Calls to defund the police are growing in visibility as the uprising against police violence and racism grows—and the Trump campaign is predictably planning to make the idea sound suuuuper scary while tying it to former Vice President Joe Biden despite the fact that he hasn’t endorsed defunding. So just what does “defund the police” mean, anyway?
Proposals for defunding the police vary, but all focus on rolling back the expansion of policing in schools, being the part of the government that homeless people and mentally ill people are most likely to encounter, the militarized forces we’ve seen on display over the past two weeks. Instead, proponents of defunding argue for increased investment in social workers, healthcare emergency responders, violence interrupters, restorative justice, and more.
“I’m certainly not talking about any kind of scenario where tomorrow someone just flips a switch and there are no police,” sociologist and The End of Policing author Alex Vitale told NPR. “What I’m talking about is the systematic questioning of the specific roles that police currently undertake, and attempting to develop evidence-based alternatives so that we can dial back our reliance on them.”
“Even if you take something like burglary—a huge amount of burglary activity is driven by drug use,” he continued. “And we need to completely rethink our approach to drugs so that property crime isn’t the primary way that people access drugs. We don’t have any part of this country that has high-quality medical drug treatment on demand. But we have policing on demand everywhere. And it’s not working.”
In a Washington Post op-ed, Christy Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law School and co-director of Georgetown’s Innovative Policing Program, similarly emphasizes a multiyear time frame and making investments in emergency responders better equipped and more fully trained to address the kinds of scenarios police often face, “shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need.” But, she writes, there’s also a role for more modest reforms: “We cannot stop regulating police conduct now because we hope someday to reduce or eliminate our reliance on policing. We must ban chokeholds and curb the use of no-knock warrants; we must train officers how to better respond to people in mental health crises, and we must teach officers to be guardians, not warriors, to intervene to prevent misconduct and to understand and appreciate the communities they serve.”
Defunding the police isn’t a slogan that’s just emerged in the past two weeks of protest. It’s a principle of local movements in numerous cities that’s had some successes. Just last week, in Washington, D.C.’s primaries, progressive challenger Janeese Lewis George defeated a city council incumbent despite his attacks on her for her support of decreasing the police budget. “I don’t think it’s an issue that we can put into one sentence, like defund the police,” George said. “But time and time again, where the leadership is lacking, they lean on wanting to do the same thing and expecting a different result.”
“Defund the police” as a rally slogan is easily caricatured by the media and the Trump campaign. But there is a serious policy program underpinning the slogan—a long-term project that’s focused on making serious investments in communities, not simply pulling money out of police departments.