There is a growing group of dissenters who believe Americans can survive without law enforcement as we know it. And Americans, those dissenters believe, may even be better off without it.
The solution to police brutality and racial inequalities in policing is simple, supporters say: Just defund police. The concepts have been a murmur for years, particularly following the protests against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, though it seemed improbable in 2014.
Does Defunding the Police mean Disbanding the Police?
That depends on who you ask, said Phillip McHarris, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Yale University and lead research and policy associate at the community Resource Hub for Safety and Accountability.
To Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a historian of race and criminal justice professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, history suggests that law enforcement is unable to reform itself, and expecting police to do so is like “asking the fossil fuel industry to solve the climate crisis”. He supports the growing call to defund the police, an initiative that would “shrink the footprint of policing” by drastically cutting the $100 billion the U.S. spends on law enforcement every year and investing instead in other forms of public safety, from housing to mental healthcare.
It also means dismantling the idea that police are “public stewards” meant to protect communities. Many Black Americans and other people of color do not feel protected by police, McHarris said.
Why Defund Police?
Trainings and body cameras have not brought about the change supporters want.
McHarris grew up in a neighborhood where there were “real discernible threats of gun violence,” and McHarris said he never thought to call the police – that was for his own safety. Instead, he relied on neighbors who helped him navigate threats of danger.
What if, he said those people could provide the same support they showed him on a full-time basis?
Today, police disproportionately use force against black people, and black people are more likely to be arrested and sentenced.
Where Would Those Funds Go?
Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, said defunding the police means reallocating those funds to support people and services in marginalized communities.
Those dollars can be put back into social services for mental health, domestic violence, and homelessness, among others. Police are often the first responders to all thee, she said.
Why Disband Police?
Disbanding police altogether falls on the more radical end of the police divestment spectrum, but it is gaining traction.
“The people who respond to crises in our community should be the people who are best equipped to deal with those crises,” MPD150, a community advocacy organization in Minneapolis says.
It argues law and order is not abetted by law enforcement, but through education, jobs, and mental health services that low-income communities are often denied. MPD150 and other police abolition organizations want wider access to all three.
Would Defunding Police Lead to an Increase in Violent Crimes?
Even serious crime may effectively be tackled through non-police initiatives like Cure Violence, a non-profit on whose board Muhammad sits. The organization has lowered rates of gun violence through programs that include training community members as “violence interrupters” to mediate local conflicts and helping those considered to be at risk of committing violence access resources like job training and substance dependency treatment. One study found that when the New York Police Department briefly retreated from policing low-level offenses in the face of backlash over Eric Garner’s death, major crime actually fell.
The study defines proactive policing as the “systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations” and heightened police presence in areas where “crime is anticipated.”
Will Defunding Police Come to Pass?
It is radical for an American city to operate without law enforcement, but it is already being discussed in Minneapolis.
“We cannot totally reimagine what public safety means, what skills we’re recruiting for, what tools we do and don’t need. We can invest in cultural competency and mental health training, de-escalation and conflict resolution.” – City Council Member; Steve Fletcher
Defunding is simpler than disbanding. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti agreed to slash between $100 million to $150 million from the proposed Los Angeles police department funding. It is not a significant dent in the budget but it is proof that officials are listening.
“Let’s look at what the community needs,” says Muhammad, “so that it doesn’t need policing.”