Defunding the cops is police reform

Defunding the cops is police reform
Portland, OR / USA - June 1 2020: Demonstrators with "Defund Police" banner on a Morrison bridge during George Floyd killing protest Shutterstock/ Alexander Oganezov

The movement for black and brown lives is winning the argument.


The latest ABC News poll found that 74 percent of Americans think George Floyd’s murder is a “sign of broader problems in the treatment of African Americans by police.” As Greg Sargent writes, "this represents a huge increase: In 2014, after two other high-profile deaths of African American men at the hands of police, only 43 percent of Americans said those instances pointed to a broader problem." A recent Monmouth University poll found that 76 percent of Americans think racism and discrimination are “a big problem” in this country, up 26 points since 2015, and 57 percent said the George Floyd protesters have reason to be angry. Only one in three respondents to a Marist poll released last week said they had confidence that the cops treat black and white people similarly.

The moment seems ripe for rethinking everything about how we police our communities. And perhaps predictably, this sudden momentum has led to some infighting on the broad left about how to capitalize on the shifts in public opinion that we're now seeing. But that debate has been mired in semantic differences and cross-talk.

For many within the activist left, "reform" is a dirty word. There's a reason for that: Years of police reforms haven't changed the fundamental problems in police culture, nor have they resulted in any appreciable decrease in police violence against communities of color.

The problem is that most efforts to reform the cops so far have been largely cosmetic. It shouldn't be much of a surprise that bodycams, beefed up rules governing the use of force, modest improvements in training and some racial sensitivity classes haven't led to the kind of paradigmatic change that's required. We don't know how effective deeper structural reforms might be because we haven't yet tried them.

Meanwhile, some moderates and liberals are spooked by the movement's linguistic choices. They fear that "defund the police" will give Trump and his propagandists in the conservative media a powerful wedge issue for white voters, allowing them to invoke the specter of anarchy in American cities and driving those college-educated suburban whites who have bolted from the GOP back into Trump's arms. (This seems a bit silly given the polling. Not only have Trump's favorability numbers remained virtually unmoved by a pandemic that's killed 110,000 Americans and another Great Depression, but the presidential and congressional races have also been extremely stable for the past year. People's views of Trump, Biden and the two major parties are locked in to an unusual degree.)

But this is a largely semantic debate. "Reform" is a vague word that can mean anything. As Georgetown Law professor Christy Lopez writes in The Washington Post, defunding the police is a structural approach to police reform:

For most proponents, “defunding the police” does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety... Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.

It isn't the only change that's necessary to address the profound problems Americans are coming to recognize in American policing, but it's a significant one.

On Sunday, a veto-proof majority on the Minneapolis City Council announced their intention to "disband" the MPD and start from scratch, "end[ing] policing as we know it, and recreat[ing] systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.” They didn't call it a reform effort, and didn't describe it as defunding the police.

That points to the potential for a win-win here. Activists should understand that "reform" always polls well with the public. Regardless of the issue, people like reform. And those wary about how "defunding the police" will play out politically should acknowledge that whatever you call it, the idea itself is very popular. Data for Progress found "overwhelming support" for “creating a new agency of first-responders, like emergency medical services or firefighters, to deal with issues related to addiction or mental illness that need to be remedied but do not need police.”

Given all of this, it makes sense for progressives and those active in the movement to continue calling for defunding the police and for moderates and Democrats seeking public office to use the language of reform. That kind of inside/outside strategy can move us toward an increasingly popular goal--demilitarizing the cops, cutting police budgets and reallocating those resources to mental health intervention, social services, conflict mediation and other non-police interventions.

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