It’s a message scrawled across homemade signs and reverberating through protests across the country: Defund the police.
The idea — to cut or eliminate funding to police departments — strikes some observers as extreme. But activists say the rallying cry is the only sensible course of action after decades of piecemeal reform efforts that did little to change police culture.
Camden, N.J., is the only American city in recent history that has purposefully dismantled and rebuilt its police force. Now Minneapolis, reeling after the death of George Floyd, has signaled it will try the same. More typical is the adoption of patchwork reforms that leave departments mostly intact. New Orleans, once seen as impossibly corrupt, has embraced a commitment to transparency in recent years. Houston tapped the rhetorically progressive Art Acevedo as its first Latino police chief in 2016. And Eugene, Ore., pioneered a program that diverts 20 percent of 911 calls to crisis workers rather than police.
But those efforts fall short of what many protesters say is needed as they march through American cities. Reforms that merely remold are not enough, activists say. The broken system of law enforcement needs to be shattered entirely.
“There is finally a growing awareness that the problems that are caused by police in this country are structural problems,” said Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of Civil Rights Corps, a litigation nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “You can’t reform the core function of the police, you have to dramatically reduce the size of its oversight and transfer their resources into Black communities.”
Five years before George Floyd died in police custody, a Black man named Jamar Clark was killed by police while being restrained on Minneapolis’s North Side. After that shooting, police officers received implicit bias training and body cameras. The department appointed its first Black police chief. Policies were rewritten to include a “duty to intervene” if an officer saw a colleague endangering a member of the public.
None of that proved sufficient in Floyd’s case this May.
“For a number of people, the institution of police is simply not legitimate. We’ve been talking about reform for all these years and nothing seems to happen,” said Alexander Weiss, an expert on police staffing.
The New Orleans Police Department is often pointed to as a model for change by criminologists. For decades, a culture of discrimination and abuse within the department contributed to making Louisiana’s incarceration rate the highest in the country — without decreasing crime rates. The department’s dysfunction was laid bare in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. The Justice Department issued a consent decree to reform the police force, which remains in effect to this day.
Despite the adoption of an ethical policing program and community policing efforts, the department still fails to make arrests in major cases, such as in the July 2018 mass shooting that left three dead and seven injured, and it continues to engage in dangerous policing techniques that concern watchdogs. Earlier this week, the New Orleans Police Department denied firing rubber bullets at largely peaceful protesters, only to walk back that statement when footage of the incident emerged.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most outspokenly progressive police chief in America, Acevedo of the Houston Police Department, oversees a department that activists claim is deeply troubled. Acevedo marches with activists and demands accountability for police departments. But protesters quickly point out that six Houstonians — five of whom were people of color — have been killed by police in the past six weeks and Acevedo has refused to release video of the shootings, citing the possibility the videos could taint potential prosecution of the officers involved.
A bright spot exists in Eugene, Ore., which pioneered a program in 1989 called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets program, or CAHOOTS, that dispatches crisis workers rather than police officers to 911 calls with a strong behavioral health component. The program tackles roughly 20 percent of calls in the small city. The crisis workers don’t carry handcuffs or a weapon. Last year, out of a total of about 24,000 calls, they called for police backup just 150 times, according to NPR.
“The program has been successful because the CAHOOTS team gets to know people with mental illness and can deescalate situations far better than cops because of their training,” said Ibrahim Coulibaly, the Eugene-Springfield NAACP branch president
CAHOOTS has been lauded as an example of a program that can alleviate the burden on police officers asked to respond to mental health crises for which they are ill-equipped.
Currently, the Eugene Police Department boasts an annual budget of nearly $68 million, while CAHOOTS receives just $2 million.
“We need to invest far more in these systems of support that can solve the problems that happen in communities, like a mental health crisis. The vast majority of calls to police have nothing to do with an emergency violent crime,” said Karakatsanis.
Nationwide, law enforcement made an estimated 10.6 million arrests in 2017. Of these arrests, 500,000, or 5 percent, were for violent crime, according to FBI crime data.
Still, Coulibaly cautions that while CAHOOTS works alongside the police department, it does nothing to reform it. He cites the death of Eliborio Rodrigues Jr., who was collecting cans on a dead-end street in Eugene last November when an officer asked him to provide identification. A scuffle ensued. The officer shot Rodrigues three times, according to local reports.
For all the discussion of defunding police departments, there are no contemporary case studies of how the process could work.
Of late, Camden, N.J., has emerged in the headlines as an example of how a toxic department can be dismantled and rebuilt. In 2013, the city department was disbanded. The county formed a new department in a maneuver that shook the constraints of the union bargaining agreement, allowing the chief to bring on new officers and create a culture that praised community relationships and deescalation techniques, as seen in a 2015 video showing officers peacefully disarming a knife-wielding man on a busy Camden street.
But problems persist. Activists argue that the influx of police on Camden streets creates a surveillance state in Black neighborhoods and that social programs that would prevent crime still lack the necessary funding.
“Their so-called police reforms resulted in a dramatic escalation in the number of officers and a dramatic escalation in the surveillance and arrests in the Black community. All of these things are signs of a metastasized police bureaucracy that if left to its own devices will find more and more ways of perpetuating the same harms,” said Karakatsanis.
The current movement to defund police posits that government budgets should prioritize housing, employment, health care, and education rather than police, advocates say. They argue that a reallocation of funds is the best way forward since attempts at reform over the last decade have failed.
Locally, Violence in Boston founder Monica Cannon-Grant recognizes the unlikelihood of the city fully defunding the police.
“Instead of saying defund the police, you could say shift funds to invest in Black communities. The reality is we can scream defund, but this is a commonwealth, and it ain’t gonna happen entirely,” she said. “But those who say they just want to reform the police are just saying the rhetoric they think people want to hear to move on from this moment.”
The police budget in Boston stands at $414 million a year, or about 15 percent of the city budget. What defunding advocates are calling for, in part, is a 10 percent reduction, with that $40 million going to public health and community programs that could reduce inequities.
“All of these calls to defund and divest from the police have an essential secondary component to invest in Black communities and reimagine what it might look like if a community was getting the resources that it needs,” said Karakatsanis. “What you’d likely find is that you might not need the police.”