The Cities Taking Up Calls to Defund the Police

On June 7, members of the Minneapolis city council announced something that just weeks ago might have seemed politically untenable: They would disband the Minneapolis Police Department entirely, and start over with a community-led public safety system. Though the mayor reaffirmed on Monday that he wouldn’t support the dissolution of the force, the council has secured a veto-proof majority.

“Our commitment is to do what’s necessary to keep every single member of our community safe and to tell the truth: that the Minneapolis Police are not doing that,” city councilmember Lisa Bender said at a rally. “Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it, and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”

Although it’s unclear how the council plans to disband the police department, the move nonetheless marks a foundational shift in how many U.S. politicians talk about policing in the city — one that reflects the growing understanding that there’s something systemic wrong with the institution.

No other city has gone as far as Minneapolis, where the killing of George Floyd sparked global protests. The Minneapolis Parks Department, the University of Minnesota, some local museums and the public school system have already severed ties with the police department.

But lawmakers in at least 15 other U.S. cities have proposed or made pledges that would divest some resources from the police. Several more have proposed taking police out of schools. Many of the ideas are more incremental in their rhetoric than Minneapolis’s, calling instead for budget cuts or reductions in officer counts. Some are waiting to conduct firmer research or get more public input before making concrete plans. Even in Minneapolis, councilmembers haven’t yet laid out details about how their proposal would work, instead promising that they’d listen to locals before determining a path. But already, in the weeks since Floyd’s death, communities have been heard — in the streets and online — sparking an acute focus on funding as a reform vehicle.

“These ideas are not new, but what we are seeing today is the emergence of a groundswell of support for them from elected officials and — most importantly — from their communities and constituents across the country,” says Sarah Johnson, the director of Local Progress, an alliance of local policymakers that advocate for progressive reforms.

As the role and pervasive power of the police has been questioned, so, too, have bloated budgets: Even as crime has fallen across the country, police and public safety have consistently made up an average of 3.7% of state and local spending, a Bloomberg Businessweek analysis of Urban Institute data found. Since the 1970s, spending on police has nearly tripled, reaching $114.5 billion in 2017.

By reducing the number of police deployed, de-militarizing them, and rethinking their role in prosecuting smaller offenses, advocates say cities could cut departments down to scale. With the money saved, cities could reallocate resources toward other public services — like schools, social workers and mental health professionals — and away from enforcement and incarceration.

Reducing police budgets

After peaceful protest in front of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house and on the streets of Los Angeles, the city became one of the first where true police defunding will take hold. The mayor and the city council president plan to cut $100 to $150 million from the LAPD’s budget, and reinvest that, plus $100 million more, in black communities. Activists were encouraged by the move, but it falls far short of what they’re seeking: a dramatic slashing of the $1.86 billion budget to represent just 6% of the city’s discretionary fund, rather than 53%.

In New York City, despite initial resistance, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to propose a July budget that includes cuts to the $6 billion police budget, paired with more investment in youth and social services, though he shared few details. The city’s comptroller has urged him to reduce the budget by $1.1 billion, and councilmembers Carlos Menchaca and Brad Lander have made clear they won’t sign a budget that doesn’t “meaningfully” redirect funds from policing to coronavirus recovery and social services.

And in San Francisco, supervisor Shamann Walton has announced his own plans to redirect funding from the police to black communities like the one he represents. Details there are scarce, too, but Walton has won the support of Mayor London Breed — who, in the past, has worked to increase police presence in the city.

Rerouting funds to social services

Where defunding efforts are still nascent, understanding the gaps between spending on social services and policing will be key to determining how much funding to redirect, policymakers say.

In Chicago, for instance, the public dollars that go to supporting public health, family services, the department for people with disabilities, and libraries combined is about $1 billion, says Chicago alderman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, who’s joined with the city’s progressive caucus to lead calls to defund the police. In contrast, the 13,000-member-strong police department’s budget has grown every year for the past eight years, reaching $1.78 billion in 2020; $153 million of the city’s budget is earmarked for police misconduct settlements.

“As we have created this austerity situation where poverty has increased and the gaps between the rich and the poor have increased, we’ve also created this really huge police department that has lots of military equipment and a lot of surveillance,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” Though she says more research needs to be done before the council identifies a target number for divestment, she says the city could start by getting Chicago police officers out of public schools, and halt plans to build a new $100 million police academy. (Mayor Lori Lightfoot has resisted calls to cut police funding in the past.)

Rodriguez-Sanchez says public support is growing for non-financial reforms, too, including a push to create a Civilian Police Accountability Council, which would introduce more public oversight over the police department. The ordinance is currently held up in the city’s public safety committee.

“Imagine the kind of support services we can have if we divest resources from punishment to funding basic human needs,” she wrote on Twitter.

Smaller cities have similarly disparate spending priorities. While more than 33.5% of St. Louis, Missouri’s general fund and 20% of its total city budget went to policing in 2019, only 2.3% of the city budget went to mental health according to an analysis by Local Progress.

“We’ve continued to underfund social services and human services while putting upwards of 50% of our budget into policing and jails,” said Megan Ellyia Green, a St. Louis councilmember who worked with Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson on an op-ed advocating for police divestment in January.

A sales tax passed in 2017 to hire more police officers and give raises to existing ones has raised $50 million a year; Green says she wants the city to divert those funds into “violence interruptors, social workers and substance abuse counselors,” and ”to start to go after the root causes of crime in our city.”

She’s also joining activists in calling on the city to close a medium-security jail nicknamed “the Workhouse,” where only about 100 primarily non-violent offenders are held, the vast majority of whom are awaiting trial but cannot afford bail. Recent reforms have already shrunk the jail’s budget from $16 million to closer to $8 million, but Green notes those funds could be saved if it was shuttered entirely. Incarcerated people could be transferred into St. Louis’ Justice Center, “but the goal should be to have the maximum amount of people not within our jails, and provide people with the supports they need to wait for their day in court at home,” she said.

Reducing officer counts

Where the cop-to-population ratio is especially high, lawmakers are emphasizing the need to shrink head counts. Washington, D.C., for example, employs about 3,800 officers. That means the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has 55 officers per every 10,000 residents, a proportion that city councilmember David Grosso notes is double the national average. In a proposed amendment to councilmember Charles Allen’s police reform bill — which would “find savings in MPD’s budget” — Grosso offered a plan to limit the number of sworn officers to 3,500, and to put a hiring freeze on the department if it exceeds that number.

Two city councilmembers in Hartford, a city of 122,000 in Connecticut, have proposed what Local Progress believes to be “the largest percent reduction currently being proposed among cities with largest police-to-population ratio.” The policymakers, Wildaliz Bermudez and Josh Michtom, are calling for a 25% cut of the police budget. That would translate into an estimated $9 million in savings cut from “areas within the department least likely to reduce violent crime and most likely to contribute to the criminalization of Black and Brown people.”

While the national momentum is unprecedented, city leaders like St. Louis Councilmember Green and Durham Mayor Pro Tempure Johnson, have been nudging reforms for years. Last summer, Durham’s city council denied a $1.2 million proposal to fund 18 new police officers, instead raising wages for part-time government workers in a city where crime has consistently declined. To determine future policing priorities, Durham created a community safety task force, charged with things like looking at how the city deals with crisis response and investigating alternatives to school policing.

“The police chief and the sheriff have been strong advocates of broad reforms to the criminal legal system, but the questions around defunding or divesting obviously go further than reform,” she said. “We can make policing better, but policing is never going to be the right solution for certain problems.”

Johnson is planning on analyzing the city’s 911 calls to gain more clarity on which could be fielded by community health workers or people trained in crisis intervention instead of law enforcement.

“If we could divert 20% of the calls that are currently being responded to by police to other agencies, that’s a huge difference,” she said. Redirecting resources doesn’t have to stop with 911, she added: “You don’t need to be armed to direct traffic or lead a parade through a crowd. What kinds of jobs could we create in the city for unarmed safety officers to be able to do that kind of work?”

Obstacles to reform

Even where political will is growing, obstacles to passing legislation at the city level remain. Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s proposed budget, which the council will vote on this week, is set to allocate more than $500 million to the police — more than three times the spending on “housing and community development, employment development, homeless services, recreation and parks, art and culture, health, and civil rights” combined, the Baltimore Fishbowl notes. Although a few city councilmembers in Baltimore have expressed support for police budget cuts, the city’s strong-mayor leadership means that even if the council votes to defund, it can’t decide where the money is reinvested. Leadership change may accelerate things: In an upset Monday, councilmember Bill Henry — a longtime advocate for diverting police funds into things like supporting youth — won Baltimore’s comptroller seat, giving him the power to audit city agencies. And the primary election for Baltimore mayor will mean new leadership at the top, too.

Even in Minneapolis, it’s unclear what bold pledges to disband the police will or can mean in practice. Councilmembers haven’t yet taken a vote or elaborated on what a plan might look like and activists question whether eliminating the department is even a good idea without clear plans about what will replace it. Michelle Gross, president of the Minneapolis chapter of Communities United Against Police Brutality, told the Associated Press the promise was “just plain optics.”

Getting police out of schools

While policymakers work to reduce the number of police on the streets, public school systems like Minneapolis’s that have contracts with local departments or employ their own officers are taking similarly bold steps in their hallways.

“We have such a dearth of funding in education and a lack of prioritization in education. We can’t afford to waste money by paying police officers to come in and not just disrupt education, but really funnel kids away from the educational system and into the criminal system,” said Sylvia Torres-Guillén, the ACLU of California’s director of education equity. “Studies have shown that students are more likely not to graduate from high school if they are arrested. Every time law enforcement touches a student, they are more likely not to complete school.”

Public schools in Rochester, New York, cut five out of 12 “school resource officers” — agents from the Rochester police department — from its budget in May, and the city is pushing to cut the rest. Contracts between police and Denver public schools may be phased out, too, as reforms gain the support of the majority of the school board members and the superintendent.

And in Portland, the superintendent of public schools has decided to “discontinue” its use of school resource officers entirely, heeding the demands of the city council’s lone black member, Jo Ann Hardesty, has been making since she took office in 2019.

When the final city budget vote is cast on June 10, Hardesty wrote in an op-ed that she “will be re-introducing a series of amendments to not only disband the three aforementioned Portland police specialty units, but to move that money out of the Portland police budget and into policing alternatives such as Portland Street Response.”

“This is only the beginning,” she wrote.

The volume of messages from constituents supporting efforts to defund the police has never been higher, Green, Johnson, and Rodriguez-Sanchez told CityLab.

“I think we’re finally getting to the point where we’re recognizing that policing does not equate [with] public safety,” said Green. “And that if we’re perpetually underfunding all these support services that can actually prevent crime, that’s actually causing us to have higher crime rates.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Josh Mishtom’s name.

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