Protesters Call To 'Defund The Police' In Wake Of George Floyd's Death. What Does That Mean?

Activists against racial injustice and police brutality have begun galvanizing behind calls to either defund or disband police departments, but the two proposals have key differences.

Defund The Police G

As protests continue following the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody after a white Minneapolis officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest, activists, politicians and organizers have attempted to turn the emotional demonstrations into action — resulting in growing calls to radically reshape the nation's approach to policing.

Critics argue police departments, particularly in large cities, have grown too big and powerful and have fostered cultures that are resistant to reform. 

As weeks have gone by, the calls for police reform have increasingly centered around two similar yet distinct concepts: defunding the police and disbanding the police.

And activists appear to be making inroads. Over the weekend, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council indicated they support dismantling the current police force because they no longer believe reform is possible under the current structures. 

“It is clear that our system of policing is not keeping our communities safe,” Lisa Bender, the council president, said Sunday, according to the Associated Press. “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period.”

Although these proposals sound similar, they have a number of key differences that set them apart. 

Defunding The Police

Activists are calling on local officials to drastically cut or eliminate their respective police budgets in favor of moving the money to community-focused efforts, according to CNN.

"What we’re asking for is a reinvestment in how we understand what’s needed in our communities. Why is law enforcement the first responders for a mental health crisis? Why are they the first responders for domestic violence issues? Why are they the first responders for homelessness?" Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors told Boston radio outlet WBUR in an interview about potential reforms like defunding. 

"We have spent the last seven years asking for training, asking for body cameras. The body cameras have done nothing more than show us what’s happened over and over again. The training has done nothing but show us that law enforcement and the culture of law enforcement is incapable of changing," Cullors continued. 

A rationale for cutting police funding is that more money could be used for community health resources. These resources could then be called upon in situations police are not trained to handle, like mental health crises.

Even some top police officials believe that officers are already asked to do too much in areas they may not be equipped to handle. 

"The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder," former NYPD and LAPD head William Bratton told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "After 9/11, police departments, particularly in large cities, are expected to commit resources to preventing terrorism. We are expected now to deal with cyber crime, and the opioid crisis. Police are being expected to be better trained to deal with emotionally disturbed people on the street. We are asking police officers in the 21st century to be almost doctors."

Public health experts have advocated for dispatching medical professionals and social workers, not armed police, to respond to calls related to substance use and mental health — an assessment 68% of Americans agree with in a national poll published by progressive think tank Data for Progress.

A number of large cities have embraced the idea of reducing police budgets, although none have committed to defunding police altogether. Notably, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he was scrapping plans for a planned budget increase to the Los Angeles Police Department, NPR reported.

In addition to that, Garcetti also committed to finding another $250 million in cuts within the department — also saying other city departments and agencies would see cuts.

Likewise in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the city would move funding from the New York Police Department to youth initiatives and social services — but he didn’t give details on what that means, according to The AP.

Disbanding The Police

Disbanding is the more outwardly radical proposal of the two, but it also has a real-world example.

Disbanding a police force would consist of dismantling a city or community's police department and replacing it from the ground up with an entirely new agency or department. In 2012, this is what happened in the New Jersey city of Camden, which for decades was known as a hotbed for crime, according to The AP

Whereas defunding is logistically simpler, dismantling a police force has a number of hurdles for authorities to clear — namely creating an agency or agencies that will do the work currently done by the police, according to CNN. In Camden, disbanding the city police department led to the creation of a larger county-wide police department.

Over the past seven years, the new Camden County Police Department has emphasized community policing over arrest and ticket quotas for individual officers, with measurable results — the number of homicides in the city of roughly 70,000 people dropping from 67 in 2012 to just 25 in 2019, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

However, the impetus for dismantling Camden's city police department wasn't necessarily to address inequities — it was more of a workaround to hire police officers who would've been more expensive under union contracts. The newly created police force was nonunion but has since unionized, according to Bloomberg.

Continued reforms came in the years following the dismantling, like the department developing in-depth guidelines for use of force that emphasized de-escalation unless no other options remained, NJ.com previously reported. As a result, excessive force complaints against the department dropped around 95% — with only three excessive force complaints lodged last year, ABC News reported.

In spite of this, activists in Camden told Bloomberg that they are still pushing for reforms in the department, like the creation of a civilian review board for cases in which force is used, and noting changes are still needed despite measurable improvements.

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