Calls to Reform, Defund, Dismantle, and Abolish the Police, Explained

Wednesday, Jun 24, 2020

As some politicians call for reforms in the wake of police brutality protests, residents of some cities are demanding departments be stripped of their budgets or dissolved altogether.

Protesters rally in Phoenix on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, demanding that the City Council defund the police department

Protesters rally in Phoenix on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, demanding that the City Council defund the police department. Photo by Matt York / AP

When Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser had "Black Lives Matter" painted on the street that leads to the White House on Friday, Dominique Hazzard said it "stung."

Hazzard, a black Washington resident and organizer with the Black Youth Project 100, said she'd like to see policies that showed that the mayor was dedicated to materially improving the lives of black Washingtonians, not just a road display. So on Saturday, Black Youth Project 100 staged an action, painting "Defund the Police" next to Bowser's message.

"It is important to keep focus on our city's local issues and the lives lost to prisons and police here in D.C.," Hazzard said.

Hazzard wants to see the city's police department defunded, a call that has grown across the country as protests against police brutality continue in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and the killings of countless other black people by police.

But amid the protests, different — but sometimes overlapping — proposals for how to address police violence have emerged, from reforming to defunding to dismantling to abolishing the police.

Reform 

Police reform has often been the mainstream call in the wake of protests against police brutality. Reform, a long-term process that has usually involved putting more funding toward police, now tends to call for community policing, a style that encourages police to be assigned to specific communities and to know the residents and dynamics of the areas where they work. In his criminal justice plan, former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, calls for allocating $300 million toward community policing, saying it's the model that makes policing work best.

Police reform also focuses on limiting officers' use of force and holding police accountable.

House Democrats on Monday introduced the Justice in Policing Act, a police reform bill that would ban chokeholds, including the kind used on Floyd, as well as "no-knock" warrants used in drug cases, as in the case that led to the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

The legislation would also require police departments to send data on their use of force to the federal government, and it would create a grant program that would allow state attorneys general to create an independent process to investigate misconduct or excessive use of force, according to the five-page summary of the bill.

Reforms have also been proposed under "8 Can't Wait," an initiative released in the wake of the protests by Campaign Zero, a group advocating police reform. The campaign has called for banning chokeholds, requiring de-escalation, mandating a warning before shooting, banning shooting at moving vehicles and using a use-of-force continuum, among other things.

Defund

But many say reform doesn't work, arguing that police departments like Minneapolis' have already undergone reform and police violence still happens.

Instead, activists, organizers, scholars and city residents are furthering the call, demanding that police be defunded, often under a "divest/invest" model.

Those calling for defunding the police see the departments' budgets as bloated and misappropriated when other crucial city services have to beg for scraps.

In Washington, "it would look like taking the money and using it on things that would actually make our communities safer," Hazzard said. To her and others, that could take many forms, like investing in violence prevention programs, public housing, health care and mental health care, as well as better support systems in schools instead of armed guards.

"There are a lot of police in my neighborhood parked on the street all day every day," Hazzard said. "I have to ask myself: Is that making my neighborhood safer?"

She thinks not. "It shouldn't be that we are out here begging for a hospital or a supermarket and the police budget just gets an increase every year," Hazzard said.

An example of a divest/invest model of fighting for police defunding is the "No Cop Academy" campaign in Chicago. Rahm Emanuel, then the mayor, closed dozens of schools, in part citing budget issues, but he later proposed a new police and fire training academy at the cost of $95 million.

No Cop Academy formed to fight to get the mayor to put the money into the community, instead.

"Chicago already spends $1.5 billion on police every year — that's $4 million every single day," the group says on its website. "We spend 300% more on the CPD as a city than we do on the Departments of Public Health, family and support services, transportation, and planning and development (which handles affordable housing)."

Naomi Murakawa, an associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University, said that while calls to defund the police have been going on for decades, this moment strikes her as different.

"What we tend to see is that police brutality and police crises become moments for police to get more money for themselves," Murakawa said. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson created a commission to look at policing after the civil rights movement, which resulted in billions of federal dollars' going to local police departments, she said.

"Every time people rise up against police to demand change, police essentially benefit from it," Murakawa said. Now, she said, the call to defund the police reveals a "shift in consciousness."

"People are saying we are doing it differently this time," she said.

Dismantling

On Sunday night, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council agreed to dismantle the city's police department.

In an interview with NBC News, Councilman Jeremiah Ellison said the council would work to disband the department in its "current iteration."

"The plan has to start somewhere," he said. "We are not going to hit the eject button without a plan, so today was the announcement of the formulation of that plan."

But the decision to "dismantle" the police department doesn't mean the city would just form a new one, as Camden, New Jersey, did when it dismantled its department.

After disbanding its force in 2012, Camden created what city leaders say was a different kind of police force, focused on community policing, but the city still very much has a police department.

Sometimes departments disband when municipalities go bankrupt or when cities decide they don't want to pay for their own police and contract to hire neighbors' forces, instead.

"I don't think any of those efforts at disbanding, including the one in Camden, were undertaken with the intention of replacing the functions through a completely different paradigm of meeting community needs," said Andrea Ritchie, a researcher for Interrupting Criminalization at Barnard College and author of "Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color."

In Minneapolis, however, it appears that a paradigm shift might be the goal. Mayor Jacob Frey was booed by protesters after he refused to commit to defunding the police, and many activists on the ground in the city have made it clear that a leaner, more progressive police department isn't their goal.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat who represents the city in Congress, said that she thinks “the Minneapolis Police Department has proven themselves beyond reform," and wants to see it disbanded, but envisions a department modeled after Camden.

“A new system will allow officers to address the most dangerous situations and serious crimes that our residents face, while ending the criminalization of poverty and disproportionate violence against black and brown communities,” she wrote on Twitter.

Abolition

Then there's abolition, an often misunderstood framework to reimagine how society responds to harm. For some, defunding the police means just reducing their budgets, but for others it means taking a step toward abolition.

To abolish the police, Ritchie said, goes beyond slashing a budget and rejects policing and prisons as reformable institutions.

"Even if we trim the budget, if we ask them to do more beating with less money, we're still invested in policing as an action, institution and method of meeting need and reducing conflict," she said.

Instead, those who call for police abolition want to see an end to policing long term while still addressing community needs.

"It's about determining what helps a community thrive," Ritchie said, citing the work of black scholars and abolitionists Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. "Abolition is a process of building, a process of creation, a process of reimagination."

Abolitionists say their goals aren't just to close police departments, but rather to change the structure and conditions under which people who are currently criminalized live to make police more obsolete. If people had health care, housing and access to good jobs and education and community, there would be less crime and less need for police, they posit.

This thinking includes building community processes to deal with harm when it has been done, Ritchie said.

"People say, 'What about sexual violence, and what about domestic violence?'" Ritchie said. "The people who are advocating defund police and abolish police are, for the most part, black women, girls, trans and gender nonconforming people. Many of us are survivors of all those forms of violence.

"We are not proposing to abandon our communities to violence. We are naming policing as a form of violence that we all experience."

[Originally published on June 8, 2020 via NBC News]

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