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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

"Defund the police" isn't just a slogan on a protester's sign — it's a political movement to relieve cops of responsibility for managing intractable social problems and shift spending to agencies that are better equipped to handle them.

Why it matters: The aftermath of George Floyd's killing has brought a renewed focus to the two dominant trends in policing: sweeping reforms on one side, militarization on the other. Neither of these responses will make our cities safer or our justice system fairer, civil rights activists argue, because the problems are much broader and deeply entrenched in society.

Driving the news: While elected officials grapple with budget crises caused by coronavirus shutdowns, activists in some large cities say the time is right to "defund" police departments and redirect money toward schools, housing and social services.

  • In New York, more than 40 city council candidates are calling for a $1 billion cut to the NYPD's $6 billion budget over four years so money for community programs like the city's summer youth employment program can be restored.
  • "It sounds like a lot, and it is," said attorney Janos Marton, who is running for Manhattan District Attorney. "But it’s just returning the police force to the size it was at the beginning of the de Blasio administration."
  • In Nashville, activists pressed city officials on the issue during a tense, 11-hour hearing this week on a budget proposal that would raise property taxes 32% while sending more money to police.
  • In Dallas, Minneapolis and Los Angeles, similar campaigns are under way.

The big picture: Police are being asked to handle every societal failure. American cities withdrew funding for the homeless, the mentally ill, drugs and education, then left it to the police to manage the consequences of those decisions. That's how homeless veterans wind up in jail and cops maintain order in schools.

"This is a political problem, not a policing problem," says Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale, a police scholar for 20 years and author of "The End of Policing."

  • Local politicians should find non-police solutions to the problems poor people face, he wrote in The Guardian this week.
  • Instead of criminalizing homelessness, for example, they should fund supportive public housing. Instead of school police, they should fund more counselors, after-school programs, and restorative justice programs.

The problem with police reform efforts, Vitale says, is that they assume the problem lies with a few bad apples and that retraining the force will rebuild public trust.

  • "Minneapolis was really a model for this police reform movement," he said. The city's first black police chief promised changes when he took over the troubled department in 2017.
  • "They did the implicit bias training. They did the mindfulness training, the de-escalation training, the police-community encounter sessions, the body cameras, the early warning systems for problem officers. And it just hasn't made any real difference," he said as evidenced by the murder of George Floyd.

Yes, but: Other officials say the looting, vandalism and arson over the past week shows precisely why cities need a large police force.

  • “Ten thousand officers were barely able to keep the peace,” Los Angeles Councilman Paul Koretz told the L.A. Times. “Imagine if we didn’t have the response that we did.”
  • Nor is there any evidence that defunding police departments will work, because it hasn't been tried yet. "We are still in the advocacy stage," says David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College for Criminal Justice in New York.

Go deeper

Updated Sep 14, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Rochester police chief fired following Daniel Prude's death

A make shift memorial at the site where Daniel Prude was arrested in Rochester, New York. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said Monday she's fired Police Chief La'Ron Singletary and suspended two others following protests over the police killing of Daniel Prude, a Black man says after being hooded and held down by local police.

Why it matters: The firing of Singletary comes almost a week after he announced his retirement. Activists have called for Singletary's resignation after details of Prude's March death surfaced recently, the Democrat and Chronicle notes. Warren accused Singletary of failing to properly brief her on the killing.

Collins helps contractor before pro-Susan PAC gets donation

Sen. Susan Collins during her reelection campaign. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A PAC backing Sen. Susan Collins in her high-stakes reelection campaign received $150,000 from an entity linked to the wife of a defense contractor whose firm Collins helped land a federal contract, new public records show.

Why it matters: The executive, Martin Kao of Honolulu, leaned heavily on his political connections to boost his business, federal prosecutors say in an ongoing criminal case against him. The donation linked to Kao was veiled until last week.

How cutting GOP corporate cash could backfire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies pulling back on political donations, particularly to members of Congress who voted against certifying President Biden's election win, could inadvertently push Republicans to embrace their party's rightward fringe.

Why it matters: Scores of corporate PACs have paused, scaled back or entirely abandoned their political giving programs. While designed to distance those companies from events that coincided with this month's deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, research suggests the moves could actually empower the far-right.