Defunding the police is not a new concept. The idea has just been largely ignored by lawmakers until recently. Advocacy groups have flooded city council meetings for years while making similar demands. Activist have been pushing officials to cease expansion of police and jail budgets and instead focus on concepts such as “books not bars,” “care not cops,” and “jobs not jails.” The main theme in these demands is to address the root causes of crime and poverty, not just criminalization. Programs that provide education, healthcare, and homeless services have been defunded in the past. Advocacy groups believe that prioritizing funding back into such programs will help eliminate the current police state.
Over the last 40 years, spending on police has tripled. These budget increases have accomplished nothing except to make America the world’s leader in police killings and incarceration. City governments have continued to increase police budgets in the past even while facing budget shortfalls. These continuous increases have also ignored research disproving a correlation between reductions in crime and increased police funding.
These dynamics quickly changed last year. Nikki Jones is a professor of African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Jones describes the change in conversations about police and systemic racism as a “paradigm shift.” Jones says, “Everyone on the street provided a new window into understanding and defining the problem of police brutality.” As Jones explained, the previous debates implied that police brutality was isolated, and law enforcement was only lacking better training. The focus had been on “bad apples,” and “implicit bias.” The uprisings have focused the attention on seemingly institutionalized problems. The only solution to reducing resulting harms is by eliminating police power via funding reductions. Riding a wave of unprecedented uprisings, lawmakers have been successfully pressured to reinvest monies in community programs. As 2021 budgets are instituted, more than 20 major cities have reduced their police budgets. The funding is being reallocated to housing, mental health care, food access, and other programs.
The reallocation of over $840 billion is unprecedented. Austin, Texas, council member Gregorio Casar helped pass major budget reallocations from city law enforcement to housing programs. “We are showing the country how reinvestments from the police budget can actually make many people’s lives so much better and safer,” said Casar. Casar added, “This will build momentum for changes to police budgets across the country.”
The city of Austin has made the nation’s most dramatic cuts. Its $1.1 billion general police fund previously allotted a full 40 percent to strictly just law enforcement and that has been reduced to 26 percent. Austin is using funding to purchase two hotels for its homeless citizens. Casar hopes to buy more. Certain 911 calls are now being forwarded to mental health professionals in a new program. Casar believes the mental health crisis should be handled with treatment, not handcuffs. The reallocated funds are also being invested in parks and substance abuse, workforce development, and victim support programs. The victim support programs are needed to clear a disturbing backlog of rape kits—the focus of a pending class action lawsuit.
Portland has cut $15 billion, while San Francisco divested $120 million over the next two years. Minneapolis is also diverting some 911 calls to its new mental health team.
Activists will now be fighting to cement these initial police budget funding reallocations. There has been increasing backlash from elected officials, community groups, and law enforcement—particularly from the powerful police unions. Citizens, too, have argued that the supposed beneficiaries of the defunding, mostly disadvantaged communities of color, will actually be harmed by reduced policing. The Reverend Harriet Walden is a Seattle advocate who fights for police accountability. Walden supports reforms that allow officers to be more easily fired if they brutalize people or violate policies. Defunding police will leave victims and Black communities vulnerable Walden fears, adding, “Crime is escalating ... and people aren’t going to get arrested or charged.” Even Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, wants more officers with better standards, not defunded police.
The system clearly needs reform. A good beginning is a balance between these two opposing opinions. Law enforcement is necessary in a functioning society, but time and money should also be invested in preventative programs. Accountability in our police is a priority in which we should all believe. Reallocating funds into community programs can’t be a bad investment if done properly and does not need to be at the expense of our safety.
As a digital subscriber to Criminal Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login