Though long a concept floated among left-leaning activists and academics, officials from Washington to Los Angeles are now seriously considering ways to scale back their police departments and redirect funding to social programs. The moves would be a strong show of solidarity with protesters, who are clamoring for social justice and to strike back at what they see as an oppressive force across the country.
On Sunday, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council announced they were seeking to dismantle the city’s police department after former officer Derek Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25 as the 46-year-old black man gasped for breath and pleaded for help.
Congress, too, is feeling the pressure, and Democrats on Monday are expected to release a sweeping reform package aimed at curbing excessive force.
Officials face a politically fraught decision about how to respond, weighing whether to stand with protesters who are demanding an extreme overhaul at the risk of jeopardizing public safety and taking authority away from police officers in communities that have sought more protection against violent crime.
The tension was on full display last week in Minneapolis, where racial justice advocates confronted Mayor Jacob Frey in front of a mass of protesters, asking if he would commit to defunding the police department.
“It is a yes or no,” an organizer with a microphone demanded. “And if he says no, guess what the f--- we’re going to do next year,” she told the crowd, noting that Frey was up for reelection in 2021.
“I do not support the full abolition of the police,” Frey said.
The crowd issued a volley of boos and chanted: “Go home, Jacob, go home!” and “Shame!” Frey walked away from the scene alone.
Proponents of police defunding say reform alone is not enough — and has not worked in the past. They say leaders must make policy changes that reduce reliance on officers and reallocate money spent on law enforcement to black communities for services such as schools, health care and housing.
“When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is, invest in the resources that our communities need,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told NBC News’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “So much of policing right now is generated and directed towards quality-of-life issues,” she said. “What we do need is increased funding for housing, we need increased funding for education, we need increased funding for the quality of life of communities who are over-policed and over-surveilled.”
A 2017 book, “The End of Policing” by Alex S. Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, has become something of a manual for how such efforts might work.
In it, Vitale argues that policing has ballooned out of control during the past 40 years, becoming a tool not just to combat crime but to deal with homelessness, mental illness and youth violence among other issues. The goal of reining in law enforcement was not to create a situation in which “someone just flips a switch and there are no police,” he told NPR last week, but to re-envision of the role of police in society.
Some federal and local law enforcement officials have criticized the idea.
Speaking on Fox News Sunday, acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf called defunding police “an absurd assertion.” On ABC News Sunday, he said he does “not think that we have a systemic racism problem with law enforcement officers across this country.” Attorney General William P. Barr said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” that he believes there is no systemic racism in policing but that he understands why African Americans distrust officers “given the history of this country.”
In Washington, Police Chief Peter Newsham cautioned lawmakers to move carefully, warning that not appropriately funding police departments could contribute to police brutality.
“If you underfund a police agency, it impacts training, it impacts hiring, it impacts your ability to develop good leaders,” he told WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi last week.
The defunding movement has also caught the attention of President Trump, who tweeted last week that he opposes cutting police budgets. “More money for Law Enforcement!” he wrote.
In some major cities, leaders are already mulling budgetary changes.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) said last week that he would reverse his plan to boost spending for the Los Angeles Police Department by instead redirecting $250 million from across the city’s budget toward programs for health care, jobs and “peace centers.” As much as $150 million would come from the police department, officials said. The police union there called him “unstable” after the announcement, while leaders of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles called for deeper cuts and “transformative” change, adding they could not be “bought off with just this minimal amount of money.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) on Sunday defended the overall strategy his city’s police force used during what he described as a “long, complex week” of unrest while also outlining steps he said would be taken to address demands for change. Speaking during a morning news conference, he said his administration was committed to shifting funding from the New York Police Department to youth initiatives and social services. Details will be worked out in the city’s upcoming budget process, he said.
In Portland, Ore., the superintendent of schools and the mayor both agreed last week to remove police officers from the city’s schools and move more than $1 million budgeted for school resource officers into community programs.
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the first African American woman elected to the city council, also has announced plans to float last-minute amendments to the city’s budget to eliminate two more units of the city’s police force: the transit police and the Gun Violence Reduction Team, which was originally created to target gang members.
“We are long overdue for action on community safety and police alternatives,” Hardesty said. “This is only the beginning. Our communities have long been telling government officials what needs to be done, and now we have the opportunity to put our words into action.”
Though a popular rallying cry at a tense moment, defunding police departments is not always what residents really want, and the issue of just how many officers to put in neighborhoods is complex, particularly in areas with high rates of crime.
In October, leaders in the District hosted a forum on how to ensure children and teenagers have safe routes to and from school after students were killed on their commutes. Students said they wanted more officers to patrol their routes, but they also said they hated walking out of their school buildings in the afternoon and seeing police cars parked outside.
An officer in attendance said the department was always trying to strike the right balance, and building better relationships with the community is key.
Paul Trantham — an elected neighborhood advisory commissioner in Ward 8, a portion of the city with high poverty and crime — said that when a resident loses a loved one to gun violence they always have the same first question: “Where were the police?”
“Given the crime that is going around in the community,” Tratham said, “if they defund any part of the police from the budget they would be doing an injustice."
The issue of police investments became a flash point this month in the D.C. Council’s Ward 4 Democratic primary, where a progressive challenger, Janeese Lewis George, ousted the more moderate incumbent. George came under fire from her opponent in Ward 4 — which is home to gentrifying neighborhoods in the District that have experienced recent crime spikes — after she said she wanted to pull money from the police department.
George said she does not want to abolish the police department, but she wants to decrease its budget and invest the money in programs such as violence interruption, which puts community members in neighborhoods to try to de-escalate conflicts and thwart violence before it happens. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) said Sunday that he also wants more violence interrupters, criticizing Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s budget proposal that made cuts to the program.
“I don’t think it’s an issue that we can put into one sentence, like defund the police,” George said. “But time and time again, where the leadership is lacking, they lean on wanting to do the same thing and expecting a different result.”
In Minneapolis, debate about systemic police reform has been underway for years, in large part because of several incidents involving police brutality long before Floyd was killed.
During local elections in 2017, candidates were asked at a voter forum if they could imagine “a city without police.” Nine answered yes, a response that was met with skepticism and mockery.
Now, many of those candidates sit on the city council. One of them, Lisa Bender, is council president. At least three others are on the Public Safety Committee.
Nine council members on Sunday announced plans to disband the Minneapolis Police Department. They did not offer a timeline or specific actions they plan to take but said they are “taking intermediate steps toward ending” the force. The group, which represents a majority on the 12-person council, made the formal announcement during a Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block rally near where Floyd was killed.
“It’s our commitment to end policing as we know it, and re-create systems of public safety that actually keep us safe,” Bender said during the rally. “It is clear that our existing system of policing and public safety isn’t working for so many of our neighbors. … Our efforts at incremental reform have failed. Period.”
At a council meeting last week, members discussed ways to overhaul the department, including building a new public safety operation from the ground up. They said they also were considering how to take action through the police union contract, city ordinances, disciplinary oversight and shifting funds away from the department.
Alondra Cano, the council’s Public Safety and Emergency Management chairwoman, said Minneapolis needs to make a statement about the city’s priorities.
“Many, many cities, communities and organizations and groups are looking at Minneapolis to see what we do,” Cano said, “to see how we respond to this moment in time."
Maureen O’Hagan in Portland, Ore., and Brittany Shammas and Reis Thebault in Washington contributed to this report.