'Defund the police': What does that mean exactly?

President Trump sees the “Defund the Police” slogan as a political opportunity. Most protesters don't mean it literally, except perhaps in Minneapolis. 

Ragan Clark/AP Photo
Demonstrators march Saturday, June 6, 2020, in New York protest of racism and police brutality, sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

Protesters are pushing to “defund the police" over the death of George Floyd and other black Americans killed by law enforcement. Their chant has become rallying cry – and a stick for President Donald Trump to use on Democrats as he portrays them as soft on crime. 

But what does “defund the police” mean? It’s not necessarily about gutting police department budgets.

What is the 'Defund the Police' movement?

Supporters say it isn’t about eliminating police departments or stripping agencies of all of their money. They say it is time for the country to address systemic problems in policing in America and spend more on what communities across the United States need, like housing and education.

State and local governments spent $115 billion on policing in 2017, according to data compiled by the Urban Institute.

“Why can’t we look at how it is that we reorganize our priorities, so people don’t have to be in the streets during a national pandemic?" Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza asked during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Activists acknowledge this is a gradual process.

The group MPD150, which says it is “working towards a police-free Minneapolis,” argues that such action would be more about “strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility away from police and toward community-based models of safety, support, and prevention.”

“The people who respond to crises in our community should be the people who are best-equipped to deal with those crises,” the group wrote on its website.

What are lawmakers saying?

Sen. Cory Booker said he understands the sentiment behind the "Defund the police" slogan, but it's not a slogan he will use.

The New Jersey Democrat told NBC's “Meet the Press” that he shares a feeling with many protesters that Americans are “over-policed” and that “we are investing in police, which is not solving problems, but making them worse when we should be, in a more compassionate country, in a more loving country.”

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said part of the movement is really about how money is spent.

“Now, I don’t believe that you should disband police departments,” she said in an interview with CNN. “But I do think that, in cities, in states, we need to look at how we are spending the resources and invest more in our communities.

“Maybe this is an opportunity to re-envision public safety,” she said.

Mr. Trump and his campaign view the emergence of the “Defund the Police” slogan as a spark of opportunity during what has been a trying political moment. Mr. Trump’s response to the protests has sparked widespread condemnation. But now his supporters say the new mantra may make voters, who may be otherwise sympathetic to the protesters, recoil from a “radical” idea.

Mr. Trump seized on the slogan last week as he spoke at an event in Maine.

“They’re saying 'defund the police,'" he said. “Defund. Think of it. When I saw it, I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘We don’t want to have any police,' they say. You don’t want police?”

Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign was built on a promise of ensuring law and order – often in contrast to protests against his rhetoric that followed him across the country. As he seeks reelection, Mr. Trump is preparing to deploy the same argument again – and seems to believe the “defund the police” call has made the campaign applause line all the more real for his supporters.

Is there any push to actually defund police departments?

Yes, or at least to reduce their budgets in some major cities.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday that the city would move funding from the NYPD to youth initiatives and social services, while keeping the city safe, but he didn't give details.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to cut as much as $150 million that was part of a planned increase in the police department’s budget.

A majority of the members of the Minneapolis City Council said Sunday they support disbanding the city's police department. Nine of the council’s 12 members appeared with activists at a rally in a city park Sunday afternoon and vowed to end policing as the city currently knows it. Council member Jeremiah Ellison promised that the council would “dismantle” the department.

“It is clear that our system of policing is not keeping our communities safe,” Lisa Bender, the council president, said. “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period.”

Ms. Bender went on to say she and the eight other council members that joined the rally are committed to ending the city’s relationship with the police force and “to end policing as we know it and recreate systems that actually keep us safe.”

How have police officials and unions responded?

Generally, police and union officials have long resisted cuts to police budgets, arguing that it would make cities less safe.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union for the city's rank-and-file officers, said budget cuts would be the “quickest way to make our neighborhoods more dangerous.”

“Cutting the LAPD budget means longer responses to 911 emergency calls, officers calling for back-up won’t get it, and rape, murder and assault investigations won’t occur or will take forever to initiate, let alone complete,” the union’s board said in a statement last week.

“At this time, with violent crime increasing, a global pandemic and nearly a week’s worth of violence, arson, and looting, ‘defunding’ the LAPD is the most irresponsible thing anyone can propose.”

Has defunding an entire police force ever happened?

In 2012, with crime rampant in Camden, New Jersey, the city disbanded its police department and replaced it with a new force that covered Camden County. Compton, California, took the same step in 2000, shifting its policing to Los Angeles County.

It was a step that then-Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department was considering for Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. The city eventually reached an agreement short of that but one that required massive reforms overseen by a court-appointed mediator.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Zeke Miller in Washington and Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed to this report.

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