Opinion: What does ‘defunding the police’ mean?

Defunding police departments is an idea that, until very recently, seemed unthinkable. Police departments have always been a key part of the political community, the decline and absence of which would result in the lives of humans becoming, in Thomas Hobbes’ most famous words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

That we need police has been considered an absolute truism, and anything less than a tacit agreement among office-holders at every level to do anything but accede to police departments’ budget proposals would be considered being soft on crime and a swift way out of office.

It’s been discussed before, but rarely to any effect. Now, however, the idea has been reignited in the wake of sweeping and sometimes violent protests in every American state over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

Proponents of defunding police have argued that too often law enforcement officers have neither protected nor served the community as their self-perception as warriors rather than guardians of their communities has grown.

Defunding the police means, at its most basic level, exactly what you’d expect it to mean: taking funding, though not necessarily all funding, from police forces. At a less severe level than dismantling the force, defunding involves redirecting funds that would normally go to the police and reallocating them by investing them into black, brown and other underserved communities.

Defunding, too, would reduce the responsibilities of police officers, shifting many of those aspects of the job, such as dealing with the homeless, the mentally ill, drug users and others who are often criminalized, to people who are trained to deal with such societal problems.

Some top police officials have acknowledged the problem of asking too much of their officers. Then-Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, after the fatal shooting deaths of 5 of his officers in 2016, “We are asking cops to do too much in this country. Every societal failure, we put off on cops.”

William Bratton, who has been the top cop in LA, New York and Boston, in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, griped, “Police are being expected to be better trained to deal with emotionally disturbed people on the street. We are asking police officers in the 21st century to be almost doctors.”

Well, can police be trained to better serve the black communities? Can they be trained to deal with the homeless, the poor, the emotionally disturbed? Maybe, if you throw enough money into programs to educate them and if the officers have the will to be trained. Maybe, if more thought is put into screening applicants with a bias less toward aggressiveness and more toward compassion.

Or perhaps, the defunding proponents will argue, cities should put resources traditionally given to police forces into programs and personnel better equipped to deal with the societal shortcomings that police have typically attacked with force, and that way too often result in deaths of people selling water, or cigarettes, or doing nothing at all.

There are nuances within the idea of defunding police, and they range from basically “unfunding,” scrapping departments altogether—as the City Council of Minneapolis is committed to doing—to simply redirecting a portion of the departments’ frequently oversized budgets into social services as LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio are proposing.

There have been a few cases of cities abandoning their police departments altogether. In 2000, Compton shifted its policing to the LA County Sheriff’s Department, and after corrupt police work in Camden, New Jersey resulted in prosecutors having to drop or vacate convictions in 185 criminal cases, the city replaced its police department with a new force that covers all of Camden County.

The fact that defunding police has come to the forefront of discussion as a result of the recent national unrest shows that it is getting very real consideration to various degrees, depending on  the extent of that defunding, whether it’s complete or partial withdrawal of funds to law enforcement.

There are those who will maintain that the police will always be necessary to make life safer for the majority of people, and there are groups like MPD150, the grassroots group behind the push for dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department altogether, maintaining on its website that, rather than “strangers armed with guns, who very likely do not live in the neighborhoods they’re patrolling, we want to create space for more mental health service providers, social workers, victim/survivor advocates, religious leaders, neighbors, healers, and friends– all of the people who really make up the fabric of a community– to look out for one another.”

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.