Police Reform

Police Reform: What does defunding really mean?

In Law Enforcement, Police Training by Beth

The term defunding the police invokes many emotions. For most, the relatively new term is unknown and triggers different reactions from everyone.

It may be hopes or even fear but defunding the police strikes at everyone in a distinct manner.

Police Reform: What does defunding really mean?

The term defunding the police was born out of advocates voicing their demands for swift change to the existing law enforcement budgets and organizational structures.

The term has a host of meanings ranging from the total disbandment of local police departments to reduce the budgets with fewer monies allocated for military-type equipment and police overtime.

The tragic death of George Floyd prompted an immediate response from communities throughout the United States. The protests were large, loud, and constant.

A July 2020 Gallup poll found 58% of Americans — and 88% of Black Americans — agreed to police needs “major changes,” and nearly half of those surveyed supported reducing police funding. But only 15% favored abolishing police departments in favor of different public safety models.

What would a defunded police agency look like?

That is unclear at this point. Although the initial demands for change included abolishing the police entirely, most believe that there needs to be a shifting of funding to other social service agencies to assist the homeless and underserved populations in local cities.

Police departments, and their budgets, are overseen by local governments; there are about 800,000 police in the U.S. in varied roles from city street patrol officers to specialized units like school police.

Dozens of police departments have spoken out against defunding, with some police chiefs saying that reducing their budgets would be reckless.

Many reform advocates argue police departments are overburdened, and those other agencies would be better equipped to deal with civil matters like mental health and homelessness.

With public pressure on them, mayors and city councils responded. In 2020 budget votes, advocacy groups won over $840m indirect cuts from US police departments and at least $160m investments in community services, according to an analysis by Interrupting Criminalization, an initiative at the Barnard Center for Research on Women. In 25 cities, such as Denver and Oakland, officials moved to remove police from schools, saving an additional $34m.

“Folks might look at $840m as a drop in the bucket of the $100 billion we spend on police each year, but it definitely reverses the trend of constantly increasing police budgets over the past many decades,” said Andrea J Ritchie, a researcher for the Social Justice Institute at the Barnard Center for Research on Woman, “and it did so in a way that also secured the transfer of funds from policing to community-based safety strategies.”

Some of the cuts came through abolishing positions that were already vacant thus leaving the impact less visible. However, some local city leaders explained the budget cuts as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic citing that the cuts were not due to the protests and outcry for change. And in 26 major cities, the local politicians increased the police budgets.

For years, activists have pushed US cities and states to cut law enforcement budgets amid a dramatic rise in spending on police and prisons while funding for vital social services has shrunk or disappeared altogether.

Elected and government officials have avoided the idea of making drastic reductions to police budgets as an impossibility. The recent unrest and substantial budget shortfalls from the Covid-19 crisis appear to have inspired more mainstream recognition of the central arguments behind defunding.

“To see legislators who aren’t even necessarily on the left supporting at least a significant decrease in New York police department [NYPD] funding is really very encouraging,” Julia Salazar, a New York state senator, and Democratic socialist, told the Guardian on Tuesday. “It feels a little bit surreal.”

Meanwhile, the striking visuals of enormous, militarized and at times violent police forces responding to peaceful protests have led some politicians to question whether police really need this much money and firepower.

Those who are willing to do a deep dive in police budgets are pushing for reinvestment of those dollars in services.

The importance of peaceful protests has been felt throughout the US since the murder of George Floyd. Politicians and local governments are starting to listen.

If the right people are listening what’s the next step?

It is equally important to take the calls for change and implement them in an orderly and safe manner. The goal must be for these changes to benefit all. Development, implementation, and oversight management is the truly difficult part.

The changes in policing have been talked about for decades but are slow to happen.

The New York Times published a piece entitled No More Money for the Police on May 30, 2020. It was written by Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris

Mr. McHarris is a doctoral candidate focusing on race, housing, and policing. Ms. McHarris is a strategist with the Movement for Black Lives.

The article presents an interesting perspective on defunding police. Here are a few excerpts from the author’s perspectives.

  • The only way we’re going to stop these endless cycles of police violence is by creating alternatives to policing.
  • More training or diversity among police officers won’t end police brutality, nor will firing and charging individual officers. Look at the Minneapolis Police Department, which is held up as a model of progressive police reform. The department offers procedural justice as well as training for implicit bias, mindfulness, and de-escalation. It embraces community policing and officer diversity, bans “warrior style” policing, uses body cameras, implemented an early intervention system to identify problematic officers, receives training around mental health crisis intervention, and practices “reconciliation” efforts in communities of color.
  • The focus on training, diversity, and technology like body cameras shifts focus away from the root cause of police violence and instead gives the police more power and resources.
  • The solution to ending police violence and cultivating a safer country lies in reducing the power of the police and their contact with the public. We can do that by reinvesting the $100 billion spent on policing nationwide in alternative emergency response programs, as protesters in Minneapolis have called for. City, state, and federal grants can also fund these programs.
  • Municipalities can begin by changing policies or statutes so police officers never respond to certain kinds of emergencies, including ones that involve substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, or mental health. Instead, health care workers or emergency response teams would handle these incidents. So, if someone calls 911 to report a drug overdose, health care teams rush to the scene; the police wouldn’t get involved. If a person calls 911 to complain about people who are homeless, rapid response social workers would provide them with housing support and other resources. Conflict interrupters and restorative justice teams could mediate situations where no one’s safety is being threatened. Community organizers, rather than police officers, would help manage responses to the pandemic. Ideally, people would have the option to call a different number — say 727 — to access various trained response teams.
  • Violence interruption programs exist throughout the country and they’re often led by people from the community who have experience navigating tricky situations. Some programs, like one in Washington, D.C., do not work with the police; its staff members rely instead on personal outreach and social connections for information about the violence that they work to mediate and diffuse. We should invest in these programs, which operate on shoestring budgets, so they have their own dedicated dispatch centers outside of 911.

Problems Created By Defunding Police

According to The National Police Foundation, defunding the police would create some of the following problems.

  • More policing is necessary to confront violent crime in larger and emerging cities.  Community-based policing has been proven to reduce the homicide rate in NYC in the 1990s.
  • Defunding the police would lead to more chaos and increased crime in areas that are already seeing increases.
  • Would require more police officers to work overtime. In some departments, this leads to decreased officer morale and increased burnout.
  • Decreased budget means lack of training and resources- including de-escalation, use of force, and cultural awareness training


On January 21, 2021, The National Police Foundation offered an article opposed to the call for defunding the police. This article stressed the importance of the police function to respond and handle crises’ in the community they serve.


Many issues of police-involved violence occur because officers are not properly trained on when and how to use their equipment. Defunding the police takes away the resources that are needed to make sure officers are properly trained on things like the use of force continuum and de-escalation techniques.

D.J. Jordan and Scott Martin, two public officials in Virginia summed it up this way in an op-ed for Potomac Local News: Police brutality usually occurs when overly aggressive policing tactics are implemented in dramatic fashion, or with evil intent.

Although police abuse of power is rare overall, just one time is too many and enough to cause years of unnecessary scrutiny from the media and politicians with anti-police agendas.

“Good policing requires a commitment to robust training that must be ongoing. This requires funding,” Jordan and Martin wrote.

The less training is available, the more likely we are to see officers relying on their instincts instead of on best practices developed over decades of experience by teachers and trainers.


This one might seem obvious but it’s worth stating explicitly: lower police budgets mean fewer police officers keeping our streets and communities safe. But it’s not only that — defunding the police places a greater strain on existing officers and reduces the likelihood that they’ll quit or perform their jobs ineffectively because they’re burned out.

An article in the Washington Courier-Herald laid out what this looks like on the ground in Seattle, where the police department’s staff is smaller than it was in 1990, even though the city’s population has increased by more than 40% over the past few decades. And a proposal from the Mayor’s Office could reduce the police force even further.

“Something has to give, and that something has been answering 911 calls and routine policing,” business and community leader Don C Brunell wrote in the Courier-Herald article. “If that trend persists, it will ruin cities making them unsafe and unappealing. People and businesses will leave.”

As you might imagine, the prospect of more cuts is cause for concern among the city’s law enforcement leaders when it comes to ensuring community safety and providing a high level of service to everyone in the city.

“I also need officers that we can routinely rotate out when you have officers that had to deal with demonstrations on a nightly basis with very little time off,” Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz told KTTH radio. “And the more stress we put on those officers; it can create some adverse effects.”


Finally, perhaps the most compelling reason why defunding the police is a bad idea is that it lets the bad actors in our society put everyone else in harm’s way.

Police officers around the country keep us safe from drugs, violence, gangs, domestic abuse, and myriad other threats to the American way of life. No other branch of government or social service agency can do the job in quite the same way.

It’s hard to see the consequences of defunding the police until it happens, at which time it’s already too late.

As the calls for change move forward, all citizens need to understand the impact that these changes will have on their local community. While there are no clear answers, there must be called for clear minds in the implementation of police reform.

Making much-needed modifications to the existing policing structure and culture is long overdue.

In order to accomplish an even hand in police reform, there must be a well-thought-out plan with experts from all aspects of law enforcement involved.

The group should consist of experts from frontline officers who have a direct pulse on the community, ranking officers, researchers who can present the applicable data and studies, fiscal specialists, and yes, elected officials.

For information on de-escalation training, click here.