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Just what does the call to 'defund the police' really mean?

Protesters rally on June 3 in Phoenix, demanding

Protesters rally on June 3 in Phoenix, demanding the Phoenix City Council defund the Phoenix Police Department.  Credit: AP/Matt York

WASHINGTON — Calls to “defund the police” have become a rallying cry among many of the protesters demanding a sweeping overhaul to policing in the wake of George Floyd’s fatal arrest in Minneapolis.

What started out years ago as scattered calls among left-leaning activists and criminal justice scholars to shift funding from police departments to social service initiatives meant to prevent crime has in the past week become a major point of discussion among lawmakers on all levels and in the presidential race.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday that the city would move to redirect funding from the NYPD to youth initiatives and other social service programs. Nine of 13 Minneapolis City Council members vowed Sunday they would vote to disband the city’s troubled police department and “replace it with a transformative new model of public safety.” In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he would scrap a proposed budget increase for the city’s police department and direct the money instead to jobs, health care and “healing.”

Here are some of the key questions surrounding the push to defund:

What is the 'Defund the Police' movement?

Proponents of the movement contend police funding should be scaled back and invested in social service programs that address the underlying issues that often lead to crime, such as unemployment and lack of affordable housing. 

“When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is, invest in the resources that our communities need,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “So much of policing right now is generated and directed toward quality-of-life issues. What we do need is increased funding for housing, we need increased funding for education, we need increased funding for the quality of life of communities who are over-policed and over-surveilled.”

Activists largely contend the call to defund is not a call to eliminate law enforcement outright, but to rethink and retool the role of police in the community. They contend that reforms such as diversity training and mandating bodycams while on duty, have done little to curb the disproportionate number of black Americans killed in police custody, and more dramatic systemic changes are needed.

“Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need,” wrote Christy E. Lopez, co-director of Georgetown Law School’s Innovative Policing Program, in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece. “It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.”

Laurie Woods, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University, who previously worked in law enforcement for two decades, said a key premise of the movement is “to move resources from law enforcement to other” programs that will free up police officers’ time to focus on crime prevention and major emergencies, and not responding to a wide range of issues that have become part of their day-to-day duties from intervening in family disputes to issuing traffic summonses. 

“I think the pure idea of defunding is to switch some resources away from that kind of stuff so that police can do police work,” Woods said. “It’s interpreted by some to mean ‘No, we're going to take the money away from the police department, and we're going to get rid of the cops.’ But that's just unlikely.”

What do law enforcement leaders say about it?

National law enforcement unions have argued that stripping funding away from police departments will lead to fewer police officers on patrol and cause an uptick in response times to 911 calls.

Joe Gamaldi, vice president of the National Fraternal Order of Police, speaking to Fox News recently said that while officers and activists can “agree that there needs to be some reforms,” those reforms should focus on boosting officer training such as a “nationwide de-escalation training for officers.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat who previously served on that city’s Police Accountability Task Force, told reporters last Friday that "what I've heard from people in neighborhoods is that they want more police protection, not less."

Where do the presidential candidates stand on the issue?

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have both said they disagree with the call to defund police, but both have different responses to the overall call for police reforms.

Trump, speaking at a White House roundtable with law enforcement officials on Monday, said: “We won’t be defunding our police. We won’t be dismantling our police.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, responding to questions on what plans if any the president had to propose reforms to address police misconduct, said he has been reviewing different proposals. McEnany stopped short on providing details for when the president looked to put forth recommendations.

Biden, in an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell following his private meeting with the Floyd family, said, “No, I don’t support defunding the police. I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness.”

Biden’s campaign has said he is calling on $300 million in federal funding to boost training in police departments, promote diversity in hiring and to purchase body cameras.

Where do New York officials stand?

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran in a statement praised the Nassau County Police Department’s “indispensable role” in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her spokesman Michael Fricchione said she is “100 percent against defunding the police.”

“Nassau County has spent years making important investments in community-oriented policing, which has yielded significant returns in the form of greater community trust,” Curran said, adding that the county “will continue to break down barriers by investing in proactive partnerships so police officers and citizens can identify and solve problems together.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in a statement said, “I do not support defunding the police. As we pursue numerous reforms to reduce costs, increase training and enhance community policing initiatives, public safety remains among our highest priorities.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, speaking to reporters on Sunday, dismissed the idea of defunding the police.

“You have New York City, that is still reeling from the COVID virus, and now you have this night of looting, that I’m telling you shook people in the city to the core,” Cuomo told reporters in Albany. “You don’t need police? You don’t need police?”

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