Where “Defund” Isn’t Dead

Where “Defund” Isn’t Dead

Though the politics of police reform have shifted since a year ago, the movement to find new ways to ensure public safety is winning a number of fights in cities across the country.


A few months ago, Salley May showed up at a mosque in Harlem where a woman was having a mental health crisis, holding children inside and refusing to allow people in or out. About 50 onlookers had gathered outside, as well as a large number of police officers.

May, a social worker, talked to the cops, “and we got them to cross the street,” she said, where they stayed. An emergency medical technician from the New York Fire Department took over managing the situation. He was able to enter the building and talk to the woman, to “really engage” with her, May said. He and May eventually brought her husband to the scene. The tense situation was resolved without violence.

May and her EMT partner are part of the city’s new Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division, or B-HEARD, a pilot program that provides a nonpolice response to mental health emergencies. Before it was launched, when a New York resident called 911 about a mental health emergency, the police were almost always part of the response. Now, in cases in the pilot precincts that don’t involve weapons or an imminent risk of harm, mental health experts are dispatched instead. When May and her team show up, there are often people gathered around with their phones out, prepared to record any police abuse. But onlookers seem to understand that B-HEARD responders represent a different approach. “They lower their cameras when they see us,” May said.

At the height of the protests over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, demonstrators across the country started to make a potent demand: “Defund the police.” The call came after years of activism, largely unsuccessful, to reduce bloated police budgets and increase funding for other social services, and it coincided with a moment when the finances of many cities and states appeared dire. The pandemic had cost tens of millions of people their jobs and shuttered hundreds of thousands of businesses, depriving governments of tax revenue just as more spending was required to keep the needy afloat. Lawmakers in over a dozen cities pledged to shift resources and change the way they responded to public safety, moving away from police and toward supports like mental health counseling and housing assistance.

Things look different a year later. Thanks to federal pandemic relief funds, many city budgets are far less pinched. Streets are empty of the constant protests against police brutality and racism. A rise in the murder rate, especially in a few large cities, has pushed some local governments that had reduced police budgets last year to increase them, as in New York City, where this year’s budget raises funding for the NYPD by $200 million. And the phrase “Defund the police” has been co-opted by the opposition to scare people away from the idea of reform—it’s become “so politicized,” said Tracie Keesee, a cofounder of the national Center for Policing Equity. Some Democrats claimed that the slogan hurt them in the 2020 elections.

Even so, the fight to enact meaningful change grinds on at the local level in many cities. Some, like New York, are reconsidering who should show up when a resident is in need of help. Some are shifting police responsibilities to unarmed officers. Some have reduced police budgets and reinvested the money in social services like public health and affordable housing—investments that are meant to prevent people from committing crimes in the first place.

“Probably the biggest conversation is, ‘How are you defining public safety beyond just a police response? What does that infrastructure or those resources to make those things happen look like?’” Keesee said. In many places there have been significant steps forward alongside disappointing backward slides. “It’s messy,” Keesee said. “But it goes on.”

On her second day as the director of the disability justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Ruth Lowenkron read that the NYPD had killed Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old Black woman who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was having a mental health episode, in her own home. That was five years ago; since then, more than a dozen New Yorkers, the majority of them Black, have been killed by the police while experiencing mental health crises, including Kawaski Trawick, a 32-year-old with a history of mental illness who was shot and killed by police in his apartment in 2019 less than two minutes into the encounter. “The response to mental health crises is a crisis, to put it quite bluntly,” Lowenkron said. “We’re not doing things the right way, and we need to change.”

Salley May could, possibly, be part of that change. She never thought she’d leave her job on a crisis response team at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. But when she got a call asking her to join B-HEARD, her teenage children, who had been active in that summer’s protests, told her she had to do it. She jumped into five weeks of training on everything from motivational interviewing of people in distress to situational awareness—knowing where best to stand during crisis situations. Team members role-played de-escalation scenarios. Police, 911 operators, and EMTs who work in the pilot precincts were trained as well. “Leadership came and said, ‘The world is watching this program,’” May told me.

B-HEARD, she said, “is an entirely different approach” than what she was used to. When she worked at Bellevue, things often got “territorial” between her team, the EMTs, and the police. But now, instead of “immediately pathologizing” the person they respond to, B-HEARD teams are “just making sure you’re safe, making sure you’re OK,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for this kind of program.”

Instead of sending everyone who needs care to the hospital, May now sends some to the East Harlem Support and Connection Center, which has doctors and peer counselors and offers health services, food, beds, and showers 24 hours a day. Patients are able to stay for up to five days and can return on their own later if they need more help; as of late June, nearly half had done so, according to city data. The city plans to open another support center in the Bronx in a few months and hopes to eventually open more across the boroughs.

“We are thrilled that the city is finally thinking about something that is nonpolice,” Lowenkron said. Before the Black Lives Matters demonstrations, advocates struggled merely to institute robust training for police responding to mental health crises. The protests shifted the conversation to getting police out of the response altogether. The pilot isn’t a co-response team involving police, though the cops often get to the scene first or are called later. With traditional emergency calls, over 80 percent of the people are transported to a hospital, but for the first three months of the B-HEARD program, only about 50 percent of those helped by its teams were. A quarter were helped where they were, and about 20 percent were transported to community care centers. Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for spending $112 million on B-HEARD, which should be enough to implement the new approach citywide.

Still, advocates had expected New York City to go much further in the wake of the 2020 protests. At the height of the unrest, City Council members pledged to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s budget. But while the council claimed that it had reduced the budget by that amount, much of the reduction was accomplished through accounting mechanisms instead of actual cuts. Police were exempt from a hiring freeze that hit most other city workers. “The City Council just paid a lot of lip service to being committed to reforms,” said Ileana Méndez-Peñate, of Communities United for Police Reform. “We’re asking for a budget that radically shifts how money is spent away from criminalization.”

For Méndez-Peñate, the city’s attempt at reform does not represent enough of a shift. B-HEARD “creates another system that still centers police. It actually entrenches a police response rather than removes it,” she said. “New York City really needs a holistic and really well-thought-out mental health response.”

B-HEARD’s initial results show room for improvement. It is functional for only 16 hours a day, and the average response time is just over 12 minutes; other emergencies see shorter wait times for a police response. The 911 operators routed only a quarter of mental health calls to the program’s teams in its first three months of operation, and police were still responding to about 80 percent of calls in the first month. May said they are having success in getting the NYPD to step back and hand cases over to them, but some police officers still don’t want to cooperate. Half the people B-HEARD responds to are still being sent to the hospital, taken out of their communities and given emergency room care that is often brief and impersonal. “Hospital emergency rooms are not places where people go to get well,” Méndez-Peñate said.

Susan Herman, the director of the city’s Office of Community Mental Health, which is in charge of B-HEARD, sees it differently. “I think of this program as the next frontier in mental health reform as much as it is about police reform,” she said. The city had already created more mobile mental health treatment options and a hotline for urgent mental health needs. “This is the logical next step in that work,” Herman said. As for the high level of police response, “We have four agencies that are learning how to work together in a new way. I think the police are welcoming this program.”

At first, the idea was that B-HEARD would respond to all mental-health-related calls where there were no weapons or violence involved, Herman said. But the teams may also be taken off the first response for calls that always result in a transport to the hospital, which could be better served by an ambulance that arrives right away. “Every day we’re learning, every day we’re looking at the data, every day we’re talking to the team,” she said. But advocates want the city moving in the opposite direction: They want to see nonpolice actors responding to more calls, not fewer, and to get emergency response to mental health calls “out of the hands of the police entirely,” Lowenkron said.

In some cities, demands—and the beginning of plans—to defund the police have faced a brutal backlash. In the summer of 2020, the City Council of Austin, Tex., voted to establish a Reimagining Public Safety Task Force made up of advocates and community members. Volunteers put in hundreds of thousands of hours, convening working groups and listening sessions and developing detailed policy recommendations on where to reinvest police resources and how to change the city’s approach to keeping residents safe. Then they learned that their final report would simply be sent to the city manager, Spencer Cronk, and that the task force would have to fight to get an audience with the City Council. They thought there would be a deadline for council action in the midyear budget, but that wasn’t the case.

In April, after members pulled an all-nighter to get their presentations ready, only a few were allowed to speak. They walked the lawmakers through their proposals, but council members discussed and asked questions only about the “more palatable” ones, said Cate Graziani, co-executive director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance and a member of the task force. “There was very little engagement from City Council members.” Some said they hadn’t had time to look at the report. At the end of the presentation, there were few questions or follow-ups. Paula X. Rojas, a community organizer and cochair of the task force, expressed her frustration with the reception and asked for commitments for action on the recommendations. “I want you to feel the emotion,” she told the lawmakers in attendance. “We are not wanting our work to end up like other task force reports [that] end up on a shelf.” She received no concrete answers.

“We were led on to believe we were part of this conversation in a really meaningful way, and it was clear that it was superficial for them,” Graziani said. “The City Council knew they weren’t going to do anything that day except clap and make poses and thank us,” said David Johnson, a criminal justice organizer at Grassroots Leadership.

Advocates had pushed the city to shift police funding to other areas, such as housing and public health, for years before the pandemic. The framing wasn’t “defund the police,” Rojas said, but rather “where should those resources be going? What makes us safer? It isn’t policing.” But efforts to actually reduce the police budget had “been unsuccessful for years,” said City Council member Gregorio Casar. In 2019, he proposed a $200,000 cut to the police budget to fund more domestic violence shelters, but “we didn’t have enough votes.”

Then Austin was caught up in the wave of protests that swept the country. Casar said his office received over 10,000 calls and e-mails about the city budget in a single weekend in the summer of 2020.

The council cut over $150 million—about one-third of the total—from the police budget that August, the biggest cut to police funding in any city. It was the first time the Austin Police Department’s budget had been reduced in over a decade. About $20 million of that money came from canceling three cadet classes and was redirected to services like domestic violence shelters, mental health first responders, homeless outreach, and abortion access. Another $80 million was saved by moving forensics and 911 out from under the APD. About $50 million of that was allocated to be spent according to the findings of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.

Casar saw it as “transformational.” But many advocates wanted the council to go even further. “This was their moment—they had the political cover to do something more impactful than they did,” Rojas said. Advocates demanded that the city cut the police budget by half and redirect the funds to areas like public health, housing, and economic relief. But the council failed to take further action.

A right-wing backlash started brewing in Austin and the rest of the state. “The progress that we were able to make threatened traditional power,” Johnson said. In December, pro-defund City Council member Jimmy Flannigan lost his seat after pro-police groups bankrolled his opposition, and Graziani thinks others have been cowed into settling for less aggressive action. “The retaliation was powerful, it was swift, it was effective,” she said.

Then the state took a sledgehammer to the entire local process. In June, Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1900 into law, which withholds state tax money from any large municipality that reduces its police budget. Senate Bill 23, passed at the same time, requires large counties to hold elections before reducing or reallocating police funding or risk a freeze in property tax revenue. The legislation “just put a big stink in all those plans,” said Chas Moore, the executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition. The city was able to hold on to some of its reforms, such as the $20 million from the police budget that created a mental health first responder program and funded domestic violence shelters and substance abuse services. But 911 and forensics had to be folded back into the APD to comply with the new state law. Then the city passed a budget this year that goes beyond what HB 1900 requires, adding $10 million more than the police received in 2019.

Advocates got a win in November, when voters rejected a ballot measure that would have required the city to hire at least two police officers per 1,000 residents, which would have added hundreds of millions of dollars to the police budget. Beating back the proposition “can show how the movement can endure,” Casar said.

They’re still finding ways to push reform. For Johnson, HB 1900 “doesn’t excuse the city from their responsibility to develop creative solutions.” For example, could the city shift some duties from armed to unarmed officers? “If the best we can do is decrease the number of armed APD officers that are on the street, it would be one hell of an accomplishment,” Johnson said. Casar vowed to find another way to make forensics and 911 independent again. Rojas believes that, despite her frustrations with the process, advocates were able to take the demand to reduce police spending in favor of other services mainstream. “It’s a window of opportunity that has been opened, and I don’t think it has closed yet,” she said. “We haven’t lost everything we gained in the last year and a half.”

In mid-September, a multiracial group of over 100 residents of Brooklyn Center, Minn., turned out for a meeting to help implement a City Council resolution to create new responses to public safety. After an hour of open discussion, attendees huddled in breakout groups of 20 to 25 people. Some were worried about the idea of reducing police functions. “When you’re making huge changes like this, there’s nobody that doesn’t feel the risk,” said Brian Fullman, a lead organizer with the Barbershop & Black Congregation Cooperative. But advocates were “literally persuading people in the meeting.” It was scheduled to run from 6:30 until 8:30; people were still talking hours later.

About a year after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, police killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, after pulling him over for an expired vehicle registration about a dozen miles away in Brooklyn Center. In the wake of Wright’s death, Brooklyn Center residents took to the streets, only to be met by a militarized police response. It “was almost equivalent to a sledgehammer smacking a thumbtack,” Fullman said. “We knew that we had to respond in a way that wasn’t just talk,” said Mayor Mike Elliott.

In the aftermath, Elliott, Fullman, and various community organizations “got together in a room,” Fullman said. Elliott wanted to pass a police reform measure; Fullman told him that if he didn’t involve the community, “you won’t be able to pass it.” They held a series of forums at which residents testified about the abuse they had suffered at the hands of police. The attendees told lawmakers that they wanted nonpolice options for mental health crises and small disturbances like loud music. They didn’t want police in charge of traffic enforcement. The City Council members who had been on the fence got on board after hearing the stories, clearing a path for the resolution. “Those testimonies led to City Council members flipping, because these are constituents of theirs,” Fullman noted. “Our community demanded these changes,” Elliot said.

In May the City Council passed a resolution calling for a new approach to public safety. Its measures include the creation of an unarmed Community Response Department for medical and mental health emergencies, an unarmed civilian Traffic Enforcement Department, and a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, helmed by a public health expert, that would oversee the other two as well as the police and fire departments. It also calls for regulation of the city’s use-of-force policy and the immediate implementation of a policy change directing police to issue citations for nonmoving traffic violations and non-felony offenses or warrants rather than make arrests.

“We are adding more tools to our toolbox so police aren’t the only available resource,” Elliott said. That will “actually improve the public safety.” It’s a promise that drew so many residents to the community meeting in September to figure out how it should be implemented.

Fullman credits robust community involvement for Brooklyn Center’s concrete progress. “It wasn’t no magic,” he said. “We put the community at the center of it…. We created the space and opportunity for residents to be on board.”

The process is in its very early stages. The city is currently forming committees to implement each of the resolution’s pieces. The goal is to have most of it in place by April 11, 2022, the anniversary of Wright’s death. Fullman hopes that it will transform the “warrior-style mentality” of police, end the police response to traffic violations, and increase investment in services that address addiction, homelessness, and mental health. “This is what public safety looks like,” he said. But he’s not an abolitionist; he believes there will still be police when the process is completed.

Activists in Minneapolis, which was ground zero for the protests in 2020, have also been trying to redefine public safety with bold steps, but it’s been a bumpier ride. Last year, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to eliminate the police department and create something entirely new, although what that would be had yet to be determined. But the effort ran aground on the city’s charter, which calls for maintaining a police force of a certain size. That “gave way for the residents of Minneapolis to be able to push for [change] more directly,” said JaNaé Bates, the communication director for the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign. Her group and a coalition of faith leaders, small businesses, labor unions, and racial justice organizers pushed a ballot measure that enabled city residents to weigh in directly on whether to amend the charter and pave the way for replacing the Minneapolis police force with a new Department of Public Safety. The proposal divided elected Democratic officials in the state, however, and voters rejected it. Still, it garnered 44 percent of the vote, and organizers emphasized that the ballot measure excited many in their communities. To get on the ballot, the measure needed 12,000 signatures; organizers collected more than 20,000 going door-to-door in the middle of February in Minnesota. “We changed the conversation about what public safety should look like,” Corenia Smith, campaign manager for Yes 4 Minneapolis, said in a statement after the election. “Now, we will work to hold leaders and the system accountable. We will work to heal our city and create safer streets for all our communities.”

A number of other cities are working on alternatives to having the police respond to mental health crises. Denver has implemented a pilot program called Support Team Assisted Response to send a paramedic and a mental health professional instead of cops to a variety of calls. Chicago is dispatching a paramedic, a mental health clinician, and a police officer trained in crisis response to two areas of the city. San Francisco has a new Crisis Response Team to respond to calls related to mental health, drug use, and homelessness. Albuquerque has created a new Community Safety Department that began sending social workers to patrol blocks and respond to calls.

San Francisco, along with Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia, has been shifting safety duties in public transit to unarmed officers, and in February Mayor London Breed proposed redirecting $120 million from the police budget to other services. Berkeley, Calif., is working on removing police from traffic enforcement.

Cat Brooks, a cofounder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, has been fighting to reduce the role of police in Oakland, Calif., and shift money to mental health and other services “even before the advent of Black Lives Matter,” she said. “We spent years getting laughed out of rooms.” Then in 2020 the Oakland City Council created a public safety task force and promised it would work toward a 50 percent reduction in the police budget. That led to a heated debate this year with Mayor Libby Schaaf, who had proposed increasing funding for the police; in the end, the council diverted over $18 million from the police funding in Schaaf’s budget and doubled funding for social services, including a nonpolice response program for mental health emergencies. But while that was “a win,” Brooks said, “it wasn’t the win.” The police budget still wasn’t reduced from its previous levels. “We’re going to continue this campaign until we get 50 percent [reduction in the police budget],” she said.

Activists around the country now have to contend with the politicized idea of “defunding the police” itself. Most of those I spoke with have moved away from the phrase. While Moore believes his fellow Austinites want real police reform, he thinks the word “defund” scared a lot of people. “In hindsight I do wish that we as a movement had come up with a better slogan,” he said. “We just didn’t have enough time to do the political education of what ‘defund’ actually meant.” In Brooklyn Center, Fullman explained, “‘defunding’ is a word that we do not use, because of the public definition it has on it now. What we’re saying is ‘reallocating funds’ to meet the inequities of the community.”

In New York, Mayor de Blasio’s term is up at the end of the year, and former Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams will replace him. Adams, a former NYPD officer, strongly opposed the idea of defunding the police during his campaign, leading some to see his victory as a repudiation of the movement. But in the same election, New Yorkers picked a slate of new council members who will make up the most diverse and progressive body the city has seen. “A lot of candidates who were specifically ‘defund’ candidates won,” Méndez-Peñate said. “It was clear that New Yorkers really want to see some change.” Herman wants B-HEARD to operate in more precincts by the end of the year and eventually in all of them. The City Council is now considering a bill that would institute a nonpolice response to mental health crises citywide.

“Movements ebb and flow,” Brooks noted. “Last summer was a movement flowing.” But the tide hasn’t turned entirely. Activists “are doing a kick-ass job extracting everything we can before the movement ebbs again, because this door will close.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Ruth Lowenkron’s position on the B-HEARD program.

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