What happens when cities defund law enforcement?


The death of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers sparked renewed interest in the Black Lives Matter movement across the country. Though the majority of Americans now support the movement, many activists regard passive support of BLM or simple awareness of police brutality as insufficient—they want action.


Suggested steps for resolution differ considerably in scope, but one refrain appears with increasing regularity: defund the police.


This idea, although oft-repeated, still lacks true public understanding. Defunding is not nearly as straightforward a solution as either supporters or skeptics suggest. Such an approach would hold huge implications for American society, including everything from criminal justice to community health.


In an effort to shine a light on the details of this little-understood matter, we’ve highlighted a few of the most noteworthy considerations.


What does it actually mean to defund police?

As the concept gains popularity, its become increasingly distorted.


Defunding the police includes reducing the annual budget of law enforcement agencies and diverting those funds to community programs. The goal? Addressing crime at the source rather than using law enforcement as a bandage for societal issues like poverty, homelessness, and mental health. Opinions regarding the extent of this reinvestment, however, differ considerably.


Examples of police defunding and reform efforts

The concept of defunding the police is far from theoretical. Several cities have carried out such efforts in response to corruption or other major issues.


Camden, New Jersey serves as an excellent case study. Prior to disbanding its police department in 2012, the city topped multiple lists of violent communities. Following the reform effort, crime rates dropped by an astounding 42% in just seven years.


While Camden highlights the promise of reforming law enforcement, it comes with a major caveat: the city did not outright abandon the concept of policing. Rather, it started from scratch, eventually rehiring a small force of officers. The result was not a police-free city, but a community in which locals took strategic measures to reform law enforcement while still reducing crime.


During Camden’s police makeover, officers ditched their previously aggressive approach in favor of hosting neighborhood parties and chatting up residents. This emphasis on community-oriented policing begins as soon as officers join the force. Their first task involves introducing themselves to locals and requesting feedback on how law enforcement efforts within the neighborhood can improve. The new police force also emphasizes peaceful de-escalation over the aggressive tactics that once dominated the city’s local law enforcement.


Elsewhere, the police serve alongside social workers and other professionals to form crisis response teams. Eugene, Oregon, for example, offers intervention via its Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program. Some credit this program with producing $15 million a year in savings, plus better outcomes in crisis situations involving a behavioral health component.


Defunding versus disbanding

Camden’s situation reveals the key distinction that many people forget in the debate over defunding: regardless of your stance on this solution, defunding should not be confused with disbanding.


Some advocates regard defunding as the first step towards eventual disbanding. Others view it as a reallocation of funds, with the long-term intent of retaining the police in some capacity. These viewpoints have both found their supporters and detractors in the past few weeks, but too often, confusion between the two has made productive conversations on the issue a challenge.


Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone exemplifies a real-time case study on the issue of disbanding versus defunding police. Commonly referred to as CHAZ, or more recently as CHOP (Capitol Hill Occupied Protest), this location aimed to provide a haven from police brutality.


For much of the zone’s existence, that has largely meant free food, street medics, and community education for those who want it. More recently, however, there have been reports of violent outbursts in the area, leaving one dead and at least two injured. In response, Seattle’s mayor announced that authorities will re-establish a presence in this previously autonomous space, leaving many wondering about the viability of an entirely police-free community.


The takeaway

While perspectives on how to handle the issue differ considerably, the latest polls make it clear: a majority of the American public regards the death of George Floyd as a clear sign of trouble within our system of policing.


There’s no clear way forward yet, which means we can expect these conversations about defunding, disbanding, and reforming law enforcement to continue for the foreseeable future. By better understanding the nuances of different viewpoints, everyone involved can participate more productively in these critical conversations.