About US spoke with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, about the context behind the new rallying cry.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What does “defund the police” entail?
It’s an evolving set of ideas and demands that are being spurred by activists and movement leaders rather than coming from academic research. What activists are demanding is shifting resources away from police agencies toward public goods that would enhance the health, safety, efficacy, sense of belonging and citizenship within communities. And that means starting with a list of things that police officers do that they should not be doing — and in many ways they never should have been doing — as activists and certainly some of the research like my own historically suggests.
This includes dealing with people having a mental health crisis. There is no one else in our public health sector that is available for such calls. Wellness checks that police officers have been doing can lead to terrible outcomes. If police officers have been trained to minimize the risk to their own lives by using force as their first, and in many cases only, tool, then people end up dead. Like Deborah Danner did in New York City. She was a woman who had schizophrenia that had written an open letter saying that she thought one day if she ever was off her medication, she might get killed by the police. And that’s exactly what happened to her when the police showed up and she had a break.
Defund is, in the broadest sense, a way of having a conversation about what starting over would look like. People should be thinking about defunding the police as both a process and an outcome. The process is empowering local communities to come to the table with city council members to create a process for redefining what the police do, which leads to an outcome, which is they do less of what they’ve been doing.
There are a lot of reform-minded police chiefs who have been saying for a long time that the police do too much. What they’ve expressed is that when they’re ready to do these things, they not only have to deal with the skepticism and the resistance within the ranks, but they also have to deal with the unions. And so asking all of that, all of those elements — the rank and file, the unions and the leaders, the police leaders themselves — to all be synced up around doing this on their own has proved insufficient. This has to come from the outside. This has to come from the legislative bodies that govern police agencies.
Many people have concerns about how crime would be dealt with in a post-defund era. How would that be addressed?
“Defund the police” is a slogan that is new. The calls for a reduction in police activity in black communities around low-level policing is not new. Neither are calls for replacing police officers through various forms of what’s called violence interruption. For 20 years, organizations like Cure Violence have been doing the training of how to empower community members to do conflict resolution. And the model that Cure Violence has been doing essentially removes police and law enforcement from the equation, other than to ask that they not surveil or harass or show some kind of negative attitude toward the Cure Violence worker. They essentially see violence as a disease that is contagious and that if it happens and people are exposed to it, other people will engage. Practically, that means that someone hurt someone and then that person is going to seek retaliation, or their friends or their crew or their gang or their family members, et cetera.
Cure Violence has many names in many different cities because most of the work happens at the community level where a nonprofit is trained to do violence interruption. And it has had incredible results that have been evaluated by researchers. In parts of New York City where Cure Violence has been operating, there hasn’t been a shooting in years. So even the thing that police officers claim to be most important at dealing with, violent crime, there is another way that is as good or better in many instances.
One of the problems for the public health approach in violence interruption is that local elected officials have for 20 years mostly ignored the impact of public health or violence interruption approaches and credited police officers as responsible for low violence rates. The entire political class of elected officials will generally say if crime is going up, it’s because the police don’t have enough resources. If crime is going down, police officers are doing a great job. But when all that work is happening behind the scenes, nobody measures it in terms of local law enforcement. It’s not in their interests. And when it should be in their interest, because it makes their job safer, there’s often a political incentive for them not to give credit where credit is due.
How do you think the defund police movement will play out in the political arena?
Well, so far, the political elites are following the familiar pattern that we’ve seen for the last 50 years. Republicans are framing the idea of systemic police reform and limiting police power around a number of issues as an attack on police that should require a law-and-order response. Trump ran on it in 2016 and is doubling down on it. And the Republican Party has fallen in line.
On the Democratic side, I think there’s a lot of energy at the local and state level from mayors to governors and city council members. But I also think that [presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe] Biden is showing some serious reluctance to accept that police in America should be doing less of what they’re doing as a way of addressing the systemic racism within policing. He’s still operating under the bad apples theory, and he’s still assuming that the good people of police agencies can reform themselves. Which again, I think is as unhelpful and unlikely as asking fossil fuel industry leaders to solve the climate change crisis. It’s just not going to work.
Is defund a clarification or a culmination of the initial changes protesters wanted to see?
I think that defund is a clarification for movement leaders who are not obvious to us because they are decentralized and represent people who are in these communities and doing this work every single day. The organizations that represent those ideas, like Movement for Black Lives, which represents 50 different organizations, put together their ideas and a policy platform four or five years ago. So to make the obvious point, they’re clarifying in this moment what is required to move forward. To shift the attention away from simply getting justice for George Floyd by the proper conviction and judicial process that would lead to real punishment for the four directly involved in his death. While that certainly drove a lot of the initial support, a lot of that community is thinking: We’re going to get justice for George, but this is the political moment to leverage, yet again, the fact that black people can be killed with impunity. And so then they say, okay, do we want to keep doing the same thing, getting justice for individuals, or do we want to change the way the system works?
How do you think that defund will be considered by black residents who are not activists, who may feel like they need some level of policing?
I think that there’s going to be resistance from those folks. … My guess is that it’ll be about a third of the community that will resist defunding.
The academic community has never had solid research on how to disaggregate the African American community’s position on this. When it comes to these kinds of reforms in particular, we tend to look across political party affiliation and across racial divides, but not within the community itself. And so I’m going to give you an example that I think is a proxy for this. Throughout the stop-and-frisk decade, roughly between 2004 and 2013, Quinnipiac would regularly poll New Yorkers on stop-and-frisk. What they generally noted was that there was about 30 percent support within the black community for stop-and-frisk. By contrast, for example, there was about 60 percent support for stop-and-frisk by the white community. So while we tend to take away the 30 percent gap between white and black, with a majority of whites in New York supporting stop-and-frisk and a tiny minority of blacks supporting it, that becomes the headline. But that 30 percent is telling us something.
Those are the people that [former New York City police commissioner] Ray Kelly and [former New York mayor] Michael Bloomberg would often put in front of a camera or reference when they said black community members want this. There is a real constituency for punitive responses, people who want police to come in and get the bad guys. But they are not the majority.