May 23, 2021 - Politics & Policy

"Defund the Police" lives on as a local movement

Illustration collage of two hands holding divided by shapes, positioned amidst falling money and torn paper

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In the absence of support from President Biden and most national Democrats, the "Defund the Police" movement has gone local, ushering in an unprecedented wave of cuts to departments in major cities around the country in the year since George Floyd's death.

The big picture: At least 20 large U.S. cities have reduced their police budgets in some form, adding up to some $840 million, per data from the progressive group Interrupting Criminalization and media reports from across the country. 25 have ended contracts with police operating in schools.

  • Supporters say they hope it's just the beginning of a process to buck a decades-long trend of increased police spending in the U.S., and the first steps toward their vision of reimagining public safety.
  • But some critics note that crime has gone up since the cuts and believe the budget reductions are one of the reasons demoralized police officers have left the forces.
  • And police training experts say the cuts will be counterproductive, making it harder to improve officers' training and teach them alternatives to using force.

In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, the city council slashed $8 million from its police department. It reinvested $2 million in community-based violence prevention programs and a new mobile mental health team.

  • The cuts, and attempts at going further, have been met with strong resistance from Mayor Jacob Frey, who told Axios in an emailed statement he supports reallocating public funds, but is against making cuts to policing or "reducing the number of officers in an already beleaguered department to make it happen."
  • "Our residents and community leaders have been clear — we need a both-and approach to public safety, one that integrates social services in our emergency response systems while supporting [Police Chief Medaria Arradondo’s] work," Frey wrote. "Simply disinvesting in a core government service doesn’t make the service less important."

Activist Kennedy Kastle of the Black Visions Collective, one of the groups that have pressured Minneapolis to defund policing, called the cuts "posturing" and said they've had "absolutely have no effect" because the money hasn't been reinvested into poor communities.

Between the lines: The phrase "Defund the Police" is now a polarizing term, but an Axios-Ipsos poll found that the original goal of shifting funds to social services like mental health and education is still popular.

  • When asked if they support the "Defund the Police" movement, 70% of all respondents opposed it, including a slight majority of Black Americans (52%). But when asked if they supported diverting some police funds to community policing and social services — the idea that launched the movement — 57% of all respondents endorsed the goal.

In many cities, opponents of Defund the Police note that policing cuts have coincided with dramatic increases in crimewhich also happened in cities with police departments that operated under federally court-ordered reform agreements.

  • But supporters argue that the increases in cities with police budget cuts came about during an unprecedented pandemic, which led to spikes in unemployment and poverty rates. They say those factors caused the spike in crime, not cuts t0 departments or reforms.

Among those cities is Seattle, which began 2021 with a police budget nearly 20% smaller than last year's after eliminating police positions and transferring some services from the Seattle Police Department to other city departments.

What they're saying: Seattle City Council President Lorena González acknowledges the department has lost officers. Some "don't want to be subject to additional reforms," González said, and there are others whose "political ideology doesn't align with the progressive values of the city."

  • Victoria Beach, chair of the African American Community Advisory Council, which acts as a liaison between the community and the Seattle Police Department, said the budget cuts were conducted with a "lack of care." She blames the increase in crime on the cuts, and says that sinking morale has driven good officers out of the city.

Austin, Texas has made some of the most dramatic changes in the country, cutting roughly $20 million from the police department and moving $80 million by shifting certain services to place them outside the police's purview. It previously spent 40% of its budget on the police; it now spends 26%.

  • The money has been reinvested in mental health first responders, substance abuse programs, food access programs, workforce development and victim support, among other shifts. It also bought two hotels to house homeless people.
  • Council member Gregorio Casar said he wants Austin to be the gold standard for cities that want to cut police budgets. "Not many cities were able to meaningfully respond to what people were calling for in the streets last year."
  • The city has seen an increase in crime, which Casar said he expects will subside once it has fully recovered from the pandemic. He added that the pandemic has reinforced the need to defund police and "further invest in public health, economic and mental health issues that we're facing ... This makes our work even more urgent."

Go deeper:

Crime jumps after court-ordered policing changes

The slow moves to improve police training

Police recruiting suffers as morale hits new lows

The chief diversity officer hiring frenzy

The global impact of Black Lives Matter

Axios-Ipsos poll: Black Americans' police experiences are getting worse

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