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What do “Defund the Police” and “Abolish the Police” Really Mean?

In practice, “abolish the police” is likely to mean “privatize the police.”
June 10, 2020
What do “Defund the Police” and “Abolish the Police” Really Mean?
People walk down 16th street after “Defund The Police” was painted on the street near the White House on June 08, 2020 in Washington, DC. After days of protests in DC over the death of George Floyd, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has renamed that section of 16th street "Black Lives Matter Plaza". (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and massive nationwide protests against racism and police brutality, a previously niche idea has suddenly been thrust into the mainstream: Either “defunding” the police or abolishing them entirely.

On Sunday, the Minneapolis City Council pledged to eventually dismantle its police department. It could become the first city not to have a police department.

Council member Jeremiah Ellison tweeted, “when we’re done, we’re not simply gonna glue it back together. We are going to dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that some other cities, including Los Angeles and New York City, are considering shrinking the size and budgets of their police departments.

So what does this all mean, exactly? What do activists envision a world of defunded police—or no police at all—would look like?

What is defunders’ criticism of policing?

Advocates of “defunding” argue that policing has been over-applied and tasked with dealing with too broad a variety of problems.

Yes, police arrest violent criminals and break up fights—but they are also tasked with traffic enforcement, school security, drug enforcement, and arrests for petty crimes such as selling individual cigarettes (the crime of which Eric Garner was suspected) and using counterfeit bills (the crime of which George Floyd was suspected). Police are also typically the first responders to calls related to domestic violence and mental illness.

Activists say that by dealing with these problems primarily by dispatching police, they are turned into “social workers with guns.”

Moreover, many police departments have engaged in “broken windows” and stop-and-frisk policing, which activists argue amount to systemic harassment against minorities and low-income neighborhoods.

Does “defund” mean remove funding entirely? What does it mean?

Most of the ideas that fall under the label “defund the police” would be more accurately described as “shrink the police.” Critics often argue that police budgets are simply too large—New York City’s annual police budget is $6 billion—and that much of that funding is inappropriately spent on military equipment.

Defunders argue that a significant amount of this money should be directed to other social services. A frequently offered example is to create a body of mental health workers and social workers who would be better trained for dealing with individual crisis situations, domestic disturbances, and other community problems nonviolently.

A key claim of proponents of defunding is not only that police are too prone to escalate encounters, but that police officers often are not part of the communities they are policing. This argument claims that many of the problems police are dispatched to deal with would be better handled by real members of the communities affected.

Activists thus want better funding for community services and jobs programs—which, they argue, might reduce crime and the need for police. An introductory text by MPD150, an organization that advocates for dismantling the Minneapolis police, argues, “We’re talking about a gradual process of strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility away from police and toward community-based models of safety, support, and prevention.”

Has defunding been done before?

Some elements of what is now being called “defunding” have been done before. Camden, New Jersey, dissolved its police department in 2013 due to high rates of crime and police misconduct. The city’s police department was replaced with a county-level police force. Many cities have already put into practice some of the programs activists are asking for, particularly mental health teams who aim to replace the traditional law enforcement paradigm for crisis situations. Austin, Dallas, and Houston have all launched programs like this in the last few years.

However, these programs have largely not been accompanied by funding cuts for the police departments. Defunding on the scale advocated by some activists does not have obvious precedents in the era of modern U.S. policing.

What about “abolish the police”?

Whereas defunders argue that policing should be more focused, tailored mainly to enforcing laws against violent crime, abolitionists argue that the institution as we know it should be dissolved.

“Abolishing the police is about recognizing that every single effort at police reform has only ever resulted in reinventing the same oppressions all over again,” writes advocate Bridget Eileen in a viral Twitter thread. “It’s about recognizing that maybe we just need to start over with a clean slate.”

Abolitionists use the term deliberately. The authors of an essay in Jacobin draw analogies to the movements for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. They write, “Central to abolitionist work are the many fights for non-reformist reforms—those measures that reduce the power of an oppressive system while illuminating the system’s inability to solve the crises it creates.”

Do activists just want to shrink police budgets and hope that that fixes the problem?

Yes and no. Most abolitionists describe the dissolution of police departments as the ultimate goal of social reform rather than the primary means of achieving reform.

However, proponents of abolition are also more likely to describe the police not only as irredeemably dysfunctional, but as a source of the very problems they are supposed to solve. The MPD150 text argues:

Crime isn’t random. Most of the time, it happens when someone has been unable to meet their basic needs through other means. So to really “fight crime,” we don’t need more cops; we need more jobs, more educational opportunities, more arts programs, more community centers, more mental health resources, and more of a say in how our own communities function.

Another organization, A World Without Police, argues more strongly that “Historically, police forces were created to protect the property of businesses and the wealthy and enforce white supremacy” and “No amount of training, legal oversight, or reform can alter the fundamental violence of the police institution.”

It does not seem implausible, therefore, that abolitionists might view shrinking police budgets as a mechanism of reform and not just a desirable outcome.

Under abolition, what would replace the police?

In part, abolitionists foresee a world in which social reforms have eliminated a great many of the problems that police currently handle. However, most acknowledge that theft, murder, sexual assault, and other crime will never disappear entirely, and argue that some sort of community-based organization tasked with occasionally using force will still be necessary.

The Minneapolis City Council’s pledge to dismantle its police force is notably lacking on specifics of what will replace it. Abolitionist works typically argue that the need for such a force will be small, acknowledge that the solution still needs to be developed, and note how new the movement as a whole is.

Is it politically realistic?

That remains to be seen. A YouGov poll released last week found that only 16 percent of Americans support reducing funding for the police, while 65 percent are opposed.

However, the idea is still new and its specifics likely unfamiliar to most Americans, and the Jacobin authors draw a parallel to the early unthinkability of past movements for radical social change:

Whether in response to private property and nineteenth-century chattel slavery, or the prison industrial complex of the last half century, abolitionist movements have unsettled not only conservative critics but liberals, progressives, and even some radicals. The stubborn immediacy of the demand disturbs those who hope for resolution of intractable social problems within the confines of the existing order. To them, abolition is unworkably utopian and therefore not pragmatic.

But it’s far from clear that the communities most affected by crime and police violence want abolition rather than reform.

Consider Chicago. From 2005 to 2015, black people constituted 72 percent of those against whom city police used force, while the population is only 32 percent black. The city has also seen skyrocketing rates of murder and violent crime over the last few years, even as rates remained at historic lows in the rest of the country. And a Gallup poll last year found that 60 percent of Chicagoans in low-income neighborhoods said people in their communities view the police negatively, compared to just 19 percent of the country as a whole.

Yet the Gallup poll also showed that what these same Chicagoans overwhelmingly want is for police to spend more time in their neighborhood, not less—by a margin of 68 percent to 5 percent. And recent weeks show what may happen when police departments fail to meet demand: After businesses were looted during the Floyd protests, the city, apparently unable to maintain the peace, hired private security forces to help protect businesses from looters.

In practice, as some have argued, police abolition might wind up looking a lot like police privatization.