Answering the Call to Defund the Police

By Ananda Deacon

While many major cities experience a shortage of resources and funding for infrastructure, transportation, education, and other societal necessities, police budgets across the board remain fully funded. On the surface, this does not strike one as an issue, as investing into police and investing into public safety have become synonymous in public discourse. However, the Supreme Court upholds that the police are not legally bound to protect citizens, rather their duty is to enforce the law, (Keopog, 2016) which is not necessarily conducive with maintaining public safety or protection of the community. At a rate of 33.5 for every 10 million people, 1,000 lives are taken annually at the hands of police (Jones, A. & Sawyer, W. 2020). Police especially do not serve as a means of safety and protection for the Black community but act as quite the opposite. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men, making death by police the sixth leading cause of death for Black men (Jean, 2020; Sherburne, 2019). Defunding the police and reallocating those funds back into communities – i.e. marginalized communities that have not been invested into in the first place – was a proposition that gained traction initially after the 2014 public police shooting of Micheal Brown in Ferguson. What was once a call to defund police budgets and reinvest into communities has evolved into a demand following the Black Lives Matter movement, a series of protests that spanned all 50 states and countries internationally (Andrew, 2020). The police budgets in major cities across the country are overinflated in comparison to where these cities are allocating other resources, specifically resources that go towards the betterment of underserved communities. Truly investing in public safety means eradicating the root causes of poverty that lead to different forms of crime (Jean-Claude, 2014), rather than continuing to invest in the reactionary system of policing (CS&CPC, 1996). In order to do so, redistributing funds from the police, of which have exorbitant budgets and cause disproportionate harm that exacerbates the problem, is a feasible solution.


The system of policing as we know it directly stems from the slave patrol system that was used to keep runaway slaves in line and maintain the institution of slavery. Slave patrols, many of which evolved to become modern law enforcement, maintained economic order by returning escaped slaves to their masters and maintained the white supremacist structure by refusing to punish lynch mobs (Waxman, 2019; Kappeler, 2014). This legacy of terror against Black Americans still reigns true today when observing the statistics of police brutality against Black and Brown communities. Out of 100,000 Black men, 100 can be expected to be killed at the hands of police (Sherburne, 2019). This is not to say that Black Americans commit more crime than white Americans, as the rates are comparable (Beck, 2021), but rather Black Americans are interacting with police at much higher rates and the criteria for what constitutes a need for deadly force is expanding, including routine traffic stops, playing with toy guns, reaching for one’s phone, or sleeping in one’s bed (Sullivan & Baranuackas, 2020). When analyzing 911 call data, calls for similar issues are met with the likelihood of a cop firing their gun at a rate 5 times higher in Black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods (Peeples, 2020). Current data does not even encapsulate the full scope of police brutality against the Black community because there is no centralized means of collecting said data from law enforcement offices nationwide (Peeples, 2020). While we are able to identify that there is a significant problem with an entity that creates a very real reality of terror for a significant percent of the population, and taking into consideration that current research cannot even confirm just how severe this problem is, it stands to reason that action must be taken to remedy the issue. 

That being said, law enforcement budgets not only need a cut but can afford to take one. In total, the US spends about $100 billion on policing and $80 billion on incarceration annually (McCarthy, 2017). A 2017 report, compiled by The Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and the Black Youth Project 100, was updated in 2020 to show that not only are major cities spending disproportionate amounts on policing, said budgets have significantly increased (McCarthy, 2020). In 35 out of 50 major cities, police departments account for the largest section of a given city’s budget (Sullivan & Baranuackas, 2020). New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago spend the most on their police, each spending over $1 billion with New York City alone spending over $5 billion. Considering that so many other facets of society are under-resourced – such as our public education system, for example – such excessive spending in an ineffective system is unacceptable. 

Figure 1: Mapping the Costs of Policing

Source: The Center for Popular Democracy, 2020

Figure 2: How Much Do U.S. Cities Spend on Policing

Source: Statista, 2020 

Proposed Solution

Our concept of modern policing is purely reactionary rather than a system that works towards preventative measures to reduce crime and increase public safety (CS&CPC, 1996). A large portion of criminal activity can be attributed to unemployment, poverty, lack of family structure, or a hostile social environment (Jean-Claude, 2014; CS&CPC, 1996), which often leads to lack of housing, medical, and food security. That being said, a Community Safety & Crime Prevention Council report defines primary crime prevention as investing into housing and family support for all as a means of addressing problems before they arise (CS&CPC, 3, 1996). Secondary crime prevention is considered to be programs that are put in place when “warning signs” or engagement in petty crimes have ensued (ibid, 4). Police intervention is considered to be a tertiary prevention, or a temporary prevention of future crimes after the fact (ibid). In order to better address the root causes of crime, more resources need to be invested into initiatives that provide adequate living situations, complete with job opportunities and social safety net initiatives, of which research shows works as effective crime prevention (McCarthy, 2020; Atchison, 2018). The 2016 USAID report is an example of such research, which concluded that effective ways of decreasing violence involves community programs addressing the issues at hand or providing sufficient support for organizations that are already enacting such programs (Winship & Abt, 2016; Sharkey, 2018). From an economic standpoint, it is a sound investment to redistribute resources into affordable housing, food security, transportation, and other necessities as a means of crime prevention rather than continuing to spend hundreds of millions or even billions in policing. Some cities have already started reducing their police budgets, such as Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Milwaukee has cut down on police positions for the second budget cycle in a row whereas Minneapolis shifted $8 million from police budgets into mental health crisis response teams (Dirr, 2020; Schneider, 2020). Not only is this a sound economic investment, but also a moral one when considering the historical harm that oppressive police systems have done to marginalized communities.

The main concern about taking any funds from law enforcement is that this will allow for an opportunity for crime to run rampant and leave residents with an understaffed, ineffective public safety system. This is a valid concern, as testimony from areas that have taken the call to defund the police seriously and have voluntarily cut ties with the police have been met with increased drug use and gun violence (Dickerson, 2020) and there have been instances of civilians being killed after attempting to de-escalate situations themselves (Love, 2020). These problems have arisen due to simply removing police from the equation without 1) investing into initiatives that would address the root causes of most forms of crime and 2) creating an alternative to the services police are meant to provide, such as de-escalation. 

It must be emphasized that the movement calling to defund the police highly stresses that these funds will not disappear but will rather be reinvested into the community, a form of crime prevention proven to be effective (McCarthy, 2017). Research conducted at NYU that compared the prevalence of new nonprofits found a correlation with decreased crime rates, concluding that in a city of 100,000, every community nonprofit lead to the homicide rate dropping by 1.2%, the violent crime rate dropping by 1%, and the property crime rate dropping by 0.7% (Atchison, 2020). They also found that organizations that provided substance abuse support and workforce development led to the highest drops in crime rates, (ibid) which is a testament to how badly these resources are needed. 

The second crucial factor to note is that the call to defund the police is not only about divestment from the police and investment into the community, but specifically into community control measures. A system that has proven successful for the past 30 years has been the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) system of Eugene, Oregon. This crisis intervention system serves as an alternative to the police by pairing one EMT and one trained mental health professional to respond to emergency situations while completely unarmed (White Bird Clinic, 2020). This format both minimizes if not completely eliminates the amount of lethal harm that can result from a crisis encounter while also saving the city of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million annually (ibid), proving so successful that other cities such as Madison are looking to adopt CAHOOTS systems of their own soon.

Given the scope of policing being ineffective in crime prevention, serving as a consistent source of brutality towards communities of color, and that these funds are so desperately needed in other aspects of society, defunding the police and investing into the community is a tangible, effective solution. 


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