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'Defund the Police' Is Dead But Other Reform Efforts Thrive In U.S. Cities

Newsweek logo Newsweek 5/24/2022 Steve Friess

Two years after George Floyd was killed, a surge in violent crime in major cities across the country has effectively ended the "defund the police" movement that sprung up in the wake of his death. A new national poll by the University of Massachusetts Amherst finds that just 31 percent of Americans now support transferring funds from state and local police departments to community social services, a seven-point drop from a year ago. Meanwhile, with crime a hot-button issue in the upcoming midterm elections, moderate Democrats are more likely to call for additional money for law enforcement than for diverting it—among them, President Joe Biden, who called for a $30 billion increase in law enforcement spending in his State of the Union address in March to "fund our police and give them all the tools they need."

While the politically disastrous rallying cry to "defund the police" may be dead, though, that doesn't mean reform efforts have been abandoned. Far from it, in fact. Over the past two years, legislators and activists across the nation have been testing out a bevy of new approaches to law enforcement aimed at enhancing public safety and making policing more effective, efficient and transparent. The result: Dozens of cities and towns in both red and blue states have become active laboratories for intriguing experiments that shift some non-emergency 911 calls away from armed police responses; supplement police work with ongoing social work and mental health outreach; and focus efforts on preventing violence before police intervention is necessary.

"There's now a broad conviction that creating public safety and addressing violence should no longer be considered purely or even primarily a police and criminal justice matter," says criminologist David Kennedy, founder of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College in New York. "People don't know how to make that happen, especially in the near term, but there's been a real shift in the center of gravity on that issue."

The success of these initiatives varies, or can be hard to discern. But even in places where clear problems resulted—like in Burlington, Vermont, where big cuts in police funding prompted a large number of cops to quit the force—the desire for new approaches remains strong.

"To the degree that 'defund the police' meant what it said, that we should be taking funds away from the police, I believe it was a wrong turn in our longstanding efforts to do the critical work of reforming policing," says Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who has had to offer bonuses to retain and attract officers to the force. "That doesn't mean we stop trying to do better. Everyone knows police have to do better."

Police Chief Paul Pazen of Denver, where an acclaimed program that provides alternatives to police response for certain 911 calls recently received funding to expand, agrees. "The term defund is polarizing. There are people that are adamantly for it and adamantly against it. It shuts down any conversation," he says. But, he adds, "That doesn't mean other conversations aren't happening. They are."

Protesters clash with police in Chicago , on May 30, 2020 during a protest against the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Jim Vondruska/Getty © Jim Vondruska/Getty Protesters clash with police in Chicago , on May 30, 2020 during a protest against the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Jim Vondruska/Getty

Here's a look at some of the important law enforcement innovations and experiments currently sparking discussion across the country and what they may mean for the future of policing.

Denver's Shining STAR

Three days after the Floyd murder sparked demonstrations and demands for change in cities across the country, the first of the Mile High City's STAR vans hit the streets. The program had been in the works for a while but the the timing of the launch was fortuitous, Police Chief Pazen tells Newsweek, because it gave local leaders an answer to rising anger in the streets over police handling of non-violent disturbances.

STAR stands for Support Team Assisted Response, and the conceit is almost precisely what many reform activists proposed as the centerpiece of the defund the police movement: Non-emergency personnel trained in mental health and social work are sent out as first responders on low-level trespassing, vagrancy or public disturbance calls instead of armed officers. For the most part, 911 operators decide whether to send a STAR van or armed law enforcement to a scene.

Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen (seen here comforting a woman during a march after George Floyd's death in 2020) says the city's STAR program has gotten better outcomes for people in crisis than sending armed officers. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images © Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen (seen here comforting a woman during a march after George Floyd's death in 2020) says the city's STAR program has gotten better outcomes for people in crisis than sending armed officers. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Since its inception, some 3,000 calls to 911 have been offloaded from the police, and none of those resulted in the need to call a cop to make an arrest. The STAR team engages the troubled subject not with threat of arrest but with the expertise necessary to de-escalate the situation and the community connections to get the person needed help.

Such incidents can often needlessly get out of hand when armed officers show up. A Washington Post database of fatal police shootings shows that about 22 percent of the nearly 7,400 cases listed since 2015 involved someone with mental illness. What's more, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in interactions with law enforcement, according to the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center.

By contrast, on a Friday this spring, Denver's 911 received a call that an unarmed man was causing a disturbance. Dispatchers sent a STAR team that determined the subject was a long-time homeless Iraq War veteran suffering a panic attack. STAR called contacts at the regional Veterans Administration. "They called us back and said, 'Hey, we've been looking for this person for the past six months because we have housing for him but haven't been able to locate him to tell him,'" says STAR program coordinator Chris Richardson, a social worker at the Mental Health Center of Denver. "We got to tell him. Before us, police would've responded but they wouldn't have the connections to the VA to be able to give him this good news in the moment. Usually, it was take him to the hospital or to jail or just walk away for other calls."

Pazen says the concept grew out of an existing program that started in 2016 in which a behavioral health specialist from the Mental Health Center of Denver is sent with sworn officers on similar sorts of calls. That program, which now works with law enforcement for the local mass transit system and the Denver airport in addition to the city police, led to discussions about ways to take armed officers out of those situations altogether. It is modeled after a 30-year-old program in Eugene, Oregon, called CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, which operates in similar fashion.

STAR, however, was the first permutation to scale up the concept from a mid-sized college town to a metropolis with six times the population. And since STAR launched in Denver, the cities of San Francisco, Minneapolis and Albuquerque have all begun adding similar programs of their own.

Part of the reason why STAR has been uncontroversial—and even embraced in the media by both beat cops and law-enforcement reformers—is that it is paid for primarily from a dedicated tax approved by 70 percent of Denver voters in a 2018 referendum that created the Caring For Denver Foundation, a mental health fund. Even though many proponents at the time said that this was a form of "defunding the police," in actuality the Denver police budget has been untouched. Instead, STAR was launched with just over $200,000 in grant money in June 2020 and, after proving successful, received $2.4 million from the Caring For Denver fund and the city's general fund. Denver has allocated $3.9 million to the program in its 2022 budget.

There's plenty of work to go around, Pazen says. STAR took on 2.4 percent of 911 calls in its first year, but overall calls for service rose 4.2 percent, he says. "Too many people want the STAR program to replace the police, and nothing could be further from the truth," Pazen says. "They get better outcomes for individuals who are in crisis, but in no way, shape or form is this a crime prevention or crime reduction. [Even] if I had 1,000 STAR vans, it wouldn't reduce my shootings, my homicides, my robberies, my burglaries, my auto thefts, my car break-ins."

Still, STAR is already becoming an integral part of the city's public safety efforts, both as a way to get better outcomes and to reduce the potential for violent confrontations, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock says. "Programs like STAR are force-multipliers," the mayor noted at a press conference earlier this year. "The more we can respond to emergencies with an unarmed social worker, the more we can free up police officers to go after the drug dealers, gun sellers. We are going to continue to scale up these efforts."

And Denver is putting money where the mayor's mouth is. In February, the City Council unanimously approved an additional $1.4 million for the STAR program's continued expansion.

Social Workers on the Force in Kentucky

It's no surprise that big, liberal cities like Denver and San Francisco, where police-reform activism has hit a fevered pitch, are trying out such ideas. Perhaps less expected: Versions appearing in places like Alexandria, Kentucky, a conservative suburb of Cincinnati with 10,000 residents.

"In general, the idea that we don't need armed police to respond to mental health crises is becoming uncontroversial across the country, even in places that are not hotbeds of liberalism," says Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing and a sociology professor at Brooklyn College in New York.

In 2016, the Alexandria Police Department became the first in the Bluegrass State to hire a staff social worker. Mike Ward, then the police chief, tells Newsweek he was at a training session about "community policing" that taught officers how to minister to a range of social problems only tangentially related to public safety. "I kept asking myself why we were doing that. I'm not a social worker. I'm a cop. I have been trained to react and protect," he says. "Community policing in many ways has failed in that we have, for years, tried to make social workers out of police officers. It doesn't work. We're not wired that way."

Within months, he persuaded the Alexandria City Council to hire an actual social worker to follow up with people that the police encounter who need services and help more than they need a night in the county jail. Clad in a polo shirt and showing up in a nondescript Ford sedan, they are unarmed "second responders"—they have a panic button to push for backup if the situation gets hairy—whose intervention is more welcome by subjects than it would be from a weapon-toting member of the police.

The result: A significant drop in repeat 911 calls and about 15 percent fewer people going to jail, Ward says. Now there are two staff social workers, whom Ward calls "the busiest people in the department."

That's a pretty good value for taxpayers because a social worker is dramatically less expensive than a sworn officer, he says. "I can buy him a car, but I don't have to buy him a $30,000 car, I could buy him an $18,000 [vehicle], and I don't have to put $20,000 worth of equipment into the car after I purchase it," Ward says. "I don't have to pay $10,000 for uniforms, guns, radios, radar units, body armor. But at the same time, I'm not willing to give up the number of police officers I need to handle the calls for service that we're handling. I just need somebody to take over and solve these problems socially."


Video: Biden signs order on police reform two years after George Floyd's death (Reuters)

Ward says it wasn't easy at first to get buy-in from rank-and-file cops. One of the most vocal opponents early on was Lucas Cooper, who succeeded Ward as Chief and turned into a full-throated supporter spreading the word about the program's success to other departments inquiring after the Floyd murder. Since then, both the Kentucky State Police and Jeffersontown, a Louisville suburb, have hired social workers, too.

"The first time I realized that the program was going to be successful was when I witnessed the oldest, crustiest police officer I had get a call one day, and as he started toward the door to his cruiser, he stopped, poked his head into the social worker's office and said, 'Can you come with me, I think I'm going to need you on this call,'" Ward says. "The officers were seeing firsthand the value of the social worker as a member of the police department."

Still, Ward says he worries about models like STAR where non-cops are first responders, fearful that the 911 operator will misjudge the call and put the unarmed social worker in harm's way. "What are we going to do when those social workers are killed?" he grouses. "Programs can shut themselves down if they're not careful."

5 Days Without Cops in Brooklyn

Six months after the Floyd murder, with the "Defund" movement at the brief high-watermark of public support, the New York Police Department's 73rd Precinct agreed to a radical idea: They withdrew all police for 10 hours a day on five chilly December days from a two-block area along Mother Gaston Boulevard in Brooklyn that is lined with one of the city's most dense public housing projects and has long been a hotbed of violence.

An experiment in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn removed police from the street for 10 hours a day for five days straight, with impressive results: zero 911 calls. Spencer Platt/Getty Images © Spencer Platt/Getty Images An experiment in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn removed police from the street for 10 hours a day for five days straight, with impressive results: zero 911 calls. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In place of beat cops, who remained on alert nearby, teams of social workers and trained crisis mitigation volunteers—many ex-convicts and recovered addicts from the area—kept watch and chatted up the residents while community groups set up tents providing information and consultations about education, job and housing opportunities, available mental health services and more.

The results were impressive: zero 911 calls with the singular exception of a bus driver who accidentally hit the wrong button and triggered an emergency call. The NYPD's 73rd Precinct, led by a deputy inspector who grew up in the area and supported the experiment, declared the effort a "huge success" in a tweet, suggesting this would "set a tone for the future as we embrace reform and reimagin[e] public safety."

"This proved we're not going to incarcerate or police ourselves out of poverty, that we have to be able to provide people some modicum of dignity and integrity and respect," state Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, a Democrat who represents the area and grew up in nearby public housing, tells Newsweek. "Instead of police officers, the area was under the watchful eyes of crisis management teams and violence interrupters who were integral to the Brownsville Safety Alliance."

Since that first experiment, there have been four similar five-day programs in other sections of the 73rd Precinct, including one in December 2021 and another taking place this week from Tuesday to Saturday. The results thus far have been similar—no notable violence. "What we have done is identify corridors in the community that could use the service," Walker says. "But we have not seen many examples of replication in other places."

As recently as January 2021, then-NYPD Chief of Patrol Juanita Holmes lauded the Brownsville effort and said it would be expanded to 10 precincts in Brooklyn and the Bronx. It never happened, though, in large part because of the shift in political appetite for reform that accompanied a sharp uptick in violent crime in the Big Apple in 2021. In November, New York elected a new mayor, Eric Adams, a former Brooklyn cop whose platform included full-throated opposition to anything even vaguely suggestive of replacing police. In fact, Walker is dismayed that Adams is calling for increased patrols to arrest or remove homeless people from the subways, for example, but providing meager efforts to provide new services to those people who are displaced. Holmes, who was promoted to chief of the NYPD's training bureau in January, "may have also spoken about the fact that she would like to duplicate this as a citywide initiative, but we have seen zero investment in that."

New York City mayor Eric Adams, a former cop, campaigned on a law-and-order platform that did not bode well for police reform activists. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images © Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images New York City mayor Eric Adams, a former cop, campaigned on a law-and-order platform that did not bode well for police reform activists. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Experts who study the "violence interruption" model see the Brownsville approach, if not as a permanent solution, then at least useful in a different way. "It's an example of something that you could do in a moment of crisis rather than saying, 'Oh, my God, there's an uptick in shootings, we should put a cop on every street corner' like that's the only possible emergency strategy," says Vitale, the Brooklyn College sociologist. "But you can't do this every day, 365 days a year. And it doesn't prevent problems like domestic violence that require armed police."

Vitale points to other violence-interrupter models such as Cure Violence, a Chicago-based program that trains people who live in areas of high crime to intervene before verbal disagreements turn physical. Cure Violence trainees, who are already at work in New York, began operating in four areas of St. Louis, Missouri, in late 2020 with impressive results: Homicides fell 26 percent across the city in a year when violent crime surged across the U.S., and four of the five Cure Violence neighborhoods outpaced the city's overall homicide drop.

"The point here is that there are emergency responses that we can look to that don't take 10 years to implement," Vitale says. "We can do it tomorrow. And it doesn't have to be police."

Burlington Defunds, Then Retreats

The headlines were catnip for conservative media (Fox News: "Vermont city deteriorates after defunding police, critics fear 'racist' label for speaking out") and liberal outlets (The Daily Beast: "This Liberal City Defunded the Police. Now It's Paying Cops to Stay") alike.

Indeed, no place in America took the "Defund the Police" slogan as literally as Burlington, Vermont, a town of about 42,000 residents best known politically for its one-time mayor, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Within weeks of the Floyd murder in 2020, the City Council, over the objections of Mayor Weinberger and the police chief, passed an ordinance to slash the police force from a cap of 105 down to, at most, 74 sworn officers by a combination of attrition and removing armed cops from public schools. The savings has been funneled into hiring of a fleet of "community service officers" and "community support liaisons," positions that function similarly to the social workers doing outreach and responding to calls in Denver and Alexandria. It is also funding social programs to help minority-owned businesses, provide more citizen oversight of police misconduct investigations and even paying for a study to examine the prospects of paying reparations for slavery.

Yet rather than reduce the department slowly over time, the measure prompted Burlington police to resign in droves. In September of that year, the council voted unanimously to use COVID relief money to provide $10,000 retention bonuses for police and a $15,000 sign-on bonus for new recruits who stay on the job for 22 months, but even that didn't stem the tide. By December 2021, just 64 active-duty cops remained, leaving swaths of the town unpatrolled and increasing 911 response times. "The exit interviews have been pretty clear that it was about a lack of support in a political sense," Acting Police Chief Jon Murad told NBC News in December.

Police in Burlington, Vermont quit the force in droves after money for the force was cut in one of the most literal interpretations of "defund the police" in the country. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images © Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images Police in Burlington, Vermont quit the force in droves after money for the force was cut in one of the most literal interpretations of "defund the police" in the country. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Councilor Jack Hanson, who co-authored the defund ordinance, admits the department shrank "quicker than we expected" and before the alternative plans could be implemented. "We ended up in that situation where people weren't getting responses quickly enough to some of the issues that they were calling in for, and people were having to work a lot of overtime," Hanson says.

Whether that's led to a spike in crime is up for debate. Mayor Weinberger tells Newsweek the cuts have resulted in a rise in burglaries and vehicle thefts. The number of gunfire incidents hit a record 14 for the year in 2021 which sounds low but for the fact that the average in Burlington each year is two.

"I don't want to overstate it, it's not that I think we've become some dystopian city," the mayor says. "But we are a place where I'm much more frequently hearing people feeling unsafe in the downtown area."

Perception may not be reality, though. An ACLU analysis—which Weinberger rejects as inaccurate—showed an 18 percent drop in "police incidents" in the first eight months of 2021 versus 2020. Violent crime did rise in that span by about 5.5 percent, but in raw numbers that amounted to just 20 additional incidents.

Still, Burlington is now emblematic, at very least, of a need to take more care in implementing new ideas. Weinberger, who views himself as a progressive, is frustrated that his city's experience is now Exhibit A for conservatives looking to mock the police reform movement writ large.

Burlington was, before this, a leader in trying new approaches to law enforcement. Its police force was among the first in New England to wear body cameras; the city opted out of Department of Defense program to supply local police with surplus military equipment; it created a domestic violence prevention position focused on deterrence and a community affairs team that, working with foot patrols, focused on addressing crime without increasing arrests and incarceration. In 2016, then-Police Chief Brandon Del Pozo even won the National Innovations & Leadership Award from the Police Executive Research Forum for these and other efforts.

"For years before George Floyd's murder, we've known that good policing is labor-intensive and requires more resources, not less," Weinberger says. "One of the sad ironies of the defund-the-police period is, in many ways this movement has set back those efforts. The last two years now, our pace of adopting reforms has dramatically slowed. And, in fact, we are much less able to pursue that vision of policing, as a weakened department today, than we were in May of 2020."

As comfortable as observers seem to be declaring the Burlington effort a fiasco, Hanson insists the jury is still out. The council has not increased the sworn officer count cap, and the other plans are coming together. "We're still figuring this out and working through this transition," he says. "We're advancing on racial justice and also, I think, transitioning to a better system of public safety."

Big and Little Ideas, Everywhere

In Maryland, the legislature authorized investigations into police misconduct not by a department's internal affairs but by a unit of the state attorney general. A Las Vegas nonprofit is urging businesses to call them, not law enforcement, if they have a problem with vagrants so they can get them those people substance abuse or mental health assistance. Colorado recently ended "qualified immunity" for police officers, which in most places shields members of the force from personal liability for on-the-job misconduct. The cities of Oakland, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Portland, Maine, have all ended programs that stationed armed police in schools. Pennsylvania, with the support of the state's police union, now has a "bad cop" registry, a database of officers who have been disciplined or fired elsewhere in the state, that law enforcement must consult before hiring anyone. Several cities, from Dallas to Ann Arbor, Michigan, are adding social workers to assist sworn police on a variety of calls.

Healthcare workers and others march to Seattle City Hall during the Doctors For Justice event on June 6, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. This is the 12th day of protests since George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. David Ryder/Getty © David Ryder/Getty Healthcare workers and others march to Seattle City Hall during the Doctors For Justice event on June 6, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. This is the 12th day of protests since George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. David Ryder/Getty

"No one, not a single person, is standing in front of a City Council hearing imagining that anything they say is going to cause the entire police budget to be eliminated, and that's not what any of these campaigns are about," Vitale says. "But what is happening all over the place is new investments in exactly the kinds of programs that people are demanding."

Other observers are less confident about the prospects for continued reform initiatives, given the recent rise in crime nationwide and resulting shift in political winds when it comes to public safety. Adding to the challenge for reform advocates is the difficulty of quantifying the results of reform through research, because the causes of crime trends are complicated and influenced by many factors, including, most recently, the pandemic .

"My main concern is that [politicians] don't care about the details, they just want to have a good sound bite and a good promotional campaign," says Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "They'll say things about these programs which are very supportive, but if we don't back it up with solid evidence, [they] will turn on it and decide it's not worth it. You can't survive with rhetoric and advocacy."

A mural depicting the late George Floyd at George Floyd Memorial Square, on Saturday, May 22, 2021 in Minneapolis, MN. Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty © Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty A mural depicting the late George Floyd at George Floyd Memorial Square, on Saturday, May 22, 2021 in Minneapolis, MN. Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty

At the very least, experts say, reform advocates need better rhetoric, starting with the slogan. Given the direction the movement is headed—adding resources that help law enforcement defuse situations that could turn violent—perhaps "re-fund the police" would better serve the goal.

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