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End the Cops’ Cannibalization of Our Budgets

“Defund the police” is not an austerity measure. It’s a demand that we put police department budgets to better use.

Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty

Six months ago, after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, the city moved to defund the department. That was the headline in June, but the story in the months since has been more complicated. Debates over what defund means, a cop slowdown, conflict over who does the job of police in the meantime, packed city budget meetings—all are part of a power struggle that, far from a failure, is an indication of what it really looks like to take on the work of reimagining the budget as a moral document, a statement about whose life is valued. 2020 is not the year we fully defunded the police, but the undoubtedly imperfect process of inventing a world without police has begun.

This is not a flip-of-the-switch kind of change. To defund the police is a discrete, complete demand: Zero out that line item in your municipal budget. But “defunding the police” is also a series of commitments—a horizon of possibilities that follow that decisive, moral act. “It’s not a slogan,” said Representative-elect Cori Bush, a veteran of the Ferguson protests. “It’s a mandate for keeping our people alive.” To defund the police is to begin to pose that larger question: What must be done to keep our people alive?

To answer this, we first have to reckon with what policing is—the system in its full history. “There is a broad misconception among most of the American public, including among police themselves, that the reason police departments exist is to promote general well-being and public safety. If that were true, then reforming police would mean simply bringing them into better alignment with their fundamental purpose,” historian Simon Balto wrote in November. “The inconvenient truth of police history in the United States, however, is that police departments were not designed to keep a generic public safe. Rather, they were meant to serve the needs of capital and to uphold racial and ethnic hierarchies. To put it differently, police were designed with power and control in mind, not generalized public safety.”

That history also means that the police are not a necessary feature of this country. As Balto and many others have pointed out, even major American cities didn’t have police departments as we would think of them today until the mid-1800s. It requires imagination to see beyond the present they have left us and to narrate the future we want. At some point, we created the police. We could create something else.

When the idea of the Green New Deal emerged, what made it seem possible wasn’t a detailed 20-point plan. It was through a shared vision of what the world would be like once the Green New Deal was won. Two years ago, at The Intercept, New Republic staff writer Kate Aronoff offered one version of this story, describing the life of a fictional girl in a near future, in which unionized jobs working to transition away from fossil fuels are plentiful, and so are high-speed, zero-carbon trains and lush, green spaces in cities, open to all. This future girl’s parents had paid family leave and childcare, and she will have a free education from pre-K through college. Housing and health care are guaranteed, too. Those guarantees may extend past some ideas of what “fighting climate change” means, but on the scale of what life could look like, they prove essential.

It is not easy to imagine any of this, especially not after this year. “How do we tell the story of something that hasn’t happened yet?” Naomi Klein wrote, describing her process in developing this vision into a video (with the filmmaking team Kim Boekbinder, Jim Batt, and Molly Crabapple and narrated and co-written by Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez). There would be no getting to that future, though, without imagining it now. It is a future beyond survival, with the time and care needed to live well.

Just as confronting climate change requires both urgent action and long-term vision, we could think about defunding the police in the same way. It’s a deal to be made with the future.

If we defunded the police, what would we have? Schools without “resource officers,” police who are assigned to patrol and, in some cases, to arrest students. As a result, students can face criminal penalties for violations of school disciplinary codes, as the American Civil Liberties Union documented in a 2017 report, such as “disorderly conduct” (for cursing or arguing) or the vague offense “disrupting school”—for spraying perfume, or refusing to change a shirt deemed offensive, or for criticizing an officer. Getting police out of schools was one of the more successful efforts won by organizers and activists this year, in at least 40 school districts across the country, Edwin Rios at Mother Jones reported in November. The summer’s uprisings over police killings gave some momentum to this, though it wasn’t only that. “The Oakland School Police Department died by Zoom conference call,” wrote Rios. In that decisive meeting, “a third grader asked why the district paid for police but didn’t invest in making schools beautiful. It wasn’t the police who protected her, she said. It was her teachers.”

Rather than being an austerity measure, as most defundings are, the demand to defund the police is about having more. It’s not that hard (especially in this year) to imagine what better use police department budgets could be put toward. It’s more hard to choose: universal personal protective equipment for health care workers, hazard pay for frontline workers, paying hospitality and service industry workers to stay home.

The debate shifts, then, from Is it possible to defund the police? to If we did, what would be possible? Activists in Los Angeles started from there and got their proposed budget on the November ballot, to require that the county allocate at least 10 percent of locally generated revenues be set aside every year for community investment and alternatives to incarceration, like pretrial noncustodial services, including health services, as well as restorative justice programs. “By prohibiting these specific funds from being spent on jails, law enforcement, and the court system—which already account for a disproportionate amount of spending—it would move toward accomplishing what many activists across the country have been calling for,” as Jennifer Swann wrote for The New Republic, “a government that spends its resources on housing, health care, and community instead of just cops.” They won, a victory for the defund movement and for this strategy of funding the future you want.

When people are asked if they support redirecting resources out of law enforcement and toward social services, they support it, as polling this summer confirmed. While, as FiveThirtyEight framed the polling results, the “slogan is unpopular,” when it comes to the actual act of defunding, “there does appear to be some support for rethinking police departments’ role in local budgets and the community.” What this means is that the potential base of support for the demand to defund can include both those who want to abolish the police and those who want to cut their budgets but aren’t necessarily abolitionists. That matters more than this year’s more tedious debates concerned with branding and messaging to help Democrats. A focus on crafting policy that works and meets urgent local needs is something a community can organize around, and—as it did in Los Angeles County—can win.

The future, though, is not limited to whatever now falls under the policy banner of reforming the police. If safety is really the goal, organizers can draw people together around the question of what would it take to feel safe—not just from harm now but to address what conditions enable harm. “Defund the police” might mean stable housing, or childcare, or a decent job. That’s a future that won’t just take us away from the police. As Aronoff wrote in June, there are considerable overlaps between defunding the police and good climate policy: “At the local level, especially, the types of climate policy that mayors and city councils have leverage over are also the investments campaigners in the movement for black lives have urged to make communities safer and stronger: affordable housing, rapid bus transit, and jobs programs. Budgets that revolve around criminalizing black communities, that is, are ill-suited for taking on the climate crisis.” A divestment in the police can be part of investment in everything else life-sustaining. It is air to breathe.

In December, the Minneapolis City Council and mayor came to a compromise and cut nearly $8 million from the police budget. “This was a tremendous win,” Reclaim the Block policy organizer Sheila Nezhad told the MinnPost. “It’s the first time in at least 20 years—that’s how far back the online city records go—that the base budget for Minneapolis police has been cut.” It is not everything they wanted. But the power they built—which could extend to every city and county where this is now, for the first time, a matter of debate—is the win, too.