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What does "Defund the Police" mean?

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

This post is the newest in our blog series about diversity, equity, and inclusion. These posts are written by staff on our Equity Committee and originally shared internally. We're sharing them publicly to be transparent about our internal dialogue, reflections and learning process as we work on being an anti-racist organization.

Over the last few months, we have been hearing the words “defund the police” throughout our nation. The killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis brought this movement to the forefront in our country. Black people and People of Color (POC) have been murdered at the hands of the police for centuries and people have had enough. We are at a time where people can no longer be silent about the deaths occurring in their families, network of friends, and their communities and are rising up in efforts around our country fighting for change and a different system where Black lives matter.

History of policing in America

In order to understand how we have come to this moment in our history, we need to understand our past. Where did policing come from, how have policies been shaped by our history to get us to where we are now?

Many believe that police officers were figures in our communities since the beginning of civilization, but the U.S. police force is actually a more modern invention, according to Gary Potter, a crime historian at Eastern Kentucky University.

In Colonial America, many Northern towns relied on a “night watch” that kept an eye out for people engaging in prostitution or gambling. The first publicly funded police force was in Boston in 1838 where a large commercial shipping center was located, and people were employed to help protect the goods and the transportation of goods from the port to Boston and other cities.

In the South, the creation of police forces was not surrounding the protection of shipping goods but preservation of the slavery system. Many of the policing efforts at this time were geared towards capturing enslaved people who had made a break for their freedom and suppressing slave rebellions. The first formal slave patrol was created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. Our country has a long history of using policing efforts to enforce segregation and prevent freed slaves from gaining autonomy. This history is important, as it shows us that many of the early policing efforts in our colonized America were focused on keeping enslaved Black people enslaved. If Black people resisted their enslavement, they were killed or beaten. Given this history of policing and the relatively short history of Black people being free citizens in America, the police force carries a traumatic past for many Black communities and people of color. We  arrived at this moment in time where people are rising up for change, for Black lives to matter and for police to be defunded. The Defund the Police Movement

It is important to note that defunding the police can mean two things.

  1. It can mean a restructuring of the current city, county, state, and national budgets, divesting funds that have previously gone toward the police department and investing money towards systems/institutions that have historically been underfunded. Examples of these historically underfunded institutions are education, social work, affordable housing, medicine, etc. The request is not to completely get rid of the police department or policing, but to reallocate money so that it is not overfunded and money in our communities is going towards efforts that can approach community problems from a different lens. Many believe this would provide better crime deterrent than police, as the police often show up after an incident has already occurred. At its core, defunding the police is a request to rethink public safety.

    • Ben and Jerry’s (yes, the ice cream company) produced an image that really helps create a picture of what defunding the police can mean.

  • Policing in itself does not prevent crime, but is a reaction to crime after it has occurred. The idea of divesting from the police and investing in other institutions is a tactic to fund prevention instead of reaction.

2. Abolish the police all together and replace it with other institutions. Many activists believe that if we focused on funding community efforts and institutions geared towards rehabilitation vs. punishment, we would have less crime and more healing. This could take the form of medics, mental health workers, and social workers responding to emergency situations and having specific training in de-escalation to help rather than police officers who are not specifically trained in those efforts. This form of defunding the police is calling for the entire abolishment of the police force and funding other institutions instead.

Personal Testimonies When working on this article, the Equity Committee had various discussions about what the police mean to us personally. It was evident that how we perceive the police can be very different depending on our personal or witnessed experience with the police. For many People of Color, the police are not an agency that keeps them safe. Whereas many white people have experienced the police as keepers of safety.

People of Color and marginalized communities are sharing their stories and experiences with the police and highlighting the alarming treatment they receive from the police. These stories help white people understand why this movement has risen to the forefront of American politics. It is about real people, their experiences, and their grievances about a system they do not feel is there to serve and protect them.

  • A member of team (a Black woman) shared a personal story where a neighbor (a Black family) had a disruptive visitor at their home. She describes that she felt the need (even though there were other neighbors watching what was going on) to go and say something to this disruptive visitor and ask them to leave. As one of the other few Black people living in this building she felt she needed to speak up as people look at the Black community as a whole instead of individuals and she didn’t want the police to show up. She worried that if management found out about the incident, they would lump Black people together as causing disruptions as a whole instead of seeing this as an individual problem. Her concern was that they would look at all of the Black people living in the apartment building as disruptors and would not want them to live there. When she asked this person to leave, they left, and she has not seen this person since. She shared this as an example of a time she did not want the police involved as they would likely make the situation worse and not solve the encounter.

  • Philip V. McHarris of Yale’s Sociology and African American Studies Department shared that “growing up as a young black man, he grew wary of the narrative that ’the police keep us safe,’ having been assaulted himself by officers and witnessing the same thing happen to family and friends…that was part of the reason he never once had the impulse to call the police, even when experiencing ’real discernible threats.’”

  • A white, cisgender woman on the team shared that she grew up believing that if something scary happens, the safest step to take is call the police.  This only changed after her adult daughter, Miranda* (also a white woman) was in college and had an experience with her close friend, a transgender woman.  An ambulance was called to respond to a life-threatening allergy and Miranda’s friend was there to support Miranda and accompany her to the hospital. Instead of accepting the name, pronouns and gender the friend provided to the medics, police and health care workers ridiculed and misgendered her. The workers’ response to a life-threatening emergency added to the trauma that the friend  already experienced on a regular basis. As a result of this, and other experiences of her friends who are POC, this team member does not feel safe calling the police in most situations.  This lack of trust in the police also comes from the number of times she has seen videos and news about unarmed people being killed, disproportionately People of Color and others in our community who do not conform to what many may refer to as the “normal”.

*name changed for privacy

Models we can look to

  • Over a year ago Olympia, WA started taking a different approach to nonviolent incidents caused by someone experiencing mental illness, addiction, or homelessness. Instead of sending armed officers to respond, the city dispatches “crisis responders” to diffuse the situation and connect the individual with services—a model now being considered by a growing number of cities across the U.S.

  • Eugene, Oregon, a town of 170,000 people, replaced some police with medics and mental health workers. It's worked for over 30 years.

  • Dallas, Texas has been dispatching social workers to some 911 calls that appear to be related to mental health.

  • In Durham, South Carolina, Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition of community organizations, initially came together to oppose the 2016 plan by the Durham City Council to devote $71M to building a new police headquarters. When they surveyed Durham residents in 2016 and 2017 about how they would spend the $71M allocated to build the new DPD headquarters to keep their communities safe, community members said they wanted affordable housing, healthcare access, good jobs, and better public transportation. The community wanted to address structural problems. Durham Beyond Policing are currently advocating for increases in minimum wages and the formation of a Community-Led Safety and Wellness Task Force to develop viable structural alternatives to policing and incarceration as public safety.

  • Colorado became the first state to end qualified immunity, with many others working to follow its lead. Experts, scholars and judges of all ideologies have begun speaking out against qualified immunity. And members of Congress are introducing legislation to do away with it.

It is our responsibility to educate ourselves, to listen to our community members asking for change, to rise up and vote and pursue justice. As African American civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, noted: “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

For more resources on defunding the police:

  • Vox produced a video that explains what “defunding the police” really means:


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