What 'defund the police' actually means

What 'defund the police' actually means
© Getty Images

The killing of George Floyd has sparked a defining moment for the United States.  These past weeks have held up a giant mirror to the nation that reflects decades of unattended and dangerously infected racial wounds. 

Through the years, we have tried to mask these wounds with Band-Aids. But current events have ripped the bandages off to expose the cancer of racial injustice that continues to metastasize.  

As a result, we are facing a national reckoning. Black Lives Matter has become the movement that can lead to real change and meaningful reform that can help to heal the country’s exposed wounds. 


“Defund the police” has become a clarion call for many who are fed up with platitudes and inaction.

We should acknowledge, however, that the words “defund the police” are unhelpful in getting bipartisan support for policies that will make a difference in combating systemic racism. 

Those who seek real reform should make clear what we are fighting for. Defunding the police does not mean abolishing law enforcement, police officers or policing. That makes no sense. 

Perhaps a better term would be: “Redefine police.”

Redefining police means cities must take a whole new look at the way policing is done and how department budgets are determined; it means ensuring that resources go to professional training, community policing, cultural competency training and complete transparency of police officers’ past conduct and records. 


It also means that the policies guiding the departments put a stop to police brutality and abuse, hold police officers accountable for their conduct and ensure that they protect and serve all communities equally. 

Advocates for change are demanding a redefining of what policing looks like and that city budgets prioritize community initiatives for mental health, youth programs, social services and services for the homeless. 

Black Lives Matter’s website, under “Defund the Police,” calls for “an end to the systemic racism that allows this culture of corruption to go unchecked and our lives to be taken.” There is no question that this needs to be the goal.

The Justice in Policing Act of 2020, introduced by Reps. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump takes on CDC over schools Tim Scott says he's talking with House Democrats about reviving police reform bill Biden-Sanders 'unity task force' rolls out platform recommendations MORE (D-Calif.) and Jerry NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerNadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' Nadler wins Democratic primary Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Senators raise concerns over Facebook's civil rights audit Biden's marijuana plan is out of step with public opinion MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs MORE (D-N.J.), lays out the principles that seek to end the discriminatory practices that too many police officers have engaged in against people of color, many times to tragic ends, and for which they faced no accountability. 

The bill would also ban chokeholds, create a misconduct registry and mandate training  against racial profiling. 

In sync with what advocates are asking for, the bill also “establishes public safety innovation grants for community-based organizations to create local commissions and task forces to help communities to re-imagine and develop concrete, just and equitable public safety approaches.” These local commissions would take up many of the recommendations in President Obama’s 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Sadly, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeSantis on Florida schools reopening: 'If you can do Walmart,' then 'we absolutely can do schools' NYT editorial board calls for the reopening of schools with help from federal government's 'checkbook' Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' MORE and many other Republicans are using calls to defund the police as an excuse to paint Democrats as weak on crime and as advocating lawlessness. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

We need to focus on the goals that we all agree on. Systemic racism has plagued America’s law enforcement since its founding, and it needs to be rooted out. 

Republicans should stop playing politics and continuing to cover up the roots of the problem by focusing on the few rioters amid the peaceful protestors who took to the streets after Floyd’s death. They need to join with Democrats and focus on the change the country needs and wants. 

New polls indicate that Americans have shifted on the issue of racial inequities in law enforcement. An overwhelming majority of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, agree with the necessity of making changes to our law enforcement system in order to address the inequitable racial treatment of the communities they are sworn to serve and protect.

If Trump and congressional Republicans continue to try to divide the country on this critical issue and attempt to decontextualize the desperate and rage-filled cries for change, voters will elect a leader who understands and rises to this historic moment.

Words are cheap; actions speak volumes. It is time to make the promise of “liberty and justice for all” a reality for all Americans. 

Maria Cardona is a longtime Democratic strategist and co-chair of the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws committee for the party's 2020 convention. She is a principal at Dewey Square Group, a Washington-based political consulting agency, and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.