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How ‘defund the police’ went mainstream, and what that means

The police abolition movement has been bubbling underground for years. But the protests against police brutality have pushed its radical ideas to the forefront in 2020.

Bernice Lauredan once believed in the system.

As a teenager and then a young woman, she worked for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. She knew America had structural problems, but she thought voting and activism could make things better.

That optimism waned. Nothing had changed.

Then the 2018 Parkland school shooting horrified her — and radicalized her. She couldn’t stop thinking about how the state responded to a mass shooting that killed 17 in an affluent community compared to how it responded to the 2016 Pulse massacre in Orlando, where 49 people died in an attack on a club for LGBTQ people of color.

The Florida Legislature drastically — and quickly — changed the way schools can be protected after Parkland. But four years after Pulse, lawmakers are still debating how much to spend on a memorial.

“It just seemed so clearly that race and sexual orientation played a big factor in how the state handled both of those things,” the 28-year-old activist said.

Two years later, Lauredan is no longer trying to fix a broken system. Now she works with Tampa Dream Defenders, a group that wants to upend that system through the abolition of prisons and police.

Related: What does it mean to ‘defund the police’?

Activists like Lauredan can often point to that moment when a switch flipped: their own brushes with police violence, a book or documentary that exposed structural racism or other discrimination.

For a growing number, that moment came May 25, when a Minneapolis police officer asphyxiated George Floyd, or during the wave of protests that followed. Now, they’re pushing calls to defund the police — and to one day abolish them altogether — from the margins into the mainstream.

Mainstream acceptance is another thing, however. The defund movement is opposed by 64 percent of Americans, according to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll.

Law enforcement leaders in Tampa Bay and across the nation have criticized the idea. Both presidential candidates oppose it. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called it an invitation to chaos.

Yet the defund movement is already making an impact. Police reforms proposed in Minneapolis, San Francisco and other major American cities align with some of its goals.

Reformers think brutality and racism can be rooted out of law enforcement. Abolitionists don’t agree.

They believe the only way to keep a poison tree from bearing poison fruit is to chop it down.

• • •

Defunding the police is an idea that has moved from activists’ circles to being discussed in opinion pieces and cable news panels. It can be a confusing debate, however, because different activists want different things.

The more conservative advocates lobby for reducing the size and budgets of police agencies — or rebuilding them from the ground up.

Others see calls for defunding police as the start of a gradual process that would end in abolition.

The most radical are demanding swift, total abolition of all law enforcement.

Related: Are Tampa Bay police targeting protest leaders?
Cody Krukauskas, 24, left, and Fay Hoskins, 28, took part in the June 10 protest march outside St. Petersburg City Hall. The defund the police, or police abolition movement, has seized the moment amid nationwide protests against police brutality. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Nearly all feel that parts or all of police budgets are better spent on attacking the root causes of crime — addressing issues like poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental health — which they say would eliminate the need for a police force.

Angel D’Angelo formed the Restorative Justice Coalition, a Hillsborough County group in favor of defunding the police, after Plant City police officers shot and killed Jesus Cervantes, a 35-year-old father of four in 2017.

“Abolishing police is more about abolishing the society that calls that we even need to have such a system,” said D’Angelo, 31.

In his view, law enforcement budgets should be first reduced to focus on homicides, sexual batteries and other violent crimes. Eventually, police departments would be abolished. The funds taken from police budgets could be used to expand housing assistance, hire more social workers and mental health professionals, boost public transit and support struggling neighborhoods.

Abolitionists argue that those measures will drastically reduce or prevent many of the incidents police respond to — such as theft and other property crimes, and conflicts stemming from mental illness or substance abuse.

“Poverty breeds crime, because people have to eat,” Lauredan said. “Or they don’t have the support that they need. Part of being an abolitionist is being curious and trying to think of the world not as it is but as it could be.”

• • •

There would be unintended consequences, said Phillip Atiba Goff, a professor on race and policing who founded the Center for Policing Equity.

He warned in a June 9 opinion piece in the Financial Times that “creating a lighter footprint for policing without leaving communities even more vulnerable to violence presents real challenges.”

Defunding may not improve police behavior either, he argued.

“Most union contracts require the newest officers to be first on the chopping block,” he wrote. “So, say goodbye to the most progressive officers, least entrenched in department culture.”

Related: Why do Tampa Bay’s police keep clashing with protesters?

Law enforcement leaders actually support some of the movement’s goals, he said, like finding alternative agencies to help someone experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis.

But cutting police budgets without building up those resources first would leave communities without any safety net. Defunding also means less officers who can help in a crisis, he wrote, such as treating a drug overdose or preventing a suicide.

There’s also the question of who will help crime victims. Who responds when someone’s home is broken into in a defunded world? No one can say for sure because abolitionists’ goals are theoretical, said University of South Florida criminology professor Lorie Fridell.

But she said thinking about those issues can help society rethink what it wants the police to do versus what the police do now.

“I think it’s a very constructive conversation that we can start having to ask those questions,” she said. “If we were starting from scratch, how would we achieve public safety and where does the police fit in.”

Related: An expert in police training in the middle of protests and the debate of police brutality

Public polling shows sharp racial, age and political divides when it comes to defunding. In the June 12 ABC News/Ipsos poll, which surveyed 686 adults, more than half of Democrats said they supported defunding the police, as did 57 percent of Black respondents. More than 40 percent of those under age 50 did, too.

But Republicans almost uniformly disapprove of the movement. Just over a quarter of white respondents said they approved. And less than a quarter of those over age 50 backed the idea.

Those results, along with recent polls on police reform, point to an American populus that’s much more comfortable with incremental reforms than major change.

Protesters lin down in front of St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters during June 2 demonstrations against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's death. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests have already spurred some reforms. When the protests started, Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies adopted policies that require officers to intervene if they see a fellow officer engaged in misconduct.

Reformers say research suggests stricter policies can reduce the number of people who die in police encounters. But Minneapolis had a similar policy in place when three officers stood by as a fourth kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes.

The concept of abolition isn’t new. Activists and academics were articulating these ideas as early as the 1970s, and today’s police abolition movement naturally grew out of the prison abolition movement that’s picked up steam over the past two decades.

What’s different now isn’t the ideas — it’s that they’ve been pushed into the spotlight.

• • •

In the Tampa Bay area, the largest law enforcement agencies account for anywhere from 32 percent and 46 percent of general funds.

Gualtieri, one of the state’s most influential law enforcement leaders, has called the police abolition movement “dangerous” and “unrealistic.” In 2019-2020, his agency made up nearly 42 percent of Pinellas County’s general fund budget.

He told the Tampa Bay Times that talk of defunding is “a knee-jerk reaction.” Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister used the same words during a June 9 Zoom panel with activists and defense attorneys.

“You’ve got to have law enforcement in this country,” Gualtieri said. “You’ve got to have order. You’ve got to have discipline.”

Related: Want to ‘defund’ a Florida sheriff? Gov. Ron DeSantis might have the final say.

Gualtieri said he believes the officer in Minneapolis should be punished — and will be. But he compared calls for defunding and abolishing the police to a form of prejudice against law enforcement.

“Are they in some respects doing to us the same things that they’re complaining that are done to them?” he said. “That there’s this blanket treating people a certain way that’s wrong.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, the city’s former police chief, also called abolition an overreaction. But she does believe that local governments are “asking the police to do too much. … Officers are asked to be the mental health experts, they’re asked to be the teachers, they’re asked to be the counselors.”

St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway said society needs police, but like Castor, he thinks it’s a ripe time for law enforcement to look at their responsibilities and alternatives for things like mental health calls and truancy.

“We should go back to the basics,” Holloway said. “What was law enforcement made for, to protect people.”

Related: Tampa Mayor Jane Castor selected for nationwide police reform initiative
Law enforcement officials, including Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri (in the yellow tie directly above the president), applaud after President Donald Trump signed an executive order encouraging federal police reforms on Tuesday in the Rose Garden of the White House. [EVAN VUCCI | AP]

President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order — with Gaultieri standing next to him in the Rose Garden — encouraging modest federal police reforms.

The president also called the defund movement “radical and dangerous.”

His opponent, Joe Biden, called for ending systemic racism in policing, housing and education in a June 10 USA Today opinion piece.

But he supports giving police more funding, and he also said this:

“I do not support defunding police.”

• • •

Harvard University assistant professor Brandon Terry, who teaches African and African American studies, said there are two reasons why this wave of Black Lives Matter protests have such staying power compared to protests six years ago:

Black intellectuals have built a foundation over which policing and racism is now regularly debated. And the pandemic has left broad swaths of Americans unemployed and disillusioned with governmental and social systems.

“(Protesters') tactics rise to meet a moment where people’s sense of what form of life they want to build for the next generation, what parts of their past they want to disavow, is up for grabs,” Terry said. “That’s where we are right now.”

The most famous social movements reshaped what people thought of as worthy ideas and legitimized new voices in the ensuing debate, Terry said.

Black Lives Matter protesters are creating a crisis of respectability, doing what the civil rights movement did half a century ago. Then, people were horrified as they watched on network television as protesters in their Sunday best were beaten by police officers.

Now, images of peaceful protesters being struck, manhandled and injured by police circulate on social media.

“The fact that you’re seeing brutality unleashed and militarism unleashed on this dramatic, really horrifying scale,” Terry said, “I think that is an education for a lot of people.”

At the age of 68, Bahiyyah Sadiki is one of the oldest marchers taking part in Wednesday night's protest in St. Petersburg. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Governments spend substantial sums on policing, yet a historic drop in crime has not resulted in a decrease in fatal encounters with police.

FBI data shows violent crime in the U.S. has fallen 51 percent from 1993 to 2018. But a Washington Post database tracking police shootings since 2015 shows officers across the country have consistently shot and killed about 1,000 people a year through 2019.

The real test, according to Terry, will be whether politicians act — if they will truly threaten police budgets.

• • •

As the protests over Floyd’s deaths continue, some cities are already taking steps that abolitionists have long called for.

In Minneapolis, where the police force accounts for 36 percent of the city’s general fund, leaders moved fast after Floyd’s death. A veto-proof bloc on the City Council stood in Powderhorn Park on June 9 and called for dismantling the police department.

School officials in Denver, Portland and Oakland have moved toward removing police from schools — something that abolitionists consider a key step toward their goal. Students and teachers’ unions are pressuring other cities to do the same.

San Francisco’s mayor responded to the defund movement by promising that police would no longer respond to non-violent, non-criminal situations, with social workers and other unarmed professionals handling issues such as mental illness, school discipline, homelessness and neighborhood disputes.

Related: This is an unprecedented wave of progressive activism. Are Florida Democrats ready to seize it?
Nala Williams, 8, looks up at a mural honoring George Floyd that was painted in Houston's Third on June 7. [DAVID J. PHILLIP | AP]

No one can say what true abolition would look like, however, because police have been part of American society for nearly two centuries.

“We recognize that we don’t have all the answers about what a police-free future looks like, but our community does,” the Minneapolis council majority declared in a statement. There are many obstacles: Voters must amend the city charter, and proposed police reforms may not get past a divided Minnesota legislature. Still, the council bloc said reform is no longer enough:

“Decades of police reform efforts have proved that the Minneapolis Police Department cannot be reformed and will never be accountable for its actions.”

D’Angelo and his group of Hillsborough activists have been talking about the size of police budgets for years with little traction, he said. Now, he said, more people are listening, and asking questions about topics they hadn’t considered.

As for those who call the idea crazy, D’Angelo said gay marriage and voting rights were once thought to be radical ideas.

“Everything’s always impossible until it happens,” D’Angelo said. “There was a time when police didn’t exist, and that can happen again.”

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.