Why ‘defund the police’ could backfire

As protests for police reforms and racial equality continue across the United States and around the world, “defund the police” is gaining traction as a call to reimagine policing. The phrase is intentionally provocative, but activists and academics are quick to point out that it is “not as scary (or radical) as it sounds.” But words matter, and slogans like “defund (or abolish) the police,” taken without nuanced explainers, could backfire on the very reforms activists want to achieve. 

For most activists, defunding the police does not necessarily mean doing away with police departments (although the Minneapolis City Council has already voted to disband the city’s police force). In most cases, defunding the police might look more like cutting expanding budgets, such as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti deciding to slash up to $150 million from the LAPD’s $1.86 billion budget.

A more systemic approach sought by advocates is to re-direct dollars currently going to policing to social services like mental health, domestic abuse, and homelessness, and invest in professionals who could be first responders in those situations instead of police, as is the case in most U.S. precincts. Other proposals include making federal funding to local police departments contingent on making reforms, or shifting current police funds towards community mediation and violence prevention programs. 

For those already sympathetic enough to read the fine print, there are a number of interesting policy proposals worthy of consideration. But those important conversations might not happen if the slogans themselves push away those who most need to engage with them, including policymakers and police themselves. 

In a recent conversation I had with Roger McCallum, a former police commander who helped oversee the reform of the police service in Northern Ireland following the Troubles, he underscored the crucial need to work with, not against, police officers during periods of institutional reform and transition. The U.S., of course, represents a different context with a different history, but Northern Ireland’s experience of reforming a historically militarized and highly sectarian police force into a diverse and apolitical community police service offers pragmatic lessons in getting police on-board through resource-intensive (re)training.

Indeed, even for those who are willing to reimagine policing, public cries to “defund the police” could make it that much harder to get the dollars needed to invest in systemic reforms. Necessary changes in use-of-force procedures, such as requiring de-escalation and use-of-force continuums, advocated by groups like the #8Can’tWait campaign, require substantial investment for training and research. Likewise, crucial demands for increased accountability and transparency require substantial resources for accurate data collection and monitoring. Further, long-term shifts from traditional to community policing approaches, like those undertaken by the widely-hailed Camden, New Jersey, police department, are made possible only via increased resources, with the Camden department actually increasing in size.

Some might consider the Camden example as a success story of  “dismantling” the police, in that the original city police force was dissolved to enable the launch of the larger, community-service-focused department with the surrounding county. But the key was that the focus was on the re-building, not the disbanding. This was crucial for getting the commitment of the police officers involved in the transition, and also for community members, with most communities (across racial lines) preferring some continuation of police presence

There are some who maintain that, given that past procedural reforms have not ended police violence, reforms are not enough, and a more radical “abolish the police” objective is necessary. But most people who use the “defund the police” phrase support more nuanced approaches of re-distributing funding for public safety by increasing investment in other crucial social services. However, the potential conversation around the plausibility of such policies risks being obscured by reducing it to a controversial slogan. Such framings can be useful for mobilizing adherents but can backfire when trying to translate protests into policy.

The current movement has created an unprecedented moment for long-needed reforms. Recent polls show that a strong majority of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, favor police reforms. Less than 1 in 5 support defunding the police. 

By conflating reforming the police with defunding the police, activists risk missing an opportunity to win public support and investment in much-needed reforms.

Julie Norman, PhD, is a lecturer and researcher in the political science department at University College London (UCL). Follow her on Twitter @DrJulieNorman2.

Tags Camden defund the police Eric Garcetti George Floyd protests killing of George Floyd police brutality police reform

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