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What Does #DefundThePolice Actually Mean?

By Alex Wyckoff

Source: The New York Times


Since the killings of George Floyd in May and Breonna Taylor in March, one of the strongest rallying cries for progressives and for the Black Lives Matter movement has been the hashtag #DefundThePolice. The hashtag has acquired endorsements from dozens of cultural and political leaders nationwide and has simultaneously become a point of contention through which conservative leaders and lawmakers have sought to discredit their Democrat opponents. Despite this, few people know what the hashtag actually means.

When pressed on the topic, the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Derrick Johnson, declined to endorse #DefundThePolice because of the vagueness of the hashtag, saying, “I support the energy behind it. I don’t know what that substantively means. As I’m talking to people about the concept, I’ve gotten three different explanations.” Johnson is not the only one to be uncertain about the meaning of the hashtag. Though the City Council in Minneapolis, where Mr. Floyd was killed, voted to defund and replace their police department, a lack of a more specific plan led to the issue being tabled. The Minneapolis Charter Commission, a state agency that oversees the city charter for Minneapolis, voted to table the issue for 90 days pending more research on the topic. What this means is that no substantive change will likely take place in Minneapolis in 2020 despite the City Council’s vote because the 90 day research time goes past the November election, meaning any initiative to actually defund the police will not make it to this November’s ballot.

Lack of specificity has caused disagreements on both sides of the political spectrum.

For conservatives, on the one hand there are lawmakers such as Congressman Will Hurd (R-TX), who believes in reforming qualified immunity, a doctrine that grants government officials and law enforcement agents immunity to civil suits unless a plaintiff can clearly demonstrate violation of statutory or constitutional rights that any reasonable person would have known about. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Hurd casts himself as a balanced lawmaker, claiming, “I saw that you can be outraged by a black man getting murdered in police custody, thankful that law enforcement is enabling our First Amendment rights, and angry that criminals are treading on American values by looting, rioting and killing police.”

President Trump, on the other hand, has derided #DefundThePolice and used the new hashtag’s existence and vagueness to attack his opponents in Congress and the upcoming election. President Trump’s claim is that #DefundThePolice should be taken literally, and that a President Biden and House Speaker Pelosi would make the country unsafe by completely abolishing police departments nationwide. In an effort to position himself against the movement and follow his rhetoric as a self-proclaimed “law and order” president, President Trump has instead sought to increase the police department’s funding and manpower. Attorney General William Barr, a staunch Trump ally, has called for increasing the number of officers by as many as 2700 new uniformed men and women. To Barr, less police resources means an increase in vigilantism.

Contrary to the rhetoric of President Trump and some of his allies, however, many Democrats claim that completely defunding the police is not the goal and, in fact, most of the Democratic leadership has declined to endorse the hashtag. Many Democrats have even signaled agreement with Congressman Hurd and called for reforms of qualified immunity, among other reforms.

Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), typically an icon of the further left progressive movement, has called for a pay raise for police officers and cited the need for “police departments that have well-educated, well-trained, well-paid professionals.” Per Sanders, “I think we want to redefine what police departments do.”

Similar views have been heralded by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has called for “the urgent need for reform ⁠— including funding for public schools, summer programs, and mental health and substance abuse treatment separate from funding for policing ⁠— so that officers can focus on the job of policing.” Though conservative media outlets have incorrectly asserted that the former Vice President favors abolishing police departments, Biden’s stance has largely been that police departments are too militarized and that the funding which purchases military grade vehicles and weapons should instead be diverted toward more proactive programs that augment schooling for children and support people with problems in mental health or substance abuse.

This is a view shared by rising Democratic superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who claims that, to her, a world where the police are defunded “looks like a suburb.” Ocasio-Cortez points to wealthy, predominantly white suburbs, where schools are well funded and counseling programs are plentiful. In such communities, she argues, police are not necessary for the likes of drug abuse or similar crimes because these neighborhoods have counselors and specialists to help instead.

For most Democrats, then, #DefundThePolice actually refers to the idea that instead of using the police department to tackle an overwhelmingly wide range of issues from drug abuse to domestic violence, communities and localities can instead choose to invest in programs that solve problems with counseling and empathy rather than handcuffs and prison.

According to Mr. Biden, “The last thing you need is an up-armored Humvee coming into a neighborhood. It’s like the military invading. They don’t know anybody. They become the enemy. They’re supposed to be protecting these people.”

The stated goal for lawmakers is to divest away superfluous funding that is used by police departments to purchase high grade weaponry such as tanks and military assault rifles. Instead, that funding would go toward counseling and community development. The goal is not to defund the police in entirety, but to reduce unnecessary funding from police such that communities can use effective specialists to more efficiently and precisely handle these problems rather than having a department of pseudo-militia attempting to conquer dozens of radically different issues. The police, then, would be better able to focus on their primary job of protecting citizens from violent crimes such as rape and murder.

Though #DefundThePolice is a vague hashtag that is interpreted to mean different things by a variety of parties and interests, ultimately it can be boiled down to three viewpoints. The first is from far-left leaning community leaders, who do indeed seek to entirely abolish police departments. The second is from far-right conservatives, who take the hashtag at face value and believe that radical leftist lawmakers are trying to get rid of all police officers. The third is from actual elected officials, mostly Democrat but with some agreement from moderate and center-right Republicans. This view is not in fact that the police must be defunded but that some extra funding should instead be redistributed toward more precise programs, and that there can be a middle ground between ideas for reform.

Alex Wyckoff is a community organizer and former employee of the California Democratic Party. He is currently a first year graduate student studying public policy at UC San Diego with a focus in security policy and social inequality.

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