In Depth

Black Lives Matter: what does ‘defund the police’ mean?

Donald Trump claims the rallying cry among protesters originates from ‘Radical Left Democrats’

The Minneapolis police department is to be dismantled as anger over the killing of George Floyd fuels calls for reformation of law enforcement systems in countries worldwide.

The Minnesota city’s council has voted to create a “new model of public safety” following Floyd’s death last month, which has triggered Black Lives Matters (BLM) protests across the globe, reports the BBC

The decision comes as growing numbers of demonstrators adopt the rally cry of “defund the police”, amid mounting allegations of racism and brutality by law enforcers.

What does ‘defund the police’ mean?

The principle behind the idea is that funding given to police forces should be reduced or withdrawn, with the money redirected to community programmes.

Advocates say that “government budgets and ‘public safety’ spending should prioritise housing, employment, community health, education and other vital programmes, instead of police officers”, reports The Guardian.

This defunding does not mean completely disbanding police units, however. The concept exists on a spectrum based on reimagining what public safety looks like, according to Philip McHarris, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Yale University.

It also means dismantling the idea that police are “public stewards” who are meant to protect communities, he told CNN. Many black Americans feels that people of colour are at risk from police, according to McHarris, who says he grew up in a neighborhood where there were “real, discernible threats of gun violence” yet only ever sought help from members of his community. 

What is the current state of US police funding?

The cost of policing in the US has tripled from $42.3bn (£33.4bn) in 1977 to $114.5bn (£90.4bn) in 2017, according to an analysis of latest census data conducted for Bloomberg Businessweek.

“Despite the rising dollar amounts, policing has consistently made up about 3.7% of state and local budgets since the 1970s,” says the news site. However, ”crime has been trending downward for years”.

And in some areas, authorities spend far greater portions of their budgets on law enforcement. In Philadelphia, the mayor has proposed spending $977m (£773m) on police and prisons, which amounts to 20% of the general fund, reports The Guardian’s US correspondent Sam Levin

In Los Angeles, the mayor has pushed for a policing funding increase that would make the budget more than half of the general fund.

“In moments of crisis, people want services and resources that go directly to help people rather than police that surveil, brutalise and kill us,” Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the LA chapter of BLM, told Levin.

Could the calls impact the US election?

Some Democratic members of Congress, including popular left-wingers Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar, have added their voices to demands to defund police.

But recent polling on race and justice in the US found less than a fifth of Americans want police funding to be cut, says former Bill Clinton adviser Douglas Schoen in an article for the The Hill.

Republicans would be quick to exploit any suggestion that Democrats are weak on crime. Donald Trump has already accused “socialists” in the Democratic Party of trying to strip funding from police departments, and claims presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is set to back such cuts.

“The Radical Left Democrats new theme is ‘Defund the Police’,” Trump tweeted last week. “Remember that when you don't want Crime, especially against you and your family. This is where Sleepy Joe is being dragged by the socialists. I am the complete opposite, more money for Law Enforcement! #LAWANDORDER.”

But contrary to the US president’s claims, Biden is advocating for reform rather than defunding, The Independent says.

“I’ve long believed we need real community policing. And we need each and every police department in the country to undertake a comprehensive review of their hiring, their training, and their de-escalation practices,” Biden said in a speech in Philadelphia last week in which he criticised Trump’s response to the nationwide unrest.

“And the federal government should give them the tools and resources they need to implement reforms.”

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