By DEENA ZARU and TONYA SIMPSON, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Amid national outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, and other police-involved shootings of Black people, the movement to “defund the police” became a rallying cry at protests across the country.
Critics have blasted it as undermining support for police officers. Not only has it been blasted by critics, but they have seized on the ambiguity of the term to obscure the intent of the movement, which is to reallocate resources from punitive measures in situations that don’t necessarily call for them.
Those who advocate for defunding argue reallocating funds from police departments to community policing and organizations like public health centers and schools would serve as investments in underserved communities and could address systemic racism.
Other activists have taken a step further, equating defunding with abolishing police departments.
The movement has also been castigated by powerful police unions, and even played into the 2020 election. Prior to the election, the Trump campaign falsely claimed that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris wanted to defund the police in an effort to connect with the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
“I don’t want to defund police departments. I think they need more help, they need more assistance, but that, look, there are unethical senators, there are unethical presidents, there are unethical doctors, unethical lawyers, unethical prosecutors, there are unethical cops. They should be rooted out,” Biden told ABC News’ Robin Roberts in August.
Joe Biden once pushed for more police. Now, he confronts the challenge of police reform
Congress has taken on some police reform legislation and some cities’ officials have introduced reform efforts into their budgets. Yet, six months after the killing of Floyd, an incoming Biden administration, a deadlocked Congress and the looming power of police unions in local and federal politics, may be among the factors that influence the defund the police movement, several experts and advocates told ABC News.
A misrepresented movement?
One of the roadblocks the movement has faced in gaining widespread support is misrepresentation, said Tom Nolan, who served as a Boston police officer for 27 years and is now a sociology professor at Emmanuel College.
The movement to defund the police has been “misrepresented” and “it’s been made into a cliché” where “anybody who would render anything short of unwavering support to law enforcement” is cast as “someone who hates the police,” Nolan said.
“The people who are looking to examine and reevaluate the police are ultimately police supporters, and I count myself as one of them,” he added, arguing that in some cases defunding is a necessary step in police reform that would benefit both the community and law enforcement.
An unclear definition of ‘defunding’
Even among those who support defunding, there are different visions and goals about what the movement should accomplish.
Some feel that defunding means abolishing the police, said Phillip Atiba Goff, CEO of the Center for Policing Equity.
But for others, “defund is a tactic which means we need less money invested in punitive structures and surveillance, and more money invested in the resources that keep people safe from violence in the first place,” he said.
Police unions push back
Police unions have been ardent in their criticism of protesters and of calls to defund their departments.
Police unions also aligned strongly with President Donald Trump who touted himself as a “law and order” candidate during the 2020 campaign, and won the support of many powerful police unions, as he blasted Black Lives Matter protesters and ended Obama-era consent decrees, which instituted federal oversight of troubled and discriminatory police departments.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the country, which represents over 355,000 members and includes lobbyists on staff, endorsed President Trump in the 2020 race. The president also received endorsements from unions, including New York’s Police Benevolent Association, which represents about 24,000 rank-and-file officers, and the Minneapolis Police Union in Floyd’s hometown.
“The strategy and the tactics that have been employed [by police unions], were specifically and intentionally [meant] to stall that process,” Nolan said. “And here we are some six months into it, and that’s exactly what has happened in many cities across the United States.”
“I existed in that world, and I know that [police unions] exist to maintain the status quo and to protect their members at all costs,” Nolan, who was a member of various police unions during his career and served as the vice president of the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, said.
Washington deadlock on police reform
Police departments are mostly funded locally and any significant effort to defund would need to pass at the local government level. Yet, Nolan said the vast majority of police departments receive some federal funding, so Washington lawmakers do have some “considerable leverage,” he said.
But lawmakers have been at odds on how to enact any sort of police reform.
A pair of bills — one passed by the Democratic-controlled House and another introduced in the Republican-controlled Senate — include elements that some advocates view as an indirect form of defunding.
The House passed a sweeping police reform bill on June 25 that, among other things, would bar federal funding to police departments that enter into union contracts that prevent federal oversight of discriminatory practices like racial profiling.
The bill, which was titled the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” was opposed by police unions across the country. President Trump threatened to veto the bill but it was not put on the floor for consideration in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats blocked the debate on The Justice Act — a Republican police reform bill authored by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., that sought to offer federal incentives to compel departments to implement best practices, train in de-escalation and end controversial tactics, while penalizing those that do not by incrementally reducing federal funding.
Democrats argued that the bill did not go far enough as it does not implement federal mandates to curb police use of force, limit the transfer of federal military equipment to localities or create a national police misconduct database.
It has yet to be seen whether the incoming 117th Congress will move on police reform next year. Although Democrats retained control of the House in 2020, their majority is now slimmer and the balance of power in the Senate will be determined by a pair of Georgia runoffs in January.
As Congress remains deadlocked, calls to defund the police have mainly gained traction among progressive lawmakers — both in Congress and in state offices. But the movement has been rejected by conservatives and not embraced by many powerful Democrats, including President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Biden has built a strong relationship with the law enforcement community throughout his long career in Washington and although he did not receive the union support Trump did, he received some notable endorsements from law enforcement officials in 2020.
But Biden’s tone amid the social unrest this summer has been starkly different from Trump’s.
The President-elect voiced strong support for the protesters and the Black Lives Matter movement and vowed to tackle systemic racism in policing as president. But Biden’s past support for law enforcement has come under scrutiny as he found himself in the middle of a policy battle in the Democratic Party over police reform.
Cities, defunding and the aftermath
Plans are underway to reduce police budgets in major cities. A review of proposed budgets in Seattle, Los Angeles and Austin for example, show money being moved — some specialized units are being eliminated and other changes are being made.
While these efforts do reallocate some funding and reorganization in police departments, some experts say these examples are not the defunding the movement calls for.
Instead, it’s a shuffling of municipal funding, said Stephen Danley, a public policy and administration professor at Rutgers University-Camden.
“They’re moving crossing guards out of the police budget and into another budget and saying they decreased the police budget,” he said.
As some push for dismantling police altogether in the cry for defunding, the closest example of that happening was in Camden, New Jersey.
Camden made headlines when the city disbanded its police force and rebuilt it as a county department in 2013. At the time, Camden was considered one of the most dangerous cities in America. Poverty and violent crime levels were at record highs and the city was facing a budget deficit of nearly $14 million.
The move didn’t arise as a response to police brutality, rather, it was “really born out of our fiscal crisis and our public safety crisis,” former Mayor Dana Redd told ABC News.
The creation of a new police force did not immediately lead to a reduction in crime or improved police-community relations. Excessive force complaints increased from 35 in 2013 to 65 in 2014 and summonses for issues like broken taillights and tinted windows increased exponentially.
“De-escalation training and that type of work has been really successful, but it wasn’t inherent to the new force,” said Danley. “It happened, in part, because of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 that started putting pressure on the force to change these regressive violent tactics that they were using.”
As law enforcement agencies and communities across the country look for new ways to engage, one Camden resident, Vedra Chandler, said she hopes residents, city leaders and officers realize police defunding or reorganizing is not one-size-fits-all.
“If there’s a model [from Camden] it’s not that everybody should adopt community policing, it’s that everybody should come up with something to do in their own community that they believe is going to make a difference in how their police force interacts with their citizens,” Chandler told ABC News.
Chandler works for a nonprofit and has lived in Camden for 40 years. She said reducing police budgets is a good step, but it is important for law enforcement agencies to address other issues like officer bias and the criminalization of minorities.
“Baby steps are important. If you want to see something different you have to do something different,” she said.
Defunding the police, Danley and other advocates say, is only the first step to police reform, and how the funds are reallocated and whether the community is involved in making those decisions are key to ensuring that reform efforts are successful.
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