Defunding the police explained

Black Lives Matter protests in the US reignite debate over defunding of police

Demonstrators stand in front of a police line as a section of 16th Street that has been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza has been closed to pedestrians, Wednesday, June 24, 2020, in Washington. The area has been the site of protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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As the George Floyd protests in the US, and beyond, gathered momentum since they began a month ago, so too did calls to defund the police. What is it and how would it work?

What does defunding the police mean?

Rather than dispensing with the police altogether, supporters of defunding argue that reducing budgets so the funds can be reallocated to invest in communities would deter crime by addressing the societal issues that cause it. According to recent analysis, $115 billion (Dh422bn) a year is spent on policing. Spending instead on public health, youth services, education and housing would help tackle poverty, mental illness, unemployment and homelessness, things that can cause antisocial behaviour.

Police are poorly trained to deal with societal issues, yet are often called upon to deal with the consequences. Some estimates suggest US police spend 21 per cent of their time responding to and transporting people with mental illnesses, and one in four people killed by law enforcement are mentally unwell. Advocates argue this could be avoided by replacing some police officers with trained social workers or special response teams.

Photos of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Oluwatoyin Sala are shown on a barricade in front of the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct building, Wednesday, June 24, 2020, inside the CHOP (Capitol Hill Occupied Protest) zone in Seattle. Floyd and Taylor died as a result of police violence, and Salau was an activist whose death is being investigated as a possible homicide. The area has been occupied since a police station was largely abandoned after clashes with protesters, but Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Monday that the city would move to wind down the protest zone following several nearby shootings and other incidents that have distracted from changes sought by peaceful protesters opposing racial inequity and police brutality. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Could police departments be reformed instead?

Although this is the argument of many politicians, incremental reforms have so far had little success. After the 2014 shooting, for example, of Michael Brown in Ferguson by a white officer, there was a push for body cameras to improve accountability, yet there has been no fall in the number of black people who are killed by police. Officers are also able to turn the cameras off. 

Unions can also make it hard for police chiefs to act against those who have behaved badly in the line of duty, and they often push back against reform. Police forces wield a lot of power and influence, with data showing that many Americans find them trustworthy. This means it is difficult to drum up support for large-scale reforms. 

The base of the statue of former president Andrew Jackson is power washed inside a newly closed Lafayette Park, Wednesday, June 24, 2020, in Washington, which has been the site of protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Would defunding leave people vulnerable to crime?

People who oppose the move say that it would lead to a rise in crime, yet police departments across the US have low success rates when it comes to solving crime, and that drops even further when the victim is black. US police also kill far more people than their counterparts in other developed countries, such as the UK and Germany. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 24: Senior New Yorkers hold a rally outside of City Hall in a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and to demand less funding for the NYPD and more to social well being programs for the elderly on June 24, 2020 in New York City. Spurred by the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, marches and rallies have taken place daily in dozens of cities across the country for more than three weeks.   Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

Is defunding likely to happen?

With few politicians publicly backing the move as a solution to problems with policing, it is a change likely to happen on a city level rather than a federal one. The Minneapolis City Council this month unanimously passed a resolution to replace the police department with a community-led public safety system. It said it will begin a year-long process of engaging “with every willing community member in Minneapolis” to develop a new public safety model.

According to US media reports, politicians in at least 17 cities, including Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York, have put forward proposals or pledges to divest from the police. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said she is actively advocating for a “reduction of our NYPD budget”.