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What does it mean to ‘defund the police’?

A quick primer on a movement that’s moved from the margins into the mainstream in recent weeks.
Cody Krukauskas, 24, of St. Petersburg, left, and Fay Hoskins, 28, of St. Petersburg,  participate in a protest march from Wednesday, June 10, 2020.
Cody Krukauskas, 24, of St. Petersburg, left, and Fay Hoskins, 28, of St. Petersburg, participate in a protest march from Wednesday, June 10, 2020. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 15, 2020|Updated Jun. 16, 2020

In recent weeks, some protesters of police violence have called for defunding law enforcement agencies. Critics have seized on those calls as evidence of a radical agenda in seeking to discredit the protests.

Some advocates support the total abolition of police departments. Others say they are not talking about getting rid of police altogether, but handing some of their responsibilities to professionals better equipped to respond to the root problems. They say police have been asked to address an array of societal problems — from drug abuse to mental illness and marital strife — that have been criminalized rather than treated, and that the money spent on policing would be better spent elsewhere.

Here’s a primer on the discussion.

What is defunding? What is abolition?

Defunding the police means cutting the budgets of local law enforcement agencies and instead investing the money in community programs, accessible housing and public health (including mental health care), among other social needs. One leading abolitionist campaign, 8toAbolition, says that defunding isn’t the only step toward abolition: It also advocates for reducing police union power and requiring police agencies rather than cities or counties to cover costs in misconduct lawsuit settlements.

Those in favor of abolition want a world with no police at all. Most see it as a goal to be achieved over time that includes closing jails and prisons and decriminalizing misdemeanors. Not everyone who calls for police budget cuts supports abolition, but abolitionists see defunding as a crucial step toward their end goal.

Are these new ideas? Where do they come from?

For decades, activists have discussed abolishing prisons. The idea of police abolition grew out of the same movement, which can be traced to the early 1970s.

The abolition movement has been led largely by two black women, Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

A pillar of the abolitionist argument is that American law enforcement is built on a structure so rotten it can’t be repaired. In his book The End of Policing, author Alex S. Vitale traces the origins of American police forces to the protection of the rich and powerful: In northern cities, police were established to suppress immigrants and the working class; in the south, police forces grew out of slave patrols. The latter, especially, is a favored talking point of abolitionists.

How is it different from reform?

Reformists believe in systemically changing police agencies through training (such as implicit bias training, which aims to teach people to recognize and correct for their unconscious prejudices), policies (such as giving officers the duty to intervene if they see a colleague using excessive force, banning chokeholds and requiring attempts at de-escalation) and technology (such as body-worn cameras). Among the most well-known reformist campaigns is the 8Can’tWait campaign, which has been namechecked by government officials and law enforcement leaders in Tampa Bay. Reformists don’t believe in abolishing police agencies, and they sometimes advocate for those agencies to get more funding to implement reforms.

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Practically, how would abolition work?

Over time, abolitionists say, cities and counties would cut the budgets of police departments and sheriff’s offices and reallocate that money. They could expand housing assistance, hire more well-paid social workers and mental health professionals, boost public transit, give economic and environmental support to neighborhoods that have been left to struggle. Abolitionists argue that those measures will prevent or drastically reduce many of the incidents police respond to, such as theft and other property crime, and conflicts stemming from mental illness or substance abuse.

Abolitionists don’t believe that a world without police would also be free of conflict. But they believe that in most cases, other professionals are more well-equipped to resolving those situations than police are. In the abolitionist vision, crisis intervention specialists would be dispatched to domestic incidents and mental health emergencies, and social workers rather than police would take the lead on helping homeless people.

But what about murder, rape and other violent crime?

The Minneapolis-based abolitionist organization MPD150, in its primer on police abolition, acknowledges that “we may need a small, specialized class of public servants whose job is to respond to violent crimes.” Advocates for defunding and abolishing police also point out that only a very small amount of police work involves violent crime, that most crimes go unreported and that of those reported, most remain unsolved.

They also believe that the alternative first responders — social workers, mental health experts, crisis intervention specialists — would be better suited than police to handle many incidents that ultimately result in violent crime.

Have other places done this before? How did it go?

There’s no apparent modern analogy for abolition or near-total defunding of an American police department. The closest anywhere has come is probably Camden, N.J., which disbanded its police department and built a countywide police agency from the bottom up. The police force there was considered too corrupt to reform, and the new agency focused on reducing violent crime and strengthening connections within the community.

Camden has been seen as a success story, in part because its violent crime rate did plunge after the new agency was formed. It also has critics, who say that many officers still live outside the city and don’t reflect its demographics — most residents are black or Hispanic — and who point out that excessive force complaints went up after the new agency was established.

Is there a proposal out there for how abolition or defunding would work?

Yes. Perhaps the most thorough is the 8ToAbolition campaign, which lays out several distinct steps. Other resources include MPD150 and an organization called A World Without Police.

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

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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.


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