Defund the Police: What does it mean and why does it matter? | Analysis

Protesters gather at Wauwatosa, a Milwaukee Suburb, and march through the area. (Photo by Isiah Holmes/Wisconsin Examiner)

By Henry Redman

MADISON, Wisc. — A nationwide movement of protests against racial injustice has sprung up across Wisconsin and the country. As thousands of people take to the streets, familiar chants of No Justice, No Peace and Black Lives Matter have echoed through the crowds. 

The protests began as a response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, but have developed into calls for broader change. 

One demand has taken hold and gained momentum as black and brown community members move past reforms that only bite at the edges. A systemic problem needs a systemic solution, they say, and that solution has culminated in the phrase “defund the police.” 

What does defunding the police really mean? Within the three word phrase are plenty of disagreements in specific policy — from total abolition of police departments to strategic cuts in budgets and increased investment in community-led social services. 

Maybe a better, if less catchy, description is “rethink public safety.” 

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Before breaking down the specifics, it’s important to know that this idea isn’t new. Activists and community organizers have been calling for a different approach to public safety for years — only recently has the movement gained steam online and from left-leaning elected officials. 

“Let me start by saying, we’ve always had a problem with how funds are used to fund things that are repressive, violent, about control, about perpetuating conditions that are adverse for the black community,” says Damita Brown, restorative justice director at the Dane County TimeBank. 

Now there’s real action around the movement. Officials in major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and New York have said they will cut police budgets and a majority of Minneapolis city council members announced they will dismantle that city’s department. 

Demonstrating the explosion in calls for systemic change, in the last week web searches for defunding the police have spiked, going from the lowest possible interest to the highest according to Google Trends

The calls to defund departments run counter to the trends in municipal budgets over the last several decades. From 1977 to 2017, local spending on police budgets increased from $42 billion to $115 billion (adjusting for inflation), according to data from the Urban Institute. 

The idea of reprioritizing municipal money is gaining steam because even the reforms suggested by officials involve spending more money on the police. Activists say those reforms haven’t fixed the problem. 

“For me, the question is, looking at it systemically, you can’t defund half of a broken thing, you have to get rid of all of it,” Brown says. “If it’s not working it needs to be removed. The reform efforts, we’ve done this. Community policing, changing the training, the problem is the system as it exists leaves too many loopholes for those who do not respect and protect black life. George Floyd’s family is suffering tonight because they aren’t honoring their training.”

On Monday afternoon, Black Democrats in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives seized the Speaker’s rostrum for nearly two hours, calling on the chamber’s Republican majority to move more than 10 police reform bills that have languished in committee for months.

State House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, who’s retiring at year’s end has called for a special session to address the bills, though the response has been met with some skepticism on both sides of the Capitol. Nonetheless, members of the Legislative Black Caucus who spent two days planning the takeover hailed their protest as a success.

Abolition

The ultimate goal for activists and community organizers here in Madison, such as M. Adams of Freedom, inc. is the abolition of the police department. Fundamental to the idea of abolition is moving our society away from being “punishment-centric.”

“When we say defund the police, we’re saying we’re no longer going to use police to solve social issues,” Adams says. “In the defund idea, there are a few different categories and thoughts. We would take resources — financial resources, intellectual capacity, emotional capacity, taken from police and instead invested in life affirming structures. 

“Invest those resources,” Adams, who has been at the forefront of Madison’s protests, added. “We’re not saying take away the police and then the world would be fixed. You take those resources and invest them somewhere else.”

The money that is currently spent on police could be moved to healthcare, housing and education, advocates say. The idea at the center would become public health, rather than punishment — to think about public safety epidemiologically and solve the root causes.

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“I think the first step is accepting the fact that you do not root out an epidemiological problem by punishing those suffering from it,” says Amelia Royko Maurer, a co-founder of the Community Response Team. “[We’re] pulling bodies out of the water rather than going upstream and figuring out why people are drowning in the first place.” 

Addressing root causes involves providing services and support through community organizations. Brown pointed to counseling and recreational services for youth while Adams called for increased mental health services. 

Along with increased investment, so-called “crimes of poverty,” will need to be decriminalized or legalized to break the chain of incarceration, Adams says. Arrests for homelessness or drug offenses such as marijuana possession, for example, are glaring problems of punishing rather than solving. 

Addressing Harm

Critics of defunding police paint a picture of a society where violence is rampant and nobody will have anywhere to turn if they are the victim of a crime.

“Everybody jumps to murder,” Brown says. 

In the last week, even President Donald Trump has spoken about the idea, saying in a tweet that defunding the police would increase crime. 

But the current system doesn’t stop crime, and it often doesn’t even solve it. 

In 2018, the last year data is available, the Madison Police Department’s clearance rate for violent crime was 59% — leaving 41% of homicides, rapes, assaults and robberies unsolved. 

Adams, who for years has worked with survivors of gender-based violence, says it’s important to distinguish between a system without punishment and one without consequences. Society still needs a way to address interpersonal harm such as assault and murder and a way to uphold various social contracts such as parking ordinances, she says. 

“The other looming question is what does that mean for how you address harm,” Adams says. “In terms of actual interventions when the harm is happening, we do believe in accountability. This does not at all an attempt to say any harm that happens is fine with us.”

The idea of a preventative, rather than reactive approach to crime, means that some crime can be stopped years before it happens, she says. But defunding the police doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict or a way to deal with it. 

Adams says intervention needs to be community led. When her family is having some sort of conflict, they don’t call the police, they call her. This idea can be scaled up, she says, so when something is happening the community calls one of its own, who is trained to help peacefully. 

“[It] looks like having people inside of communities, organizing people who can help keep people safe and have accountability structures that are hyper local,” Adams says. “Rather than someone running into your house with deadly force, you have someone steeped in that community intervening.” 

Having the conversation 

For those who study policing and crime, the need for change is obvious. It’s less obvious what that change should be. 

Ion Meyn, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, says that even though completely tearing down the current system might seem alarming to people, it’s worse to allow it to keep going while marginalized communities continue to struggle.

“It’s hard for me to say reforming the system is extreme,” Meyn says. “I think a good starting point is recognizing how extreme our current system is. Doing the same thing is extreme and making minor changes is extreme.” 

“Prosecutors and officers who are really there for the public service, they go to their jobs and their jobs are making society worse, that has to be frustrating, too,” he added. “The defunding argument gets to that core frustration. Why are we still putting one foot in front of the other when it’s not working?” 

For Meyn, if a group is arguing for abolishing an institution, it’s important to take it seriously. This has the added benefit, he says, of bringing voices into the decision-making process that have historically been left out. 

“Abolitionist movements are bringing well thought out critiques of the current system that should be considered by everyone. What they’re saying is really thought provoking, courageous and important,” Meyn says. “Underlying all of this is increasing the number of voices that are heard, rather than just the usual voices that get the most of the attention. Why don’t we invite lots of different voices in and why don’t we listen to what these individuals have to say?” 

The conversation is important, and asking big questions is a good thing, but there are specific challenges to defunding the police and perhaps better roads to change, according to John Eason, a sociologist at UW-Madison. 

“I’d argue, make the police better,” Eason says. “This is beyond a call to defund them. There’s bigger questions here. What are we paying them to do, what do we want from the police force and how do we hold them accountable? Clearly we don’t want state-sponsored murder.”

Law enforcement is a very decentralized system, with local police departments and county sheriffs as well as state and federal agents forming what are known as police, but aren’t a monolithic force. This means wide variation in how municipalities handle policing, Eason says. 

“You have all these entities under what is known as police,” he says. “Are you going to have a social worker on the highway? Policing, the job itself, is not one thing. I think we need to think about new and creative policies for public safety, that doesn’t just deal with the fear of people and the fear of the dominant group.”

“So, we need a department of public safety,” he went on. “Maybe there’s an arm of policing, a unit of policing within it. Maybe there’s a department of health and safety within each municipality. It’s going to be a wide variation in how it’s done. This is a great time to have this discussion, and if there’s a model to be created, those are some good questions.”

Political Realities

Getting from a hashtag to legislation is going to be a long road and there is some support for it on Madison’s common council, but no consensus like in Minneapolis. 

District 8 Alder Max Prestigiacomo is on board with the ideas and major, systemic changes proposed by community organizers such as Adams. 

“In my perfect world, it’s what the protesters wanted, what Minneapolis is doing — completely dismantling the police,” he says. “The big point we need to make as elected officials is public safety doesn’t necessarily mean more officers. We don’t need to use physical force and intimidation. What we’re doing now is only a Band-Aid. People are asking the wrong questions. It’s not, what happens if someone is breaking into my house? It’s, why aren’t their needs met?”

But this is not Prestigiacomo’s perfect world and it’s unlikely the city will be able to achieve this in the short term. 

“The political reality is we have some members of the council who see police as our main priority,” he says. “I’m not here to do either/or. Systemic change or harm reduction. Budget season is coming up and I’ll be fighting tooth and nail to get as much as possible out of the police department.”

He says he believes there is common ground on cutting some money from the police budget, taking military weapons out of officers’ hands and imposing stricter crowd-control rules. He says the city also needs to work toward implementing the 177 recommendations included in the final report of the Madison Police Department’s Policy & Procedure Review Ad Hoc Committee. 

As the calls for major reform enter the political process, organizers such as Adams have specific, more immediate proposals that include getting police officers out of Madison schools and no longer using city funds to pay settlements when police officers are sued for misconduct. 

But no matter what happens, Adams says she won’t stop working toward the larger goal. 

“For us, we don’t play politics,” she says. “We’re going to push what the needs of the communities are. We will not yield or negotiate on that. Even if there are smaller advancements, we’re still pushing for the ultimate goal.”

On Monday, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway announced she will begin working with the Police and Fire Commission to hire a new, permanent police chief. She also said the city is asking for people to apply to fill the new position of Independent Police Auditor and for applicants to sit on a new civilian police oversight committee.

But even with those reforms — which had been proposed long before the current moment — Adams says Madison needs to take much larger action. 

“It’s going to require that Madison be bold and do what it has not done,” she says. “By and large this government has seemed to do whatever the police ask them to do. We’re saying a direct disruption of that.”

Henry Redman is a reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner, a sibling site of the Capital-Star, where this story first appeared. Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed reporting.