Understanding Defund the Police: Contextually, Historically and Strategically

Kathryn Snyder, left and Nolizwe Nondabula, right, raise their fists as they block traffic during a demonstration against police brutality on the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in Oakland, California on January 18, 2016.

A photo from the San Francisco Chronicle showing Kathryn Snyder, left and Nolizwe Nondabula, right, raising their fists as they block traffic during a demonstration against police brutality. The photo was taken on the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in Oakland, California on January 18, 2016.

For many of us, defunding the police is a new idea. How do we help more people in our lives understand what defund means? How can those of us who are new to this demand deepen our understanding of what frontline organizers are calling for? This piece written by WDN staffer, Kathryn Snyder, uses her deep background in criminal justice reform to explore these critical questions.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2016, I was part of a group of activists that shut down the westbound span of the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco. There had been a string of Bay Area police shootings, including Mario Woods by SFPD, and we had had enough. 

We were exhausted by the steady stream of Black deaths, vacillating between hopelessness and joylessness. For the first time, James Baldwin’s words truly resonated with me: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all the time…”

Mariame Kaba, one of today’s leading “prison industrial complex abolitionists,” writes. “There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against Black people.” 

Why Has the Call to Defund the Police Gained New Ground?

Over the next few years, there was an onslaught of Black deaths, as police interactions were videotaped and shared on social media, and names of Black people killed by police trended daily on Twitter. The summer uprisings of 2020 marked a critical juncture in the movement for racial justice and protest against police violence. During the last term of an openly racist Trump administration, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, “defund the police” emerged as a new slogan, rallying cry, and demand among people protesting police brutality. For the first time, broad national attention to police killings turned not toward more reforms like body cameras and training, but toward divesting from police altogether and investing, instead, in community care.

As activist and law professor Justin Hansford explains, the call to defund the police developed not only as a symbolic call to affirm Black lives but “a substantive slogan that includes the [policy] proposal” for how to do it. 

The movement to defund the police has gained new ground, resulting in one of the largest social movements in U.S. history. This people power has pushed federal, state, and local governments to redefine and resource safety through community systems of care and not the police. 

What is the History of Policing in the US?

The first organized police forces in the South were created in the 1700s as slave patrols – teams of vigilantes hired to recapture escaped slaves. In the early 1800s, they were used in the North to control immigrants, workers, and free Black people. Through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, police departments continued to enforce segregation and laws that kept white people in a position of power. 

“American policing has never been a neutral institution,” Paige Fernandez, MPP, Policing Policy Advisor for the ACLU, noted. “The first U.S. city police department was a slave patrol, and modern police forces have directed oppression and violence at Black people to enforce Jim Crow, wage the War on Drugs, and crack down on protests.” 

Over the past 40 years, the expansion of policing and policies such as stop-and-frisk and the “war on drugs” has helped fuel mass incarceration. In the US. Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people. Black and Brown people are disproportionately targeted from a young age, a system dubbed the “School to Prison Pipeline”, with hundreds of thousands of children ages six to 14 arrested, often by police officers stationed in schools as “school resource officers.” 

Police forces have also become more militarized. Since 1990, the federal government has transferred $6 billion of excess military equipment to local law enforcement agencies under its 1033 Program, giving police access to mine-resistant vehicles, assault rifles, and grenade launchers. For years police have also undergone “warrior training” that teaches them to see every encounter as potentially life-threatening, especially when those encounters involve people of color. 

A recent study revealed that hundreds of active-duty officers from across the country are members of racist and anti-government groups on Facebook.

What Does “Defund The Police” Mean?

The term defund the police can be quite polarizing. 

The demand to defund police is rooted in a long legacy of challenges to white supremacist violence. It echoes the demands of the Black Panther Party’s 10-point platform for Black Liberation for collective investment in meeting community needs through collective care.

Police spending has tripled over the last 40 years, helping to make the US a world leader in incarceration and police killings. Even as cities have faced financial shortfalls, local governments consistently spent an increasing share of their general funds on police, despite repeated research showing that increasing police funding does not correlate to reduced crime. 

According to DefundThePolice.org, “#DefundPolice is a strategy that is not just about decreasing police budgets, it is about reducing the power, scope, and size of police departments. It is about delegitimizing institutions of surveillance, policing and punishment. It is a strategy to advance a long-term vision of abolition of police through divestment from policing as a practice, dismantling policing institutions, and building community-based responses to harm, need, and conflict. 

It is rooted in a central demand of the Movement for Black Lives’ Vision for Black Lives, first launched in 2016 in the wake of the Ferguson Uprising: “Invest/Divest – We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations.” 

In 2020, the BREATHE Act represented a federal legislative articulation of the Invest/Divest framework, and an attempt to address the root causes and systemic nature of police violence.

At WDN we know that as white nationalism is on the rise—supporting Black-led movements is a powerful lever to create systemic change. That’s why we are proud to fund Movement for Black Lives and other Black led organizations fighting for liberation. 

How is Intersectionality Embedded in Defund the Police?

For some, like longtime abolitionist Angela Davis, the call to defund the police is an intersectional issue. She writes:

“I want us to see feminism not only as addressing issues of gender, but rather as a methodological approach of understanding the intersectionality of struggles and issues. Abolition feminism counters carceral feminism, which has unfortunately assumed that issues such as violence against women can be effectively addressed by using police force, by using imprisonment as a solution.” 

Davis goes on to expand the global relevance of the call to defund the police when she reminds us, 

“The task of solving problems rooted in colonialism and slavery requires us to recognize how the carceral system and anti-Black racism are linked to repressive border policing and detention directed at Latino communities and other immigrant communities. When we say ‘Defund the Police,’ we should also call for the abolition of ICE. And we should always keep in mind that our predicament is shared by people in many parts of the world, from Brazil and Palestine to France and South Africa.”

Does Policing Keep Us Safe?

Despite the billions of dollars spent every year on policing, more than 15,000 people were killed by gun violence in 2019 alone – disproportionately young people of color. In 2020, US police officers killed over 1,100 people, 24% of whom were Black despite Black people representing only 13% of the US population. 

Today, police disproportionately use force against Black people, and Black people are more likely to be arrested and sentenced. According to a 2019 study, Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men; Black women 1.4 times more likely than white women. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows police officers were twice as likely to use force against people of color than against white people. 

The American Public Health Association declared police violence a public health issue in 2018, stating, “[a]lmost 10 percent of all homicides in the US are committed by police. Even if some may be ‘lawful,’ it’s not ok that we kill 1,000-1,200 people a year by police.” 

Many of us have been taught to equate policing with public safety and can’t imagine alternatives to a punitive law enforcement model. But for many individuals and communities of color, policing has brought terror rather than safety. One-third of Black respondents from a nationally representative YouGov poll taken in mid-June 2020 expressed no trust in the police as an institution.

“We can’t reform the police,” Mariame Kaba writes. “The only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police. We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete. We can build other ways of responding to harms in our society.”

Greg Casar, City Council Member from Austin, Texas stated, “We should be treating homelessness not with policing, but with housing. We should be treating addiction not with policing, but with treatment. We have dedicated so many of our public dollars simply to policing, and that hasn’t made us actually more safe.”

Police have to deal with calls about mental illness, homelessness, domestic disputes, barking dogs, neighbors playing loud music, and various non-criminal activities, on top of actual violations of the law. 9 out of 10 calls for service are for nonviolent encounters

In 2016, then Dallas police chief David Brown shared, “Every societal failure, we put it on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding? Let the cops handle it. Not enough drug-addiction funding? Let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we have a loose dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail – give it to the cops…That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

Do Body Cameras, Training, And Other Reform Measures End Cycles Of Police Violence?

In this NYT op-ed, Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris, from the Movement for Black Lives, argue:

“Look at the Minneapolis Police Department, which is held up as a model of progressive police reform. The department offers procedural justice as well as training for implicit bias, mindfulness and de-escalation. It embraces community policing and officer diversity, bans ‘warrior style’ policing, uses body cameras, implements an early intervention system to identify problematic officers, receives training around mental health crisis intervention, and practices ‘reconciliation’ efforts in communities of color.”

Still, George Floyd and numerous other black men, Indigenous men, and Latino men were killed by Minneapolis Police Department officers between Jan. 2000 and May 31, 2020

Police murders continue across the country, with 1,002 people shot and killed by police already this year.

Is Divestment from Police and Investment in Communities Possible?

US cities collectively spend $100 billion a year on policing, while needed investments in education, health care, housing, and other critical programs go unfulfilled, particularly in poor communities and communities of color. New York City, for example, spends more on policing than it does on the Departments of Health, Homeless Services, Housing Preservation and Development, and Youth and Community Development, combined. 

Due in large part to tireless organizing, cities are beginning to redistribute law enforcement money to housing, mental health programs, food access and other programs. More than 20 major cities have reduced their police budgets in some form. According to a report by Hardisty grantee, Interrupting Criminalization, advocacy groups won over $840 million in direct cuts from US police departments in 2020, and at least $160 million in investments in community services. 

Portland, Oregon cut $15 million from its police budget and disbanded a gun violence reduction unit and transit team accused of over-policing Black communities. San Francisco officials pledged to divest $120 million from police over two years with plans to invest in health programs and workforce training. Minneapolis is launching a mental health team to respond to certain 911 calls. In Chicago, the #NoCopAcademy campaign galvanized thousands of community members and garnered the support of more than 100 community organizations in urging the city to shift funding for a new $95 million police academy to programs that benefit youth and communities. 

What’s critical, advises Kaba, is to offer people a vision of public safety that doesn’t include police. “The fact that police abolition is unthinkable to so many people is profoundly dangerous. It means that police have so thoroughly colonized and dominated our thinking that we are unable to even imagine a world where they don’t exist. The fact is that we haven’t always had police. What makes us believe that we always will – or that we always will have to?

The idea of defunding the police and investing those dollars in community programs and services can stir up a lot of thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Coming to your own opinion can be aided through self and community discussion. This is something we do really well at WDN. Here are some questions we are asking ourselves and within our community.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should police departments be defunded? Why or why not?
  2. Are any police reform efforts helpful? Which reforms? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think abolishing police departments would resolve or create more problems for communities of color? Why or why not?
  4. Do you think defunding or eliminating police departments would lead to greater violence in our cities? Why or why not?

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