What ‘Defunding Police’ Really Means to Americans

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National polls suggest that the calls  for “defunding” police has different meanings for many Americans. Some see it as the complete abolition of American police while others see it as reallocation of police resources.

A report from the Niskanen Center argues that it in fact it reflects a more nuanced perspective by communities and experts about the changing role of policing in American society.

“Defund the police [reflects] as much a conflict between young and old and left and center as it is between Black and white,” say the authors of the report, entitled. “Reconstructing Justice: Race, Generational Divides.”

After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May, protests have erupted across the country in response to many African Americans “living with over policing and underprotection.”

But the phrase “defund the police,” which has been prominent in many protests, has an origin much before 2020.  It caught fire when David Sirota, former presidential campaign speechwriter for Bernie Sanders, announced that defunding the police “has become a nationwide mantra.”

Between 1977 and 2017, “the rate of police-spending growth was triple the rate of population growth,” said Sirota in an article he wrote for Jacobin. Sirota’s idea of defunding the police is synonymous with abolishing the police, also expressed by Mariame Kaba in the New York Times.

“When a police officer brutalizes a black person he is doing what he sees as his job,” Kaba said.

The arguments by Sirota and Kaba were echoed by many protesting or affected by Floyd’s death, in the belief that America’s police has had such a history of systematic violence that there is no way to reform it; it must be destroyed and built from the ground up.

But defund has also taken on a different meaning.

Instead of abolishing the American police departments, some critics such as Rep. James Clyburn  (D-SC) suggest it means no more than reforming already existing departments.

“Nobody is going to defund the police,” he said.

The idea of abolition, which Clyburn expressed as too radical, would benefit instead from massive reform within the police.

In July, the African American Mayors Association focused on a policy draft that would enforce “greater transparency; revising policing-related contracts; changing federal policy; engaging the community; and making budgets ‘reflect community values,’” the report said.

“Despite living in safer communities and continuing to see police brutality, most African Americans remained committed to effective policing as a public safety strategy,” the report said.

The same policing strategies led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement, which “signals a major generational division in African American politics.”

“Most Americans, including Blacks, endorse meaningful police reforms, but they also oppose abolition, although that is favored by a plurality of Black and white millennials,” the report says.

According to the report, there is a “policy space that heeds the constraints of contemporary attitudes and attends both to the deep and legitimate fear of crime that continues to weigh heavily on many African Americans and to the terror that police violence foments among all Blacks.”

The crime and prison boom following the civil rights era had a massive impact on the way America viewed crime.

In a Washington Post-ABC news poll conducted in 1994, 93 percent of respondents said that crime in America should be “absolute priority” for the Clinton campaign, and 52 percent believed that 100,000 more police officers on the street would help with reducing violent crime.

Despite the polling results, the report cites that “most Americans understood that crime trends reflected underlying inequalities in American life.”

Another poll in 1994 by Los Angeles Times showed that 56 percent of African Americans and Hispanics, as well as 50 percent of whites “expressed support for spending more money and effort on social and economic problems, including better education and job training programs, than on police prisons, and judges.”

Although crime dropped dramatically in the 2000’s, “discriminatory law enforcement persisted.”

Although the study reports that “among those who felt police treated African Americans unfairly, 44 percent wanted a larger police presence and only 12 percent preferred a smaller presence,”

African Americans still did not see police as “friends or enemies” and continued to believe that Black people were treated unfairly by police.

While the murder of George Floyd has led to a resounding cry of ‘defund the police,’ the study reports that “only a minority of African Americans seeks to abolish the police while a clear majority prefers to keep and reform them.”

As a new generation gathers to the polls in this November’s presidential election, a Washington Post and Ipsos poll shows that 91 percent of Black people between 18 and 34 years old hold “police treatment of Black Americans” as one of the more important issues that will guide their vote.

This was echoed by 56 percent of white people and 74 percent of Hispanic people.

The complexity in the phrase “defund the police” as meaning total abolition of the American police is less popular than the idea of reforming police from the inside out, with support of abolition from only 12 percent of white people, 22 percent of African Americans, 27 percent of Asians and 20 percent of Hispanic people.

This reflects that although the notion of defunding the police is popular, the idea of abolition isn’t nearly as popular, with more people supporting diverting police funds to social services and reducing the budget of police departments.

While the report shows that about a third of people from 18 to 34 years old supported abolition of the police, only 4 percent of those 65 and over were in support. Some 70 percent of people 18 to 34 supported the reduction of police budgets and reallocation to community programs, compared to 32 percent of those 65 and older.

This shows that abolition, while still less popular than reform, is much more favored by the younger voting generation rather than the old, due to the differences in generational policing.

In order to achieve policing goals, the country would need “agile leadership, effective management, and re-negotiating collective bargaining agreements with police unions,” the report said. “The window of opportunity may be closing.”

You can read the full report here.

Emily Riley is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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