On a Sunday in early June, Grand Army Plaza, a large square at the entrance to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, swarmed with people of all different races and ages. A family march of parents and their children flowed into groups of young people on bikes. Many held signs declaring “Black lives matter,” but there were perhaps an equal number of other signs: “Defund the police.”
It’s a radical demand that just a few weeks ago was rarely heard on the streets of New York City or in many other cities, for that matter. But since George Floyd, a black resident of Minneapolis, was killed by a white police officer and Breonna Taylor, a black emergency room technician, was killed by police in Louisville, Ky., in her sleep and outrage over these and countless other instances of police brutality pushed tens of thousands of people to protest in cities and towns across the country, it has become a rallying cry of the movement.
It’s not just a slogan. Out of the protest movement has come a surge of organizing to push city councils to shift money out of bloated police budgets and into starved social services—and activists are already seeing some concrete successes. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti walked back a proposed increase for the LAPD and has promised a $150 million cut instead. Lawmakers in 15 other cities have made similar pledges. The Minneapolis City Council has even voted to disband the city’s police department.
It’s an unprecedented moment. Spending on the police by state and local governments jumped from about $2 billion in 1960 to $137 billion in 2018, unadjusted for inflation; the average share of city budgets spent on policing grew from 6.6 percent in 1977 to 7.8 percent in 2017. “We have had a persistent trend for the last half-century of spending ever more money on police and incarceration,” said Kelly Lytle Hernandez, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “This is a truly historic shift.” Organizers agree. “Something like ‘defund the police’ just two weeks ago…was a nonstarter,” said Nicolas O’Rourke, the Pennsylvania organizing director for the Working Families Party. Now it’s a chant heard nearly as often at protests as “No justice, no peace.”
The ever-increasing amount of money spent on policing has borne little relationship to crime rates. The number of crimes rose from 1,887 per 100,000 Americans in 1960 to 5,950 in 1980. Then rates started to decline, falling to 2,580 per 100,000 by 2018. And yet spending has steadily increased throughout that span.
In New York City, spending on police went from $714 million in 1981 to $5.9 billion this year, not accounting for inflation. The NYPD accounts for 7.7 percent of the city’s budget—more than what was allocated to the Housing Preservation and Development, Health and Mental Hygiene, Homeless Services, and Youth and Community Development departments combined. And yet crime in the city has been falling for the past two decades.
Constance Malcolm knows all too well about the outsize power of the NYPD. A white officer chased her teenage son Ramarley Graham into their home and shot and killed him in their bathroom in 2012. “I’ve been fighting for eight years, and I didn’t get any justice,” she said. The officer, Richard Haste, was indicted on manslaughter charges by a grand jury, but a judge dismissed them; Haste stayed on the force five more years before he quit just after he was found guilty in a departmental disciplinary review. “I wouldn’t call it justice,” she added, “because somebody’s life was taken and there’s nothing that could replace it.”
Malcolm works in a nursing home and said she hasn’t been given enough protective equipment since the Covid-19 pandemic hit. She has tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, and a lot of her patients died. “Even before the coronavirus, black and brown communities were not getting what we needed,” she said. “Many of our people don’t even have access to good health care, affordable housing, good quality food, or a strong education.”
Despite this, spending on the police continues to increase. “The NYPD keeps getting the highest budget, even though they kill our children and nothing happens,” Malcolm said. “We’re in a crisis. Police brutality is a crisis. The only way to deal with this and keep our community safe is to defund the police.”
These spending imbalances have now been thrown into stark relief. As a result of the economic crash, state and local budgets are being decimated by a drop in tax revenue at the same time that expenses are rising steeply to deal with the coronavirus crisis. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities projects a $615 billion shortfall in state budgets over the next three years. Because nearly all city and state governments have to balance their operating budgets every year, they’ll be forced to make deep cuts.
Keeping spending on the police intact or even increasing it will mean brutal reductions elsewhere. “When the economy is great and the tax revenues of the city are growing, you can sort of paper over that,” said Leo Ferguson, a member of the New York–based Communities United for Police Reform. “But then something like Covid-19 hits, you have a crisis, and suddenly it all falls apart.” In order to make up for a $10 billion tax shortfall, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio released an executive budget in April that cut NYPD funding by less than 1 percent while hitting the Department of Education with a 3 percent reduction and eliminating a youth employment program, among other cuts.
The crisis has also increased the need for the very services on the chopping block. “No one is asking for more police,” said Kamau Walton, a member of Critical Resistance, a national prison-abolition group. “People are really asking, ‘What do we need to survive? What do we need to make it through this dire moment?’ And the answer is definitely not more police.” Hobbled services barely able to respond to a pandemic stand in sharp contrast with the tools that police departments have to quell the protests. “I see all of the resources—military-grade weapons—being used in residential areas,” O’Rourke said. “They were shooting tear gas and rubber bullets and bean bags.”
The protest movement happened to coincide with the time of year when many cities are considering the next year’s budget. In New York, advocates have coalesced around the demand to cut a minimum of $1 billion from the NYPD’s budget for the coming fiscal year—something the City Council promised to do a little over two weeks into the protests. Advocates want to see a police hiring freeze, which has been imposed on many other city agencies, and an end to using police in schools and youth programs. They also want to end the NYPD’s task forces for mental illness and homeless outreach and have social workers take their place. All of this may require a reduction in head count during a recession in which millions have lost their jobs. But, Ferguson said, “police should not be an employment program.” There are other areas to cut in the NYPD’s budget, he added, such as the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on things like bomb-seeking underwater drones and militarized armored vehicles.
Advocates would also like to see settlements for police brutality come out of police budgets, not general revenue. In New York, as in many other cities, the money for settling these cases is usually taken out of the city’s overall budget. Ensuring that settlements come out of the NYPD’s budget “gives them some incentive to address misconduct,” Ferguson said.
Organizing to address swollen police budgets has been happening in a number of other cities for years. For the past six years, some members of the Black Philly Radical Collective have been fighting to reduce police violence, including a call to defund the police. But this is the first time that all the members of the collective have made such a demand. “We know there are political moments when you have to strike,” said Megan Malachi, an organizer with Philly for REAL Justice, which is part of the collective.
The City Council, however, hasn’t been quick to take up the demand. “This is the kind of issue where even the black members of our political government here in Philadelphia are not responsive to the needs of their constituents,” Malachi said. Still, after a majority of council members said in early June they opposed Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed $14 million increase in the police budget, prompting him to drop it, they reached a deal to reduce police funding by $33 million on June 17. Before the protests, if someone had claimed that the mayor would go against an increase in police funding, “no one would have believed you,” O’Rourke said.
Stop Police Terror Project DC, which fights police violence in the nation’s capital, has highlighted the amount of money the Metropolitan Police Department gets in the budget every year when it comes up for debate. Sean Blackmon, one of the project’s organizers, noted that in Washington, some violent crimes, such as homicide, have been on the rise in recent years, bucking the national trend, despite increasing police budgets. For him, that’s still a reason to defund the police. “Why would a city government continue to invest in something that’s clearly not working?” he said.
At the same time, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently proposed cutting the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which was created as part of a 2016 criminal justice reform that sought to deploy public health violence interrupters instead of police. “This is the same mayor who is getting all of this positive press because of the Black Lives Matter mural and renaming Black Lives Matter Plaza,” Blackmon said. “But her actual policies…have a tangible negative impact on black lives.” Meanwhile, the City Council passed an emergency police reform bill focused on limiting the use of force and increasing transparency without touching the budget question. It “feels kind of delinquent. Kind of far behind,” he said.
“That’s why we’re pushing so hard now for defunding the police, particularly as Bowser is clearly seeking to usurp and co-opt this moment,” he continued. “If she’s determined to claim to the world that black lives matter, we intend to make her prove it.”
The movement to defund the police is cropping up not just in major metropolises. It’s also taking root in smaller cities. Wildaliz Bermudez has been on the City Council of Hartford for over four and a half years. “Never before have I seen this type of public outcry,” she said. She has received more than 100 e-mails calling to defund the police. She and a fellow Working Families Party member on the council, Joshua Michtom, proposed cutting $9.6 million from the police department’s budget. That proposal failed, but the council did vote to reduce the department’s budget by $1 million next year and put that money into things like after-school programs and another housing inspector.
In addition to less spending on policing, advocates want the police to stop dealing with things like mental health crises and school safety; instead, they want cities to fund services that would address these issues without criminalizing the people who are suffering. “The safest communities don’t have the most cops. They have the most resources,” O’Rourke said. Police officers are typically the first responders when someone has a mental health crisis, not public health or social workers. Jails like Rikers Island in New York and Cook County Jail in Illinois are now the country’s largest mental health facilities. Communities across the country have responded to the homelessness crisis by criminalizing homeless people, putting the police in charge of ticketing and clearing those without shelter rather than offering housing and services. And 38 states and Washington, D.C., authorize the placement of police officers in schools. “The bottom line is you can’t overinvest in social services,” said Anthonine Pierre, the deputy director of the Brooklyn Movement Center. “You can overinvest in policing.”
The deaths of Floyd and Taylor may prove to be a pivotal moment, but these transformations have been years in the making. “This work has been going on on the ground for quite some time,” Lytle Hernandez said. “It’s exploded on the streets under the term ‘defund the police,’ but this broader notion of rethinking resources to police [to] invest in the social safety net has been in play certainly for the last few years.”
Today’s protests come after seven years of organizing and movement building in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and other black people at the hands of police and vigilantes. These deaths led to some reforms, such as departments banning certain use-of-force techniques like choke holds and instituting the use of body cameras. The Obama administration put at least 15 police departments under consent decrees and limited the transfer of military-grade equipment to local forces. In fact, Minneapolis was one of six cities the Obama Justice Department selected to pilot procedural reforms in 2015. And yet since 2015, police have killed about 1,000 people in the nation every year. “We’re not going to fix these problems by jailing a couple of killer cops or giving them body cameras or making them take implicit bias training,” Alex S. Vitale, the author of The End of Policing, told Zachary Siegel in an interview with The Nation.
So activists have pushed to go much further. Defunding the police was one of the six policy platforms put forward by the Movement for Black Lives in 2016, a year after it convened a massive gathering in Cleveland. “Black Lives Matter set the foundation and the groundwork,” Pierre said. Since then, “there has been ongoing forward movement.”
It’s no coincidence that these protests and the demands issuing from them are happening in the midst of a historic health crisis. “When you live in a pandemic for three months and lose jobs and lose family members and think about how society is organized, it becomes much easier to say, ‘Well, maybe we do need to get rid of the cops,’” Pierre said. “We got rid of going outside. So maybe we should get rid of the cops.”
Not to mention that black people have been disproportionately dying of Covid-19. Everyone has watched the federal government’s paralysis in the face of the crisis, and many feel that the $1,200 stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits don’t go far enough to cushion such an enormous blow. The protests are “happening in the context of the US government abandoning its people under the coronavirus,” Blackmon said. “It’s almost like a perfect storm that has now exploded and blossomed into a nationwide resistance movement.”
A number of those who are calling to defund the police are demanding not just that their budgets be reduced and redistributed but also that the money eventually be zeroed out and police eliminated. “Our call is specifically abolitionist,” Malachi said. “We’re aware that because of the popularity of the defund-the-police narrative…it could easily be co-opted by Democrats and liberals and made into reform rather than the radical call that it is.”
Even so, many see changing city budgets and the roles the police play as part of that process. “It can be a step toward abolition,” Walton said, “if we make sure these processes are being controlled and led by the community.” As Vitale put it, abolition is “a process more than an outcome…. We need to challenge the scope and power of policing. We need to take their budgets away, take their toys away, take their authority away in as many dimensions as we can.”
“These have been the tensions and conversations all along,” Lytle Hernandez said. But “you can go back to any social movement and find these kinds of tensions between more moderate and radical wings of the movement.” For her, eradicating racial inequality requires abolition. “We have walked up to this precipice at least twice before,” she said, pointing to Emancipation and the civil rights movement. “We have to make a decision about are we going to really head toward racial justice or make a compromise that’s easier for the moment and maintain white supremacy? Each time before, we have chosen white supremacy.”
Whether more mayors and city councils will take heed is unclear. Mayor de Blasio, a Democrat who briefly ran for the party’s presidential nomination this year on his progressive bona fides, at first shot down the idea of reducing the NYPD’s budget before saying, 10 days into the protests, that he would cut that spending and direct it to youth and social services. But he hasn’t stated yet by how much. “Cut the budget, and let’s see where you stand,” Malcolm, Ramarley Graham’s mother, said of de Blasio. “Let’s see if black life really matters to him.”
Meanwhile, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has called for a $1.1 billion reduction over four years rather than the immediate decrease that activists want to see and the City Council appears to be considering. In Congress, Democrats have put forward a landmark policing bill that is still focused on procedural reform. But even this is proof of the impact the activism is having. “This is something that I think we’d all agree felt pretty unthinkable just a few weeks ago,” Ferguson said. “It shows how much the ground is shifting.”
“This is the moment for us to lean in,” O’Rourke said. “I’m excited to see for the most part the people are leaning in with us.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece stated that the NYPD budget was $7 million in 1981. The department’s budget was $714 million that year. The text has been corrected.