Defund the police: how a protest slogan sparked a political debate

Eleven months ago, “Defund the police” was a slogan that appeared on placards during protests; now it is being debated by US city councils.

Polls show that only a small portion of Americans support the idea of ​​defunding the police, a flexible phrase that can mean redirecting funds to social services or eliminating the department altogether. Yet after sentence of the officer charged with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and in the wake of yet more deaths at the hands of the police, what was previously a fringe concept has become part of the American political debate.

Minneapolis has three proposals to decrease the power of the police department that supporters are trying to put on the ballot in November. Two would replace the police service with a public security service, with the police constituting a division. The third would place the police service under the control of a 13-member civilian commission, with the power to hire the chief of police and disciplinary officers for misconduct.

Austin, Texas cut its police budget by 35% in August, with 5% taking effect immediately. Seattle cut the police budget by 20% in December. City councils cut police budgets nearly two dozen other cities, but above all because the pandemic has damaged municipal finances.

“People will look back on this year and say it was a real turning point,” said Alexander Weiss, a consultant who has advised the Chicago and New Orleans Police Departments, with reference to police accountability.

People march near the Colorado State Capitol to protest the deaths of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo © Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images

Floyd’s death last May sparked protests around the world against the disproportionate number of people of color killed by police. One of the main demands of many activists was to abolish police services entirely or to cut their funding and redirect it to social services. In Minneapolis, nine city council members stood on a dais and pledged to dispel the police. When Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered that the words “Black Lives Matter” be painted on a block of the White House, protesters used the same yellow paint to add: “Defund the Police”.

With more people killed by police in the past three weeks, demands for the defund have intensified. Chicago Community Organizer Rey Wences Told non-profit media Democracy Now! that following the murder of 13-year-old Adam Toledo last month by a Chicago police officer: “What we have been asking for is the same thing that we have been asking for years. . . Defund the police and invest in our communities. “

In 2017, state and local governments in the United States spent $ 115 billion on policing – about 4% of general direct state and local government spending – according to the Urban Institute. This share has remained constant over the past four decades, even as the rising cost of health care means that other expensive items, such as primary education, now make up a smaller share of municipal budgets.

Most of the money is used to pay police salaries and benefits, so cutting more than 15% of a department’s budget often means reducing the size of the force, Weiss said.

Remuneration of police officers has increased as police unions gain in power and unions are among the most staunch opponents of the defunding movement. After Austin City Council voted in August to cut the police budget by $ 150 million, the Texas Municipal Police Association put up a notice board outside of town, saying : “Warning !!! Austin Police Defunded Enter at your own risk ”.

Critics have warned that crime will rise if police budgets are cut. The number of homicides increased in most American cities last year. While the reasons are unclear, this increase does not appear to be related to police budget cuts, which in most cases had not yet taken effect.

Some Democrats have also been critical. President Joe Biden said in a meeting with civil rights leaders talking about cutting police funding, this is how Republicans “defeated us across the country” in the november election.

An Ipsos / USA Today poll released last month found that 18% of Americans support dismantling the police, and only 11% support abolishing it. About 57% support full funding for their own local police service, while 43% support redirecting some of this money to social services.

Richard Auxier, a tax and budget expert at the Urban-Brookings Center for Fiscal Policy, said that since police budgets are set by local governments: “There are literally thousands across the country. . . . and they all have their own policy ”.

Politics have been particularly intense in Minneapolis. Three of the advisers who made the pledge in June have backed down. The previously obscure Minneapolis Charter Commission killed an attempt last year by council members to place a proposal on the ballot that would replace the police department with a new public safety agency. Minneapolis City Council launched a second attempt in January.

Activist Antonio Williams is web director for the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition, which is trying to win a ballot initiative similar to that of city council. (A third group, the Twin Cities 4 Jamar Justice Coalition, is also pursuing a voting initiative.) So far, more than 20,000 residents have signed the Yes 4 Minneapolis petition.

A protester holds up Daunte Wright’s portrait on the seventh night of protests against her shooting by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on Saturday © Chandan Khanna / AFP / Getty Images

Williams said some of the residents he spoke to believed the language of the petition was going too far, while others felt he was doing too little. He sees all of these conversations as a first step in the process of persuading someone to sign and then go to the polls in November to support the initiative.

For him and other activists, the murders of Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center police officer, or from Toledo to Chicago, add no urgency to their cause, for it has always been urgent. But perhaps for some, the fact that Wright’s death came as ex-cop Derek Chauvin was on trial for Floyd’s death as the world watched Minneapolis underscores “an urgent need for change.”

“It’s going to continue to happen across the country until the police as we know them and see them removed,” Williams said.

Certainly Floyd’s death “galvanized” townspeople over the issue of police misconduct, Williams said. He doubts the signing campaign could have been successful 11 ​​months ago. “The conversation could have happened for sure, but the next step, the engagement, the action?” he said. “I don’t see this happening.”

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