What ‘defund the police’ actually means (and why rebranding would aid reforms)


In an earlier post I commented that “defund the police,” a complex innovative policy initiative, in my opinion is badly branded by criminal justice reformers. Could you possibly make it any easier for a racist demagogue like Donald Trump to scare the geriatric old white shut-ins who watch the white nationalist hosts on Fox News aka Trump TV all day long?

In public policy the more commonly used terms are “repurpose,” e.g, Trump Administration to Repurpose $3.8 Billion in Military Funds for Border Security, or in the example of corrections costs, “reinvestment,” e.g., Justice Reinvestment | State Resources.

House Majority Whip Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking black member in Congress and a veteran of the civil rights movement, has some advice for today’s protesters and activists: Don’t let ’defund the police’ hijack new momentum for reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Clyburn urged activists calling to overhaul policing and end systemic racism find a clearer and more united message.

“When you allow people to use incendiary terms, we create a climate within which we can’t get much done,” Clyburn told Power Up in an interview on Wednesday.

‘Defund the police’ is unnecessarily confusing, Clyburn said: “I think all of us know that sound bites tend to get interpreted in all kinds of ways and if you’ve got to explain the sound bite, you’re losing the whole issue.”

“For me, the word defund means what Merriam-Webster says that it means,” Clyburn said. “So if you’re talking about reallocating resources, say that. If you mean reimagining policing, say that. If you’re going to reform policing, say that. Don’t tell me you’re going to use a term that you know is charged — and tell me that it doesn’t mean what it says.”

James Hohmann recently suggested ‘Demilitarizing’ the police could be a more fruitful rallying cry for reformers than ‘defunding’. Agreed. When you cannot immediately identify the difference between the civilian police force and heavily armed combat units of the U.S. military, we have crossed a line that should never have been crossed.

Listen to the voices of experience and acquired wisdom, like James Clyburn. Rebrand it now, before you lose the momentum for change in the cacophony of right-wing scare mongering over semantics.

Now let’s turn to What Does ‘Defund the Police’ Actually Mean?

Protesters are pushing to “defund the police” after the death of George Floyd and other black Americans killed by law enforcement. Their chant has become rallying cry — and a stick for President Trump to use on Democrats as he portrays them as soft on crime.

But what does “defund the police” mean? It’s not necessarily about gutting police department budgets.

Supporters say it isn’t about eliminating police departments or stripping agencies of all of their money. They say it is time for the country to address systemic problems in policing and spend more on what communities across the country need, such as housing and education.

State and local governments spent $115 billion on policing in 2017, according to data compiled by the Urban Institute.

“Why can’t we look at how it is that we reorganize our priorities, so people don’t have to be in the streets during a national pandemic?” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza asked during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Activists acknowledge this is a gradual process.

The group MPD150, which says it is “working toward a police-free Minneapolis,” says that such action would be more about “strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility away from police and toward community-based models of safety, support, and prevention.”

“The people who respond to crises in our community should be the people who are best-equipped to deal with those crises,” the group wrote on its website.

Senator Cory Booker said he understands the sentiment behind the slogan, but it’s not a slogan he will use.

The New Jersey Democrat told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he shares a feeling with many protesters that Americans are “over-policed” and that “we are investing in police, which is not solving problems, but making them worse when we should be, in a more compassionate country, in a more loving country.”

Congresswoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said part of the movement is about how money is spent.

“Now, I don’t believe that you should disband police departments,” she said in an interview with CNN. “But I do think that in cities, in states, we need to look at how we are spending the resources and invest more in our communities.”

“Maybe this is an opportunity to re-envision public safety,” she said.

Enter the opportunists of right-wing demagoguery to scare the geriatric old white shut-ins who watch the white nationalist hosts on Fox News aka Trump TV all day long.

President Trump and his campaign see the emergence of the “Defund the Police” slogan as a spark of opportunity during a trying political moment. Trump’s response to the protests has sparked widespread condemnation. But his supporters say the new mantra may make voters, who may be otherwise sympathetic to the protesters, recoil from a “radical” idea.

Trump seized on the slogan last week as he spoke in Maine.

“They’re saying defund the police,” he said. “Defund. Think of it. When I saw it, I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘We don’t want to have any police,’ they say. You don’t want police?”

Trump’s 2016 campaign was built on a promise of ensuring law and order — often in contrast to protests against his rhetoric that followed him across the country. As he seeks reelection, Trump is preparing to deploy the same argument again — and seems to believe the “defund the police” call has made the campaign applause line all the more real for his supporters.

I reiterate: rebrand it now, before you lose the momentum for change in the cacophony of right-wing scare mongering over semantics.

Christy E. Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law School and a co-director of the school’s Innovative Policing Program, explains at the Washington Post, Defund the police? Here’s what that really means.

Since George Floyd’s death, a long-simmering movement for police abolition has become part of the national conversation, recast slightly as a call to “defund the police.” For activists, this conversation is long overdue. But for casual observers, this new direction may seem a bit disorienting — or even alarming.

Be not afraid. “Defunding the police” is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds, and engaging on this topic is necessary if we are going to achieve the kind of public safety we need. During my 25 years dedicated to police reform, including in places such as Ferguson, Mo., New Orleans and Chicago, it has become clear to me that “reform” is not enough. Making sure that police follow the rule of law is not enough. Even changing the laws is not enough.

To fix policing, we must first recognize how much we have come to over-rely on law enforcement. We turn to the police in situations where years of experience and common sense tell us that their involvement is unnecessary, and can make things worse. We ask police to take accident reports, respond to people who have overdosed and arrest, rather than cite, people who might have intentionally or not passed a counterfeit $20 bill. We call police to roust homeless people from corners and doorsteps, resolve verbal squabbles between family members and strangers alike, and arrest children for behavior that once would have been handled as a school disciplinary issue.

Police themselves often complain about having to “do too much,” including handling social problems for which they are ill-equipped. Some have been vocal about the need to decriminalize social problems and take police out of the equation. It is clear that we must reimagine the role they play in public safety.

Defunding and abolition probably mean something different from what you are thinking. For most proponents, “defunding the police” does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety, and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight — or perhaps ever. Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.

Police abolition means reducing, with the vision of eventually eliminating, our reliance on policing to secure our public safety. It means recognizing that criminalizing addiction and poverty, making 10 million arrests per year and mass incarceration have not provided the public safety we want and never will. The “abolition” language is important because it reminds us that policing [historically] has been the primary vehicle for using violence to perpetuate the unjustified white control over the bodies and lives of black people that has been with us since slavery. That aspect of policing must be literally abolished.

Still, even as we try to shift resources from policing to programs that will better promote fairness and public safety, we must continue the work of police reform. We cannot stop regulating police conduct now because we hope someday to reduce or eliminate our reliance on policing. We must ban chokeholds and curb the use of no-knock warrants; we must train officers how to better respond to people in mental health crises, and we must teach officers to be guardians, not warriors, to intervene to prevent misconduct and to understand and appreciatethe communities they serve.

Why must we work on parallel tracks? First, all police will not be defunded or abolished anytime soon, and we cannot wait to make changes that will save lives and reduce policing harm now. Experienced advocates know this. This is why, for example, Campaign Zero just launched the #8cantwait campaign, which urges law enforcement agencies to immediately adopt eight use of force reforms, even as it continues its divest/invest strategy to end police killings.

More fundamentally, we must continue with reforms because abolition doesn’t go far enough. Policing didn’t invent America’s institutionalized racism, social inequity or stereotyped masculinity: Policing harms are a product of these broader pathologies. If we were to get rid of policing tomorrow, those pathologies would remain. And they would continue to be deadly: Race bias in our health-care system has likely killed far more African Americans and Latinx via covid-19 than the police have this year. Successful police reforms help us learn how to identify and mitigate the harms of these structural features, even as we work to remake them.

In this moment, we have a chance to make not just policing, but our entire country, fairer and safer. We must think creatively and educate ourselves. We must ask hard questions and demand answers about public safety budgets.

We should have unflinching debates about when, where and how to seek police reforms instead of defunding. But we should move forward on both tracks so that we can save lives even as we transform the police.

The Washington Post editorialized today, ‘Defund the police’ is a call to imagine a safer America. We should answer it.

Alongside demands for police reform, another demand has surfaced: Defund the police. This provocative slogan at its most constructive represents a welcome call to reimagine public safety in the United States.

As peaceful, impassioned protests show no signs of receding and polls show high levels of approval for police reform, the moment feels ripe to overhaul police departments and procedures. On Monday, congressional Democrats unveiled a major police reform bill, and several state and local bills are being considered throughout the country. Advocates and political leaders are right to focus on concrete reforms — especially those that don’t require massive spending increases, such as updating standards on use of force and increasing transparency around police misconduct.

But while pursuing such reforms, we also should take on the more fundamental questions posed by the “defund” movement. Police reformists and defunding advocates agree on plenty, but where the former ask how police can most effectively be improved, the latter ask: Are there non-policing solutions to society’s problems? Is this the safest America we could have?

The pandemic is prompting reimagining on many fronts, from education to health care to support for the unemployed. In this context, it makes sense to reconsider our goals for public safety and the kinds of institutions we think would best achieve them. It makes sense to consider changes to ways of doing things that were never optimal but have seemed, until now, so baked-in as to be beyond questioning.

Are we really safer in a world where armed police respond to mental health emergencies, or can we imagine communities in which those struggling with mental illness are met with expert and reliable services? Are we safer when homelessness is met with criminalization, not compassion and housing? Are there ways to fund local governments so that they are less financially dependent on extracting fees from citizens? Asking these fundamental questions — and not being anchored in existing institutions for answers — is what the moment requires.

This conversation, in other words, is not just about budgets. It is true that, as the pandemic-inflicted economic crisis forces painful cuts in state and local spending, onlookers are rightly alarmed at plans to slash social services while sparing police budgets. Outrage over such priorities led the mayors of Los Angeles and New York City to pledge to shift some funding from police departments to social services. But it would make sense in many cases to invest in constructive alternatives at the same time or before existing institutions are downsized. The process should be led at the community level, because every community’s strengths and needs are unique, but a broader national conversation can expand our ideas of what is possible and what we deserve.

Ultimately, the call to defund the police should be understood as a call to reinvest in communities and explore new solutions. It asks us to draw on our resources and creativity and to be clear-eyed about the most problematic and painful parts of our policing history. At its core, it is an expression of relentless optimism — in response to the suggestion that things could be a little less bad, it says: We can do so much better.

Something else that needs to be part of this conversation: policing is only the front line of the criminal justice system. There is systemic racism built into prosecution of crimes, incarceration and corrections, and the judicial system as well. It will take a holistic approach to root out systemic racism from the criminal justice system. There is a lot of hard work ahead.


  1. While the phrase “Defund the Police” certainly might not be the best, do you really think we’d be talking about the issue if it was labeled “Reform he Police”? Much like the phrase “Black Lives Matter” it has generated a lot of conversation. that otherwise would not have happened. There are advantages to being ambiguous or even misleading.

    • Excellent and timely post.

      Slogans do have a way of oversimplifying very complex issues. They are great for bumper stickers and Trump’s Klan rallies but to use this “window of opportunity” to gain traction in fighting police brutality activists need to coalesce around a set of “asks” and demands. And they know this.

      And this right here is God’s absolute truth: “There is systemic racism built into prosecution of crimes, incarceration and corrections, and the judicial system as well. It will take a holistic approach to root out systemic racism from the criminal justice system.”

      I do believe, however, that police brutality is where this starts. It is the lowest rung on the process of shoving people into the criminal justice system who shouldn’t be there. But most importantly, it is how people with human rights and constitutional rights end up dead or maimed or severely traumatized, all of their rights violated. And it is causing millions of people to live in fear every single day of their lives.

      The videos from cellphone cameras have changed everything but it took one hell of a lot of videos to finally convince those with complacency and doubt that this is really happening right here in the land of the free.

      The worst thing you can do to another person is to violate their body by killing or maiming it. Causing severe trauma is a close third.

      It’s time to scrutinize the participants in this deadly game of life and death. Why do some of them enjoy it so much? And do we really think that this can be “trained” out of them?

      Here’s something to think about. I just heard on CNN that Derek Chauvin will be eligible for his cop pension at age 55 even if he is convicted of murder. That pension will be worth around 1 million over 30 years.

      • “And this right here is God’s absolute truth: “There is systemic racism built into prosecution of crimes, incarceration and corrections, and the judicial system as well. It will take a holistic approach to root out systemic racism from the criminal justice system.””


        Here’s an example of abuse that I witnessed first hand. One of many but this one is not about cops beating people.

        During the years of my extended misspent youth, I was waiting my turn in court, one of a handful of white guys in a room filled with young black men.

        No felons, just us small time hoods. Beer in the park after hours stuff, maybe caught with a joint.

        The judge gave time served to a black kid in front of me, the kid was going home, and the kid said thank you.

        Then the kid (he looked to be 19 or 20) pulled his hand out of his pocket and a candy bar (commissary at the jail) fell on the ground, and he bent down to pick it up.

        The judge said “I heard that, 30 days for contempt”.

        The kid had not said a word, I was six feet away, the bench was over 20 feet away.

        The kid pled his case for about two seconds before the judge threatened more jail time.

        None of us, none, including all the black men, said a thing to defend the kid.

        Because we all knew that speaking up meant no good business for us.

        The sadness in that kids eyes is still heartbreaking. Not just because he was going back to jail, but because he had done nothing and was powerless.

        They didn’t beat him up or hold him down until he died, but I know that kid was scarred for life.

        Did he have a job? A wife/girlfriend? A kid? Someone, maybe a parent, who was counting on him?

        Most of us in the room did not have lawyers, because if you’re poor, you can’t make bail, and asking for a public defender meant waiting in jail, usually for more time than you would get by just pleading guilty.

        The kid had tears in his eyes.

        It’s not always about someone getting a beating or killed, it’s a relentless assault on people of color and the poor. It’s designed to keep people in the system and it destroy’s lives.

        The whole system needs to be torn down and started over.

        • My God, that is a sad story and the kind you never hear about unless someone tells you who was there.

          And that’s an excellent point, that there is an immense amount of injustice, cruelty, and undeserved suffering in the so-called criminal “justice” system that does not reach the level of getting beaten or killed.

          I keep thinking about my grand nephew who is biracial, 23 years old right now. He went off to college at age 18 with a brand new Toyota Camry that his very wealthy white grandfather bought for his high school graduation. The college town was 90 percent white. In less than three months my nephew was stopped by a cop ostensibly for driving in darkness without headlights. He was with his roommate, also black, and they were arrested for having less than 3 grams of marijuana. They had to participate in some months long program to expunge their criminal records.

          The car’s headlights come on automatically. My guess is the cop saw two black kids get into a new Camry and he got curious.

          Anyhow, the roommate’s dad is a retired major league baseball player of some renown. His son went home and stayed home after he finished the program. My nephew stayed for about a year and quit.

          I saw their court records when they were online. I counted 21 court actions for my nephew. Just imagine the reduced workload if marijuana were legal. Some folks might lose their jobs.

          My sister and I argued about this, her thinking maybe it was good for him. It might seem like a good life lesson to some, but I believe that both of those kids were traumatized at a level that changed their young lives and not for the better. And it happened because they are black.

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