At face value, the phrase “defund the police” expresses a truly terrible idea, conjuring visions of masked vigilantes and lawless, chaotic cities.
But the actual meaning of the combustible slogan – which seems to be gaining popularity amid the widespread public protests in the wake of the horrific videoed killing of black Minneapolis man George Floyd at the knee of now-former white police officer Derek Chauvin – is apparently open to wild leaps of interpretation, even among those most supportive of it.
The majority of “defund the police” proponents argue the phrase is figurative and represents a broad, loosely defined call for localities to reimagine police work, thereby resulting in the redistribution of some taxpayer money away from police departments and toward other forms of public service. They say it is not about abolishing, or even underfunding, police departments. There is, however, a small segment – predominantly from the most radically extreme left – that apparently does seek the literal elimination of police from American life.
The latter, of course, is laughable. The belief that any municipality in the United States can function effectively without trained law enforcement is intellectually irrational and politically untenable, and those pushing for that outcome should not be taken seriously. But when many Americans hear the words “defund the police,” the message they receive is that police should be taken off the streets outright. We blame no one for feeling fearful, angry or uneasy at such a thought.
That’s why advocates of measured, thoughtful police reform – for which bipartisan agreement seems possible right now – should immediately scrap this counterproductive slogan if they truly want significant change to be realized. The overwhelming majority of Americans simply will not entertain the notion of abolishing armed law enforcement. But in cities and towns across America, many residents would be open to sober discussions about realigning community services or adapting police tactics. Depending on a particular municipality’s needs or culture, some of those concepts have merit. A fruitful dialogue cannot occur, though, until it is clearly understood by all parties that eliminating police is flatly not on the table.
Similarly, Americans need to hear more about what alternatives exist to modern police structure. Those calling to defund or disband police departments typically offer few details about what might take their place. Even in Minneapolis, where the city council reportedly plans to proceed with a dismantling of the Minneapolis Police Department after years of problems, no one seems to know what would come next. The city council president reportedly envisions a “police-free” society, which is an absurd notion, utterly detached from reality. Rest assured: Even if Minneapolis breaks up the MPD, some form of organized, armed law enforcement will replace it. There is no other viable option, especially in a major American urban area.
Some municipalities have, in fact, revamped their public safety approaches in recent years – commonly cited examples include Austin, Texas; Eugene, Ore.; and Camden, N.J. – but those efforts are more accurately described as “refunding” rather than “defunding.” Some places, in pursuit of greater accountability, have disbanded and replaced failing or corrupt police departments. Or they have redistributed public money in order to increase the involvement of social workers when armed officers are not required, such as certain mental health calls. Or they have sought demilitarization and adapted policies so the nature of officers’ responses better match the circumstances at hand. All have one thing in common, though: They still have active, adequately funded police services, just perhaps with a different name or a slightly narrower public safety focus.
Such examples, according to many “defund the police” advocates, illustrate the “true” meaning of the phrase. But, once again, the problem with that argument is the fact that “defund the police” literally says something quite different.
No surprise, then, that “defund the police” has become a flashpoint in national politics. Hardline “law and order” conservatives – including President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr – are pushing images of violent, disorderly cities and streets run amok, although they know full well that police will not actually be abolished. Democrats, meanwhile, are doing a more awkward political dance, but several prominent ones – including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass of California, who is the head of the Congressional Black Caucus – have recently voiced disapproval of the movement as currently framed.
That’s a good thing, because there is a serious discussion to be had about policing in this country, and Americans appear ready to have it. The size and scope of the nationwide marches and protests prove that the collective reaction to Floyd’s death has been visceral. And a poll released Tuesday by The Washington Post shows not only that 74 percent of Americans support the protests, but that 69 percent say Floyd’s killing represents broader problems within law enforcement in general. Lawmakers and leaders would be remiss to ignore those sentiments.
The outright elimination of police is neither a serious ambition nor will it become reality, so both sides should stop making political hay out of the silly “defund the police” mantra. It does nothing but intensify partisan bickering and public distrust in a moment when the nation yearns for compromise, cooperation and compassion.