What does ‘defund the police’ mean?

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In the past two months, “defund the police” has surged into the public consciousness as a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter protesters.

It is a divisive phrase, and to some, it is a misleading one.

Critics see it as a call to completely dismantle law enforcement, and not without reason – even Democrats who support calls to “defund the police” have suggested that the phrase is misleading.

“I don’t believe that you should disband police departments,” Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Rep. Karen Bass told Jake Tapper on CNN. “We need to look at how we are spending the resources and invest more in our communities.”

Minneapolis, Minnesota, is the epicenter of both the George Floyd protests and calls for rethinking police funding.

On May 25, Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. As protests over his death swept through Minneapolis and around the country, a supermajority of the Minneapolis City Council committed to “dismantle” the Minneapolis Police Department, saying they felt it could not be reformed, though when they made that commitment in early June, they could not say what their plans for a public safety framework were.

By June 26, the Minneapolis City Council had a concrete amendment to the city charter to vote on, which it passed unanimously.

Draft language of the amendment shows the current plan calls for the city to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention,” which “will have responsibility for public safety services prioritizing a holistic, public health-oriented approach.”

According to the amendment, the proposed department would have a division of licensed peace officers, but they would answer to a chief who would have “non-law-enforcement experience in community safety services, including but not limited to public health and/or restorative justice approaches.”

The council’s approval of that amendment was just the first step in a long process to actually change the city charter – it ultimately will have to be approved by a majority of voters on the November ballot.

Before even that can happen, it has to be approved by the city’s Charter Commission. And the chairman of that commission said he felt the council had rushed the process, as reported by Time magazine.

“As I understand it, they are saying, ‘We are going to have this new department. We don’t know what it’s going to look like yet. We won’t implement this for a year; we’ll figure it out,’” Clegg said, per Time. “For myself anyway, I would prefer that we figured it out first, and then voted on it.”

While versions of the proposal in Minneapolis have spread across the country, it is still not a universal position across the left, and in fact many Democratic politicians have long been supporters of giving more money to police forces.

In Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser, who had “Black Lives Matter” painted on 16th Street NW near the White House, has proposed a 3% increase to the city’s police budget. Last month, she told NPR that she was “not at all” reconsidering that increase.

“What our budget proposal, and I can’t speak for other departments, but they fund the people that we need,” she told the nationwide public radio network. “And certainly we wouldn’t want the people on our forces not to have the proper training or equipment that makes for better community policing.”

And in Minneapolis, Democratic Mayor Jacob Frey passed a budget last year that allowed the Minneapolis Police Department to increase its cadet class trainees by one-third this year, the Minneapolis Post reported. Even now, with the Minneapolis City Council’s unanimous vote to dismantle the city’s police force, Frey has refused to commit to such a plan – something protesters jeered at him for in June.

Of course, whatever their current positions may be, there is increasing pressure on pro-police Democrats to think more critically on the subject.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.