Seemingly overnight, Boston is part of a national conversation about “defunding” the police.
The unimaginable death of George Floyd, coupled with the alarming televised behavior of police across the nation confronting peaceful protesters in decidedly unpeaceful ways, has rapidly given rise to a movement.
The Minneapolis City Council has already announced its intention to defund. Here, activists held a defund rally over the weekend. City councilors, facing a June 30 deadline to approve a budget for next year, are scrambling to sort out what that could mean here.
Perhaps we should start with this: Virtually no one wants to get rid of the Boston Police Department, even if that were possible.
“To be honest with you, I don’t even think people are using the right terminology,” said City Councilor Julia Mejia, one of the body’s most progressive members. “It’s really about reallocating resources.”
The police budget stands at $414 million a year, or about 15 percent of the city budget. What defund advocates are really calling for, in part, is a 10-percent reduction of that number, with the $40 million or so that would be saved going to public health and community programs that could reduce some of the inequities that contribute to crime.
This is an astonishing moment in the public’s relationship with law enforcement. Assumptions held sacrosanct just a few weeks ago — like, the police are here to serve and protect — are being reexamined. Images of a police cruiser on fire might be shocking. But so is the sight of armed troops on Washington Street downtown or guarding the high-end retail emporiums of Newbury Street.
“It’s a fundamental principle of democracy that we keep the peace through self-governance, not threat of military force,” said City Councilor Michelle Wu. “The baseline has to be safety for everyone, but we’re having a national conversation about what makes communities safe and what makes every single community safe including communities of color and Black residents.”
Wu points to the increasing militarization of police departments as a serious concern. She filed an order calling on city officials to disclose a range of information about military-style equipment the city has on hand, as well as what it has been used for. The fact that such information has to be requested is, itself, telling.
“We don’t have a need for equipment that is meant to put down large-scale riots,” Wu said. “We shouldn’t be using training that relies on tear gas or rubber bullets. But it is important to know the baseline that we’re starting from and then we can focus on specific steps.”
The Boston Police Department is not going to be defunded, not in any literal sense of the term. But the back room deliberations on how to reduce its funding reflects a festering frustration with an organization that often seems to answer only to the mayor.
Councilors — faced with a ticking clock to complete the budget — hope to seize on this as a moment to push for real reform. They were openly frustrated by Walsh’s declaration that he was open to reducing the budget last weekend, because it came with no details.
Cutting the police budget and redirecting the savings is going to be a lot more complicated than it sounds. Much of the department’s money goes to things that are part of collective bargaining agreements, which the city is legally bound by.
There’s a fat overtime budget —$60 million — that might be ripe for reduction. But in fact, the department is allowed to exceed it, and usually does. It’s been exceeded by $10 million this fiscal year. A chunk of that went to training officers to use body cameras. Yes, the body cameras their union has fought for years. Those body cameras.
The call to “defund” is best thought of as an urgently-needed debate over what we want policing to be, and whom we believe it should serve. That is a question that resonates far beyond the minutiae of budget talks.
“We need to defund racism,” Wu told me. “That much is clear.”