org, June 2, 2020
27. Stuart Schrader, “Police Reform Won’t Fix a System That Was Built to Abuse Power,” thenation.com, June 12, 2020
29. Ursula Perano, “Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Explains ‘Defund the Police’ Slogan,” axios.com, June 7, 2020
30. Patrick Sharkey, “Why Do We Need the Police?,” washingtonpost.com, June 12, 2020
31. Village of Hillsdale Police Department, Job Ad, jeffco.edu, 2019
32. Parija Kavilanz, “Target Is Raising Its Minimum Wage to $15 an Hour in July,” cnn.com, June 17, 2020
33. In Plain Sight, “Police Pay Gap: Many of America’s Finest Struggle on Poverty Wages,” nbcnews.com, Oct 26, 2014
34. Simon Weichselbaum and Nicole Lewis, “Support for Defunding the Police Department Is Growing. Here’s Why It’s Not a Silver Bullet.,” themarshallproject.org, June 9, 2020
35. Vikram Dodd, “Police Cuts ‘Likely Contributed’ to Rise in Violent Crime, Leaked Report reveals,” theguardian.com, Apr. 8, 2018
36. Lizzie Dearden, “Police Cuts Contributed to Rise in Murders in Britain, Home Office Report Says,” independent.co.uk, Mar. 5, 2020
37. Police Executive Research Forum, “Is the Economic Downturn Fundamentally Changing How We Police?,” policeforum.org, Dec. 2010
38. C. Jarret Dieterle, “Citation Nation,” city-journal.org, Apr. 4, 2017
39. Chris Megerian, “Disband the Police? Camden Already Did That,” latimes.com, June 10, 2020
40. FBI, “2018 Crime in the United States,” ucr.fbi.gov (accessed June 18, 2020)
41. Emily Bazelon, “A Discussion about How to reform Policing.,” nytimes.com, June 13, 2020
42. George Fachner and Steven Carter, “Collaborative Reform Initiative: An Assessment of Deadly Force in the Philadelphia Police Department,” phillypolice.com, 2015
43. Chris Kahn, “Exclusive: Most Americans, Including Republicans, Support Sweeping Democratic Police Reform Proposals - Reuters/Ipsos Poll,” reuters.com, June 11, 2020
44. Jill Leovy, “The Underpolicing of Black America,” wsj.com, Jan. 23, 2015
45. Tom Schuba, Sam Charles, and Matthew Hendrickson, “18 Murders in 24 Hours: Inside the Most Violent Day in 60 Years in Chicago,” chicago.suntimes.com, June 8, 2020
46. President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, “Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” cops.usdoj.gov, 2015
47. Charles Ramsey and Laurie O. Robinson, “Adopt Minimum National Police Use-of-Force Standards and Train Cops for Interaction,” usatoday.com, May 29, 2020
48. Equal Justice Initiative, “Reforming Policing in America 2020,” eji.org, 2020
49. Ed Pilkington, “‘State-Sanctioned Violence’: US Police Fail to Meet Basic Human Rights Standards,” theguardian.com, June 22, 2020
50. University of Chicago Law School - International Human Rights Clinic, "Deadly Discretion: The Failure of Police Use of Force Policies to Meet Fundamental International Human Rights Law and Standards,” chicagounbound.uchicago.edu, 2020
51. Jamiles Lartey, “By the Numbers: US Police Kill More in Days than Other Countries Do in Years,” theguardian.com, June 9, 2015
52. Miriam Berger and Rick Noack, “From Guns to Neck Restraint: How Police Tactics Differ around the World,” washingtonpost.com, June 6, 2020
53. Jonathan Martin, Alexander Burns, and Thomas Kaplan, “Biden Walks a Cautious Line as He Opposes Defunding the Police,” nytimes.com, June 8, 2020
54. Brett Samuels, “Trump: There Won’t Be Any Defunding of Police,” thehill.com, June 8, 2020
55. Andrew Marantz, “Bernie Sanders Is Not Done Fighting,” newyorker.com, June 9, 2020
56. Howie Hawkins, Twitter.com, June 12, 2020
57. For a World without Police, “The Problem,” aworldwithoutpolice.org (accessed June 18, 2020)