Police walking in front of american flag neon sign.

What does “Defund the Police” mean? Finding Answers to Common Questions.

Published August 18, 2020

Following the University at Buffalo School of Law’s recent webinar discussion, this blog post answers some of the more common questions around defunding the police and how attempts to do so are gaining traction in the US and around the world.

Society has reached a pivotal moment regarding racial inequality and the demands for justice and equity. Spurred in part by the recent unjust killings of Black people including Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the movement to defund the police is gaining traction to drastically rethink the role police departments play in our communities.

To address these concerns and other common questions, the law school’s Buffalo Criminal Law Colloquium hosted a webinar last week focused on Defunding the Police. Moderated by Anthony O'Rourke, Professor of Law & Director of the Advocacy Institute here at the University at Buffalo School of Law, the discussion included a panel of experts on the intersections between criminal law and sociology, local government, disability theory and anti-carceral social movements:

Monica Bell
Associate Professor of Law, Yale Law School
Associate Professor of Sociology, Yale University
Allegra McLeod
Professor of Law
Georgetown University Law Center
Jamelia N. Morgan
Associate Professor of Law & Robert D. Glass Research Scholar
University of Connecticut School of Law
Rick Su
Professor of Law
University of North Carolina School of Law

As American culture comes to grips with this movement and its correlation with abolitionist endeavors and calls for reparations, many seek clarification. What does “defund the police” mean? Could this lead to lawlessness? Is it similar to other radical movements that have found success? This post focuses on how the panelists answered these questions and spoke to the work being done.

How should we define “defund the police”? What do activists mean in their calls to defund and why are they gaining traction now?

“Defund the police” is—at its core—a call to divest resources from police budgets and invest them in meaningful public safety and wellbeing programs like housing, healthcare, job growth and education. To use New York City as an example, their police budget in 2019 was nearly $6 billion.[1] Simply put, the defund the police movement is about demanding better allocation of funds.

In a broader sense, Rick Su sees the defund movement as putting policing under a microscope to see how it can be reimagined in society. “Defunding is a reaction from the public consciousness of how entrenched the police are in our society. Only by defunding can we take away that power and entrenchment to reimagine public safety.”

Another aspect involves reparations and calling out attempts to co-opt defunding the police from its activist origins. Jamelia Morgan highlights “the omnipresence of police in Black neighborhoods” and how they still struggle to protect those areas. “If we look at abolitionist organization work right now, they are pushing back to say ‘We are part of this society too, and any conversation that doesn’t include us shouldn’t be legitimized.’”

So why is this finally starting to happen now? “Organization,” says Monica Bell. “This modern movement is a product of abolitionist organizing that has been going on for a long time and is now finally starting to change electoral politics on a local level.” Allegra McLeod echoes that sentiment. “We must address root causes instead of increasing superficial reforms. When we say defund the police, we are really saying fund the people.”

How can police exist without funding? Doesn’t this lead to lawlessness?

This is a common refrain not just from police departments but others who might not understand the basis of the defund movement. To properly explain it, McLeod says we should take a step back and first view abolitionist thinking in its historical context.

“Calls to defund the police grew out of decades of organization by Black people and primarily Black women. The first point worth emphasizing is penal abolition—not simply the abolition of prisons or police—and the form of governance that has long propped up white supremacy by caging and subjugating people of color.”

By deconstructing these systems, we can begin to reshape how we address concerns of safety within our communities. Contemporary abolitionists seek to use alternatives to policing through using de-escalation, gradually substituting our existing frameworks to move towards preventative justice. McLeod mentions a recent attempt at this in the District of Columbia, which sought to reduce funding to police and increase taxes to the wealthy by just 1.5% to help further enable programs for the most marginalized in the community. Unfortunately, that measure failed.

Another counterargument is that the current approach to policing doesn’t adequately address lawlessness right now. Take Chicago for example, where gun violence is very prevalent in lower income neighborhoods and communities of color. “The overwhelming amount of homicides in these communities of color do not result in arrests or prosecutions by the police,” McLeod remarks. “And even if they did, would that equate to justice in those cases?”

With the overwhelming budgets of police departments in areas like these around the country, why aren’t those crimes seeing the same level of investigation as other communities?

To sum it up, Bell describes it as a need to fully “disentangle the idea that policing is how we get public safety.”

Shouldn’t we increase police pay in marginalized communities to help those communities more?

Overfunded police departments already struggle to make arrests for violent crimes in marginalized communities. Bell points out that a lot of police in these areas do not love their jobs.

“It’s a difficult job for police to function as this facet of social control, especially while caught up in a toxic structure. Many officers work difficult jobs while still losing in the world of capitalism. Even though they might not be bad people themselves, they are part of a bad system. The answer is not to pay them more to stay in the bad system but to find other ways for them to do work in public safety.”

We ultimately have to think about where investments should and shouldn’t go. “If officers are motivated to the defund cause,” says Bell, “they should be brought on as advocates of abolitionism, because they aren’t winning in the current system.” As allies, officers motivated to do public service could be given better pay to do more for their communities in a potentially safer environment.

How does defund the police relate to other radical movements, like the disability rights movement?

On the surface, defunding the police sounds like an insurmountable task but it’s worth remembering that no significant change comes easy or without persistence. So, are there any precedents for radical movements like this? “Legal scholars that study the criminal justice system and reform need to incorporate disability movements into the conversation,” says Morgan. “The social movement was driven by people with disabilities telling their own accounts, saying they can demonstrate for themselves.” The power that grew behind the disability rights movement led to the closure and depopulation of largely harmful psych hospitals, other facilities that poorly housed people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and culminated in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

While there are a variety of differences, the defund movement shares similar goals. “Legislative responses create long-term support services in communities,” says Morgan. In the case of the disability rights movement, it meant the elderly and other people with disabilities didn’t have to leave their communities to get the help they need. Defunding the police is similarly focused around reallocating funds to prop up the communities in need to help them not only become self-sustainable, but flourish.

What can we do as law scholars to be helpful and hold productive conversations?

As the movement begins to shift from the streets and into classrooms and political discourse, how should those of us in the field of law address the discussion? Bell says it’s important first and foremost not to be dismissive. “Scholars sometimes start the conversation with the phrase ‘Well, it’s just not possible’ and that’s where the conversation also ends. But that’s not really a scholarly point to make.”

Keep the discussion open by discussing state and local government procedures, emphasizing how these types of changes can take place. “The police we have now are the result of very radical reforms,” says Su. “They were just the wrong types of reforms. We can make radical changes again; we just have to keep working at it.”

This is a very layered and nuanced situation, but it isn’t just being taken on by those living in the United States. Abolitionist organizers are working internationally to dismantle racism and classism. Organizers in Ferguson have worked with organizers in Palestine and Brazil among others. Even though it’s a hyper local issue, it also has a global focus and scholars can play their part by keeping the conversations thoughtful and rooted in realistic examples.

Final thoughts

Though defund the police has taken the spotlight in mainstream media in recent months, it is not an endeavor that will be solved overnight. As the movement gains significant momentum, it’s important that educators, lawmakers and indeed students understand and discuss the variety of issues that go into defunding the police so that they can help push for positive change that delivers both justice and reform.

Check out our events calendar for more informative webinars like this one or to discover additional workshops and law-related resources.

Footnotes and Additional Reading

[1] New York City Police Budget, 2019
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/20/nyregion/defund-police-nypd-budget.html

“Policing Has Failed: For Real Public Safety, We Need A Million Community-Driven Experiments” by Mary Hooks
https://www.essence.com/feature/defund-police-abolition-m4bl-song/

The Breathe Act
https://breatheact.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/The-BREATHE-Act-PDF_FINAL3-1.pdf

“How I Became a Police Abolitionist” by Derecka Purnell
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/how-i-became-police-abolitionist/613540/

Christmas in Purgatory: A Photographic Essay on Mental Retardation
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/277553.Christmas_in_Purgatory

Decarcerating Disability by Liat Ben-Moshe
https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/decarcerating-disability

“Police ‘Reforms’ You Should Always Oppose” by Mariame Kaba
https://truthout.org/articles/police-reforms-you-should-always-oppose/

“The Interconnectedness of Black and Palestinian Struggles” by Ajamu Amiri Dillahunt
https://www.aaihs.org/the-interconnectedness-of-black-and-palestinian-struggles/

Photo of Samantha Gier.

Brent Gladney is a freelance writer based in Buffalo, NY.

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