What Happened to Defund the Police?

A movement flowers, then fizzles

On October 10th, the New York Times reported that police departments are getting their money back. “From New York to Los Angeles, departments that saw their funding targeted amid nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd last year have watched as local leaders voted for increases in police spending, with an additional $200 million allocated to the New York Police Department and a 3 percent boost given to the Los Angeles force,” the paper wrote.

In the words of the reporter who used to cover the NYPD, J. David Goodman: “The abrupt reversals have come in response to rising levels of crime in major cities last year, the exodus of officers from departments large and small and political pressures.” Liberal havens like Austin and Burlington have restored or increased their police budgets. Dallas, which has a Black mayor, has moved to aggressively increase officer headcount. Few, if any, localities are moving to shrink the presence of police, directly contradicting the demands that many thousands of protesters made last year.

It may take decades to fully understand what happened in the summer of 2020. In Minneapolis, a white police officer brutally killed a Black man, George Floyd. Few Americans had ever considered the state of policing in Minnesota before. Police killings of Black men had galvanized the masses in the past, but never at the intensity of what was witnessed in those summer months, when more people marched in the streets than at any time since the 1960s. Cities and suburbs alike were convulsed with protests. New York City briefly imposed its first curfew since the 1940s. Most protests were peaceful, but there was rioting and the destruction of property in certain cities. The backdrop of it all was a pandemic that destabilized society in ways once unfathomable, killing hundreds of thousands and threatening the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. Donald Trump, the most incendiary and polarizing president in modern history, enflamed it all, the clown monarch of our hyperreal era. Future generations will ask what it was all like and it might be hard to describe. The summer of uprising gave way to a presidential election and the greatest voter turnout ever seen since women were allowed to vote. All of this was accompanied with, in academic and corporate circles, a great and startling reckoning over race in America.

Cutting money from police departments—or abolishing them altogether—rose from being a fringe concept championed in academic and activist circles to a mainstream demand embraced by many establishment-aligned organizations. Never in my life have I seen a movement gain so much momentum so quickly. In a matter of weeks, Defund the Police had graduated to the status of litmus test: you were not a progressive, in any real form, if you could not support its goals. Never mind that even the Democratic Socialists of America weren’t grilling their own candidates about defunding the police in 2018 or 2019; George Floyd was dead, this was a new era, and any attempt to critique Defund’s rhetoric or goals was regarded as enabling racist police violence.

In the shortest of terms, Defund the Police was wildly successful. Police reform bills were hoisted from legislative backwaters to the desks of various executives. The George Floyd protests led to the almost immediate repeal of 50-a, a retrograde law that shielded police disciplinary records in New York for many decades. In New York City and other localities, police budgets were trimmed, though not to the extent that activists demanded. Self-identified progressive and leftist Democrats who had in the past voted to boost police headcount rushed to the new vanguard, becoming prominent supporters of defunding the police. In the summer months of 2020, no movement, perhaps, mattered more.

Yet the momentum seems to have trickled away. In some cases, it can be argued Defund advocates find themselves in a worse position than they were before the George Floyd protests. Before 2020, there was an argument to be made that this once-radical proposition could become politically palatable and, in time, inch toward the center of the Democratic discourse, like same-sex marriage or the calls for universal healthcare. Now the phrase, even among Democrats, is either massaged (“reallocate, not defund!”) or outright rebuked (“We do not support defund the police. No one in my administration does,” said the new governor of New York, Kathy Hochul.) Defund, of course, is a very young movement, and advocates will remind you that George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 campaigning maliciously on a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The tide quickly turned in the following decade, with all Democrats backing same-sex marriage and Republicans going mum, unilaterally disarming in that particular culture war. The Supreme Court’s vote on marriage equality in 2015 cemented the progressive position on the issue for good. Today, gay couples can legally marry everywhere.

Can Defund the Police follow this trajectory? The rosiest of projections may say so, but I am increasingly doubtful this will come to pass unless the movement rebrands itself and the communication changes drastically. There are many polls that show the slogan itself is deeply unpopular; whites don’t like defunding the police, but neither do working-class Blacks or Latinos. One challenge lies in the lack of simplicity undergirding the message—what exactly do you mean by defund? Many activists will say they support the existence of police but believe the budgets are too bloated and fewer interactions between cops walking the beat and communities of color will reduce harm. Others say, quite literally, they want to abolish all police. The latter proposition will never come to fruition and has been mostly discarded among the activist class, left to be debated among a small number of liberal academics, socialists, and anarchists.

Even DSA-supported candidates do not, largely, campaign on abolishing police forces. Bernie Sanders, a former mayor who once managed a municipal police force, understands the politics of Defund might not be sustainable. Mainstream Democratic voters can confuse the goals of defund and abolish, and this is a problem when demagogues seize on the issue to paint all efforts at police reform—or even budget reductions—as an attempt to phase out policing as we know it. No voter, particularly from a community impacted by crime or gun violence, is going to back a candidate who wants to take all police away. The supporters of abolishing the police must know, on some level, they are advocating for a position entirely divorced from the demands and desires of the multiracial working-class.

The Defund the Police movement has many elements that are more popular and palatable, and it’s these policies that some of the savvier leftist politicians are starting to emphasize on the stump. Activists have successfully mainstreamed the concept of using unarmed first responders to handle certain mental health crises. Pairing police with social workers is an idea now being taken seriously. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has launched a pilot in Harlem where social workers instead of cops respond to 911 calls that are related to particular mental health challenges. The program, so far, appears to be working, and it might be expanded in the future. If the broader goal of Defund was to raise awareness and bring scrutiny to police departments, it has tangible achievements already. Police unions can’t bully Democratic politicians in big cities like they used to and even politicians that hugged the center, like former police captain and incoming New York Mayor Eric Adams, employ the lingo of reform, and may be willing to challenge police fiefdoms more than their immediate predecessors.

But Adams won the Democratic primary as an aggressive, consistent critic of defunding the NYPD. The runner-up in the primary—she was a few thousand votes from becoming mayor herself—Kathryn Garcia was as fiercely opposed to the Defund movement as Adams was. Even Maya Wiley, the candidate who became the standard bearer of the Left by default, increasingly distanced herself form defund activists. The only candidate to fully embrace the movement, Dianne Morales, electrified segments of the young left but never polled beyond the single-digits before her campaign imploded in May. Beyond New York, there have been relatively few Democrats who’ve campaigned successfully, in competitive races, on an explicit defund message. In the Buffalo mayoral race, India Walton defeated the incumbent, Byron Brown, in a Democratic primary, pledging to cut the police budget. Brown, though, is now mounting a competitive write-in campaign in the general election and is assailing Walton over her support for defunding the police. Walton, in turn, has eschewed the language of the movement itself, speaking in terms of shedding officers through attrition and “reallocating” resources.

All of this speaks to the overwhelming problem with Defund, which its most ardent supporters must acknowledge: the message itself can be muddled and alienating. And, more importantly, it is not the primary demand of the Black working-class and poor. They want, largely, better and fairer policing, not the absence of it. Walk the streets of Brownsville or East New York and you will hear plenty about racist police violence, but these laments won’t manifest in the way activists ultimately imagine they will. A NYCHA tenant leader or a mother who lost a child to gun violence will not ask the police to retreat entirely from their neighborhoods. Police cannot, on their own, deter crime and halt waves of violence. “Broken windows” or raising headcount did not magically conjure the national slide in crime the United States saw in the 1990s and 2000s. The causes of the decline are complex and still debated to this day. But none of this means police have no role to play; if they must be limited, through the help of those social workers assigned to handle mental health crises, they will still be required to solve crimes and protect those who lack the means to defend themselves. There are times when Defund activists, unwittingly, mimic the rhetoric of the libertarian right—a government service is failing or in need of great reform, so better to raze it altogether. Defund taken to its logical endpoint—abolish—might unleash a world far darker than the one we currently inhabit, where a vast number of people have access to no police protection at all and the wealthy cower behind private contractors or militias that operate outside the purview of any government. Elected mayors can hire or fire police commissioners. Private militias only need to heed those who sign their paychecks.

In the interim, what should those most passionately involved in the Defund the Police movement do? Like any activists who care about an issue, they should press on, and strive to bring about the society they believe should exist. Social services need to be funded far more and economic downturns should not spare police departments while hurting libraries or public schools. In most cities, the amount of money reallocated from police departments to social safety net programs will not be enough, on its own, to be transformative. In New York, the NYPD’s operating budget is slightly less than $6 billion, while the Department of Education spends close to $30 billion annually. The NYPD is incredibly militarized and winding down the post-9/11 surveillance state erected during the Bloomberg years should be a high priority for the Left. There is no need, certainly, to boost headcount further than it is, and losing officers through attrition would not be devastating. Activists will have allies in the next City Council to press their case.

But the national Defund movement will have to undergo a reckoning of its own. Activists are not winning anymore. The reversal has been swift and real and there is no reason it won’t continue. Many Democrats believe, rightly or wrongly, the rhetoric of the movement costs them votes. It is at this point where the most fervent backers of defunding the police will invoke the abolitionists of the 19th century, who fought hard, lonely battles against a national consensus that embraced the enslavement of human beings. It took decades, if not longer, to reach the point where a president from the era’s moderate wing, Abraham Lincoln, could champion the cause of ending slavery, and only during a cataclysmic civil war. The trouble with this analogy is that most Americans, of all races and incomes, do not perceive police as the instruments of a slave-owning class. They may never. Activists must concede that their vision, unlike the abolition of slavery, has not been implemented anywhere else in the modern world. Other countries ended slavery well before the United States, but few, if any, have fully erased police departments. The countries that have gone furthest in their efforts at lasting reform, including Germany, invest resources in extensive training for their police, making the position more exclusive and recruiting, ultimately, better crops of candidates. The German model might offer a way forward but carries no single slogan that can be readily chanted at a rally.

What should this reckoning look like? It is possible the literal phrase “defund the police” has run its course and should be replaced with something else. Defund is contested turf and a slogan that must be explained with caveats and footnotes may not be one that can front a movement in the long term. Medicare for All or legalize gay marriage found success because they were relatively unambiguous. One literally means Medicare, or a form of it, for all people and the other could not be confused with anything else. The latter has achieved it mission while the former has not, but the entrenched healthcare lobby and the byzantine nature of the American healthcare system cannot be radically overhauled through messaging alone. If there is an equal consensus, to an extent, that healthcare and policing are both broken in America, the solutions diverge after that. Giving healthcare to everyone is a more popular proposition than gutting the budgets of police departments. Functioning single-payer and nationalized healthcare systems are all over the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom. The police abolitionist’s nirvana does not exist. The defunder’s may be hard to find too. For the leftists, the democratic socialists in particular, who are hoping to gain significant political power in the next decade, it’s worth considering how the issue should be talked about going forward. What language does it require? Who will listen? And can a movement built on cutting police funding continue to sustain itself as Floyd recedes from memory? It won’t get any easier from here.