Black Lives Matter co-founder explains what ‘defund the police’ actually means

People walk on the words ‘defund the police’ that was painted in bright yellow letters on 16th Street as demonstrators protest Sunday, June 7, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Maya Alleruzzo/AP
  • Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza explained Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that defunding the police means a realignment of society’s priorities by way of funding and responsibilities in the community.
  • The demand has gained growing support in recent weeks as a major step towards reform that combines rerouting funds from police departments and redistributing duties within community groups.
  • In Minneapolis, where George Floyd died while subdued in police custody, setting off global protests, local lawmakers have floated disbanding the police department as officials in major cities like New York and Los Angeles have announced budget cuts for police in favour of developing social programs.
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Protests over George Floyd’s death in police custody has reignited calls to “defund the police” as advocates demand reform to policing in America and look to lawmakers to reckon budgets in major US cities.

But what do advocates mean by calling to “defund the police?”

The movement comes as a step-up from advocates who argue that overhauls are necessary since previous reform attempts in the wake of brutal incidents have failed and the US is significantly out of step with comparable nations across the world in its spending on the military and law enforcement.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza clarified Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that defunding the police means a realignment of society’s priorities by way of funding and responsibilities in the community.

“When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is ‘invest in the resources that our communities need,'” she said.

“Are we willing to live in fear that our lives will be taken by police officers who are literally using their power in the wrong way?” she asked. “Or are we willing to adopt and absorb the fear of what it might mean to change our practices, which will ultimately lead to a better quality of life for everyone.”

Diverting resources is a key step to law enforcement reform

The calls to “defund the police” are often backed up by advocates urging leaders to divert funding from the police department to social programs and development.

The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of black-rights groups, released a petition that gained signatures from scores of celebrities and pointed to the deaths of black Americans like Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor as examples of systematic brutality that plagues black communities across the country.

The petition says that increases in law enforcement funding should instead be routed to causes like neighbourhood infrastructures, childcare, education, creating “a public national healthcare system,” and other causes that “support a vibrant Black future.”

The US is ripe for redistributing those funds, as advocates point to the national norm of exorbitant spending on police departments. The cost of policing in the US has nearly tripled to $US115 billion in the past four decades, according to a recent analysis of US Census Bureau data reported by Bloomberg.

In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed and protests kicked off on May 25, council members floated disbanding the police department as the state’s public institutions like colleges and museums began publicly divesting from police.

On June 7, a veto-proof majority of Minneapolis City Council members announced an official commitment to disbanding the department in favour of community-centric public safety efforts.

“Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it, and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe,” City Council President Lisa Bender said Sunday, The Appeal reported.

Pushes for defunding have also taken hold in cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

Gothamist reported on May 15 that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2021 granted the NYPD a cut from its $US6 billion budget of just $US23.8 million, or 0.39%.

After a New York councilman called for a $US1 billion divestment from the NYPD, de Blasio announced on June 7 that the city government would be shifting police department funding and resources towards youth services.

“The details will be worked out in the budget process in the weeks ahead,” he said in the announcement. “But I want people to understand that we are committed to shifting resources to ensure that the focus is on our young people.”

In addition to funds, responsibilities would be shifted away from police departments

Former Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour wrote on Twitter Sunday that “defunding police” means shifting social welfare responsibilities away from police departments, like responding to drug overdoses and mental health crises, to medical or social work professionals.

“Take cops out of schools, out of dealing with mental health crises, out of addressing homelessness, etc,” Sarsour tweeted. “Then when you do, you take the resources and put them towards social workers, mental health services, housing, etc.”

The New York Times reported that in discussions around police department reform and realignment, the Minneapolis City Council pointed to a third-party solution. Diverting those responsibilities could pose both an economic advantage for budget-balancing officials and police reform advocates.

Cahoots, a nonprofit mobile crisis intervention program has handled mental health calls in Eugene, Oregon, since 1989.

“Cahoots employees responded to more than 24,000 calls for service last year – about 20 per cent of the area’s 911 calls – on a budget of about $US2 million, probably far less than what it would cost the Police Department to do the work,” the Times reported, citing the program’s operations coordinator.

As tensions heighten, police reform faces an uncertain future

Since the US is a top spender on military and law enforcement, there’s not a comparable model from another country that defunded police, but small examples in pulling back police presence suggest there’s no threat of rising crime.

The NYPD, the largest department in the country, has offered a few examples that support pulling back aggressive policing does not mean a rise in crime.

When the city ended “stop and frisk,” which a federal district court judge later labelled a “policy of indirect racial profiling,” there was no rise in crime. In a period from 2014 through 2015 when the department pulled back on “proactive policing,” 2,100 fewer crime complaints were made, according to a 2017 report.

“Seven years ago people thought that Black Lives Matter was a radical idea,” Garza said Sunday. “And yet Black Lives Matter is now a household name and it’s something being discussed across kitchen tables all over the world. Why can’t we start to look at how it is that we reorganise our priorities so that people don’t have to be in the streets protesting during a national pandemic?”

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