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What Does It Mean to Defund the Police or Disband the Police?

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 6/9/2020 Lisa Hagen
a group of people in uniform: New York Police Department officers watch protesters march during a solidarity rally for George Floyd, Thursday, June 4, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) © (Frank Franklin II/AP) New York Police Department officers watch protesters march during a solidarity rally for George Floyd, Thursday, June 4, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Police reform has become one of the central demands emanating from ongoing protests against police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the death of George Floyd.

Demonstrators have issued a range of demands in the weeks since Floyd, an unarmed black man, died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The extent of those calls varies among cities, elected officials and activists: Some seek to "defund the police," while others are looking to "disband" or abolish local departments.

The vernacular has made its way into the mainstream and become a growing call of nationwide protests. Activists in the nation's capital recently highlighted their push by painting "defund the police" on the street leading up to the White House, right next to the mayor-commissioned street painting in giant yellow letters spelling out "Black Lives Matter."

Some major cities across the U.S. are also taking the lead on what a reimagined police force could look like. Minneapolis, the city where Floyd died in police custody, is taking the rare step of disbanding and transforming its police force.

But the use of the term has resulted in confusion over whether it should be interpreted literally, what the measures associated with it actually mean and how they would be implemented. Advocates describe the end goal as a reimagining and restructuring of a heavily funded power structure that has systemic problems. Here's a breakdown of the movements and the objectives behind them:

Defund the Police

Defunding police doesn't necessarily mean gutting entire agency budgets. Advocates are looking to downsize funding or to shift money from law-enforcement to other programs and issues that go directly to communities. Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said the "defund the police" movement means investing "in the resources our communities need."

"So much of policing right now is generated and directed towards quality-of-life issues: homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence," Garza said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "What we do need is increased funding for housing, we need increased funding for education, we need increased funding for quality of life of communities who are over-policed and over-surveilled."

According to data analyzed by the Urban Institute, states and localities spent $115 billion on police in 2017. Now, mayors of big cities are showing a willingness to initiate budget cuts, though not without backlash.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he'll shift funding from the NYPD, which has one of the biggest police budgets in the country with an annual budget of $6 billion. He wouldn't comment on how much funding will be slashed but said it would be "something substantial" and would prioritize directing some of the money to youth programs.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has also embraced budget cuts to his city's police force. Garcetti said he wants to direct $250 million to youth jobs and health programs, with $150 million of that being redirected from the LAPD budget.

While police funding is mostly allocated at the state and local levels, the defunding movement has also seeped into the national dialogue.

President Donald Trump and Republicans have pledged their commitment to law enforcement, while most Democratic lawmakers are distancing from the term and trying to refocus attention on their newly introduced policing reform legislation that among other things bans chokeholds, limits the transfer of military-style weapons to local forces and reforms the legal protections that shield officers from lawsuits over actions that don't clearly violate a person's constitutional rights.

Some congressional Democrats support the movement but have rejected using the term, like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. But on the whole, Democratic lawmakers are moving in a different direction. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Califiornia said defunding is a "local decision." And presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said he doesn't support the movement and believes funding is needed to improve law enforcement, while reasserting his push to adopt other reforms in the wake of Floyd's death.

Disband the Police

Other activists seek to completely abolish local departments. But in practice, activists are seeking a complete restructuring of police forces that would transform current public safety tactics.

Few cities have enacted measures aimed at reimagining police forces. In 2013, the city of Camden, New Jersey, dissolved its department and recreated one to focus on more thorough training, different standards that focus less on arrests and efforts to have officers more intertwined in their communities. In the years since, Camden has seen success with a decline in the number of homicides and officer complaints.

In the wake of Floyd's death and ongoing protests, Minneapolis is likely to also become a test case – and potential model – for what it looks like to dismantle and restructure its police force.

A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council on Sunday voted to disband its police department of some 850 sworn officers. A number of local programs have already cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, including the city's Board of Education, which terminated its contract to have officers provide security in schools.

The city has yet to specifically detail what that'll look like, but a majority of council members believe incremental reform has been unsuccessful in their city. The Democratic mayor of Minneapolis opposes dismantling.

Like budget cuts, the idea of disbanding has also been met with resistance. But as local officials rethink their own police forces in the wake of Floyd's death, it remains to be seen how many will follow in the footsteps of Minneapolis or pursue less drastic reforms.

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