AFTER WEEKS of sustained anger and activism following the police killings of several black Americans, one of the most contentious demands of the movement — to “defund the police” — is making waves in city councils across the country as advocates and elected officials clash over the most effective immediate responses to address police brutality and structural racism. Underlying these debates remains a higher-order question, one that was never going to be resolved in a single round of budget negotiations: How to reimagine public safety in America?

The call to defund the police has been controversial since activists brought it into the mainstream conversation on policing this spring. The contention stems, in part, from confusion over whether to take the slogan literally, figuratively or both. There’s no single answer — some advocates primarily want to see more money invested in social services, while others see reducing police budgets as a step toward abolishing the police entirely.

Responding to pressure, officials in Los Angeles, New York and other major cities have pledged to move millions of dollars from police budgets toward social services and community needs. But simply reducing police budgets was never the end goal. Advocates disagree over the precise target outcomes and the best paths there, but most agree that a necessary step is to invest more — financially, intellectually, politically — in non-policing solutions to society’s problems. It’s reasonable for communities across the country to make these sorts of demands: for well-resourced violence mediators and mental health responders who could de-escalate disputes; for schools with well-trained counselors instead of armed police; for governments that aggressively tackle social determinants of crime such as homelessness and lack of economic opportunity.

With so many moving parts, a sticking point between officials and activists is over the correct order of events to move toward a society that is genuinely safer for all Americans. Some warn of the unintended consequences of rapidly defunding police departments without rigorous plans for alternatives in place, while others fear that national attention will move on before meaningful reform arrives. What to do first?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Budgets reflect community priorities, and where non-policing solutions are chronically underfunded, it makes sense to invest more in those. In places where community groups have been deploying promising non-policing solutions for years, an obvious move is to provide them with more resources. But finding funds, especially during a pandemic, will be a challenge, and simply cutting the police budget may not be the best way. Just as there are plenty of unwise ways to spend money, there are plenty of unwise ways to slash budgets.

Ultimately, the order of events matters less than the magnitude of the political imagination that can be summoned to meet this moment. Because of the public health and economic crises roiling the United States, the country will already need to confront massive rebuilding efforts in the coming months and years. Rethinking which institutions truly serve public safety and imagining new ones should be part of that conversation. This work is arduous and demanding — as many community organizers who have been doing it for decades can testify. But no one ever said reimagining public safety would be easy.

Read more: