1. What does ‘defund the police’ mean?
Different things to different people. The Minneapolis City Council has called for the complete disbanding of its police department, not just in reaction to the killing of George Floyd, but also because of poor performance fighting crime. Elsewhere, discussions are more nuanced, and defunding means spending less on police overtime and equipment and more on mental-health care, housing, education and violence-prevention initiatives.
2. What would replace a disbanded police department?
Minneapolis is debating what a new law-enforcement system would look like. As a start, activist groups such as Reclaim the Block, Black Visions Collective and MPD 150 want the city to divert about $45 million from the police department into “community-led health and safety strategies.” (The Minneapolis police department uses about $189 million of the $1.6 billion total city budget.)
3. Where else is the debate happening?
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who had initially proposed a 7% increase in spending on police, last week called for a $150 million cut, with the proceeds instead going to support youth programs. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing the idea of cutting the $6 billion budget of the 36,000-officer department and spending more on youth programs. How much to cut remains a negotiation with the City Council. But even New York City’s police commissioner, Dermot Shea, says he’s OK with the idea: “To help the kids of our city, I’m 1,000% behind shifting some funding from the police,” he said.
4. How much does the U.S. spend on policing?
A 2017 report by a coalition of social-equality groups including the Center for Popular Democracy found that many major cities spend 30% to 40% of their municipal budgets on policing.
That’s the question at the heart of the public debate. Until about 1980, the U.S. spent about the same amount each year — a little more than 1% of total national income — on criminal justice and cash assistance to the poor, according to the Washington Post, which cited spending data compiled by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, French economists whose work has been embraced by progressive Democrats. Four decades later, spending on law enforcement is about 2% of total national income, while welfare spending stands at about 0.8%.
6. Did all that spending achieve results?
There’s an argument that it did. New York City’s achievement in breaking its crime wave 30 years ago is generally credited to a massive infusion of money to hire 6,000 additional cops, a 54% increase in its daily patrol. Billions have been poured into counter-terrorism, surveillance technology and crime-fighting equipment. But some studies cast doubt on a direct connection between increases in such resources and the decrease in violent crime in the U.S. since the 1990s. They note that such drops also occurred in places that didn’t spend so heavily on law enforcement.
7. What’s the alternative?
Camden, New Jersey, population 74,000, abolished its city police department in 2013, after years of allegations of police brutality and corruption, and contracted with Camden County to provide law-enforcement services. The county police proceeded to adopt an 18-page use-of-force policy, developed with New York University’s Policing Project, that puts a priority on de-escalation. As protests around the country have turned violent in recent weeks, Camden officers left the riot gear at home and brought an ice cream truck to a May 30 march.