Acknowledging the failure of previous efforts at reform, on June 7,2020, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council declared its intention to defund and disband its city’s police department.
“Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it, and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe,” stated Council President Lisa Bender. The council hopes to shift funding from conventional policing to community-based initiatives that can prevent crime and reduce crime rates without relying on the use or threat of force.
This groundbreaking declaration seems to have sparked a “Defund the Police” movement among activists who’ve taken to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd. The violent actions of paramilitary emergency response teams during the ongoing protests have been on display for all to see, revealing unpleasant truths about the militarization of policing and its effects on the psychology and behavior of those whose job is supposedly to keep the peace.
But what exactly does ‘defund the police’ mean? How would law enforcement change in America if police were removed from the scene? Are there alternatives that would reduce the responsibilities of police, without eliminating them altogether?
These are questions currently being asked and debated across the country. Significant changes are likely coming, but whether that means the abolition or reformation of police departments remains to be seen.
In the wake of the decision by Minneapolis to disband its police force, mayors and other elected officials in most American cities have declared their intention to cut their police budgets substantially. None, however, have gone so far as to suggest that police departments should be liquidated in their entirety.
Despite their sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests in general, most Democratic politicians have explicitly rejected the idea of defunding the police. Even some activist groups have repudiated the idea, dismissing it as divisive and unrealistic.
This rush to herd the “Defund the Police” movement into safer pastures is undoubtedly motivated by political calculation. A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll revealed that 86 percent of Americans are in favor of police department reforms, but only 27 percent expressed their support for defunding (including just 29 percent of African-Americans). Republicans from Donald Trump on down have made it clear they plan to use calls to defund the police as a weapon against Democrats, many of whom seem terrified of being labeled as “soft on crime.”
But the Minneapolis City Council seems determined to chart an abolitionist course, despite the dismissive proclamations of national pundits and political influencers. Regardless of the overall poll numbers, they do have the support of many grassroots activists. In their own community, they’re being cheered on by the nonprofit organization MPD150, which has been calling for the elimination of the Minneapolis police department for many years.
A police-free future, as imagined by activists like those associated with MPD150, would eliminate the need for conventional policing with targeted interventions designed to addresses the root causes of crime and deprivation. Communities would rely on a rich and diverse network of social service agencies, mental health and addiction treatment centers, adult education programs, jobs programs, youth centers, public housing initiatives, financing programs for small business, victim’s advocacy groups and improved schools to provide for the needs of traditionally neglected and underserved populations. Some of these services would be publicly funded, using the savings accrued when the costs of policing were eliminated, while others would be provided by nonprofit agencies staffed by community members and others with vital skills to share.
Something resembling traditional law enforcement services would likely still be available, but only on an emergency or as-needed basis. Law enforcement specialists would be trained to investigate violent criminal activities and other serious breaches of the public trust. They would carry arms only when absolutely necessary and would be trained to avoid conflict whenever possible. Citizens’ patrols might be organized in some neighborhoods to provide an extra layer of security, but they would be unarmed and rely entirely on volunteers recruited from local neighborhoods.
Police abolitionists are clearly motivated by idealism and a grand progressive vision. Nevertheless, they realize that a profound transformation cannot take place overnight. They envision a gradual transition to the new model, which would pick up momentum once it became clear that the new approach was working and that public safety was being improved rather than compromised.
Their hope is that Minneapolis will function as a test case for the police abolitionist movement, revealing to a skeptical public what can be accomplished when investment funds are shifted from traditional policing to programs that encourage social, cultural and economic development.
If it succeeds in its stated mission, Minneapolis will not be the first American city to disband its police department.
In 2013, motivated by budget shortfalls and skyrocketing crime rates, the city of Camden, New Jersey, decided to defund its police force. Policing responsibility in the city was transferred to the Camden County police department, and in conjunction with these changes community leaders decided to implement an alternative style of policing.
Embracing a concept known as community policing, Camden strove to change the dynamics of the relationship between the police and members of its community. Rather than functioning as occupiers, Camden Country police officers began to integrate themselves more fully into community life, forming one-to-one relationships with citizens based on shared concerns and mutual respect.
Police in Camden now patrol the city on foot or on bicycles, frequently stopping to speak to people about their lives and concerns. The Camden County Police Department sponsors many community gatherings and events, and it supports various initiatives designed to improve Camden’s overall quality of life.
There have been concerns raised about the number of arrests or citations issued by Camden County police for petty or nonviolent crimes. So-called “"broken windows” policing, which emphasizes strict enforcement of all laws regardless of their nature or severity, has been implemented in Camden, just as it has in other cities. This has led to complaints from citizens and advocacy groups, including the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Camden County NAACP.
Recently retired Police Chief Scott Thompson and current Police Chief Joseph Wysocki both pledged to address the issue, and some reforms have been adopted. But broken window-style policing is a practice that continues to create tension in Camden and in other cities where it has been adopted.
But with respect to crimes of violence and other serious infractions, the Camden emphasis on community policing has clearly been a success. Overall crime rates have dropped by 52 percent since 2012, and homicide rates have plummeted even more.
In 2012, there were 67 murders in Camden, which left this city of 74,000 people with one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. Dismay over that appalling statistic helped motivate the decision to eliminate the city’s corrupt and ineffective police department. The city’s murder rates dropped steadily after it switched to its new policing model, from 57 in 2013 down to just 25 in 2019 (and only three in the first four months of 2020).
To address the issue of police violence, the Camden County Police Department adopted new de-escalation and anti-violence protocols based on recommendations issued by New York University’s Policing Project and a Washington, D.C. think tank called the Police Executive Research Forum. While other police departments have struggled to dislodge the entrenched tendencies of their officers to resort to force at the slightest provocation, especially when interacting with people of color, Camden has enjoyed great success with its de-escalation initiatives.
Since the pre-community policing days, complaints against police officers for the use of excessive force have dropped from the 35–65 range annually down to less than five reported incidents per year. In a city that is 93 percent Black and Hispanic, this represents a significant departure from what has become normal in most American cities.
Former Camden Mayor Dana Redd, who was charged with disbanding Camden’s local police force and implementing reforms back in 2013, is pleased by the progress the city has made.
“Camden certainly can be pointed to as an example of what can occur when you have strong community policing in place, and good community ties where the community is not standing in opposition to its police department,” she says.
The desire of individual protesters, activist groups and city legislators to reduce or eliminate police department responsibilities isn’t motivated entirely by disgust over police excesses. Evidence-based analysis reveals that changing the emphasis from law enforcement to crime prevention and community development can and will produce positive results, if enough programs are instituted that offer essential services to citizens mired in poverty or otherwise limited by discrimination or a lack of opportunity.
Such programs are already in existence and many are producing noteworthy results. These initiatives are designed to prevent future crimes or deal with public health challenges in ways that don’t require police intervention.
Some examples include:
Programs like these currently function in the shadows of law enforcement. But they provide a glimpse of what could be accomplished, if communities were to phase out or downsize police departments in favor of essential social services, effective healthcare interventions, appropriate job skills and life skills training and other forward-thinking initiatives.
Minneapolis may or may not succeed in its quest to change the nature of policing in its city. Legal obstacles, public opposition and certain political realities may prove difficult to overcome, forcing them to ultimately adopt a more reformist model.
But shaped by outrage over continuous crimes of violence committed against people of color, the discussion about police reform has taken on a level of seriousness that is virtually unprecedented in American history. The winds of change are in the air, and the story of policing in the United States is about to turn the page to a whole new chapter. Efforts at reform may be effective or they may produce disappointing results, but either way they will be consequential.