"Defund the police" made headlines. What does it look like now?

What Does It Mean to Defund the Police?
What Does It Mean to Defund the Police? 26:12

Watch the CBSN Originals documentary "What Does It Mean to Defund the Police?" in the video player above.


"Defund the police" became a rallying cry during Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. and around the world in the summer of 2020, following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police. But in the months since, how has the debate developed, and what does it mean for American communities?

A new documentary from CBSN Originals features voices on different sides of the issue to help shed light on the movement and the future of policing. 

Different definitions of "defund"

"Defund the police means many things to many people," said Arjun Singh Sethi, adjunct professor of law at Georgetown Law School. 

At its most basic, "defund the police" means reallocating money from policing to other agencies funded by local municipalities. Advocates are split on the question of how far it should go: whether to reduce funding and reform some aspects of policing, or completely abolish police forces as we know them.

The movement has grown out of anger at police violence disproportionately targeting Black Americans, and a long history of unequal treatment in the criminal justice system. Statistics show that Black people in the U.S. are imprisoned at five times the rate of Whites, and are three times more likely to be killed by police.

"The Black community is over-policed for minor infractions that would draw virtually no attention anywhere else," Gary Potter, a criminology professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has written about the history of policing in America, told CBS News last summer.

Protest march
A protester holds a homemade sign that says "Defund the Police" during a march across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York on June 19, 2020. Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

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 that other agencies would be better equipped to deal with civil matters like mental health and homelessness. 

"I think at the core of the defunding movement is the idea that we want to take money out of city and local budgets that has traditionally been devoted to paying for police services, and to redirect it [to] better housing for low-income people, better schools, better mental health treatments," Harvard Law professor John Goldberg told CBSN Originals. 

Others say it will take more to solve deeply rooted problems in the system.

"What we were calling for wasn't simply just to reduce the budget of police, but to reduce the scope of policing," said Jawanza Willians, director of organizing at VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization that works with people impacted by homelessness, incarceration and HIV/AIDS. 

"[Defund] is about how do we radically transform, how we deal with issues in our society — because police and prisons for 200+ years haven't solved the problems of our society." 

President Joe Biden has opposed defunding but supports police reform measures including more oversight and training, barring use of chokeholds, and increased funds for community policing and other initiatives. Those provisions and more were included in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House in early March.

Alternatives to calling the police

"I'm always questioning how money is spent," said New York City Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samiel. "Just to use an example, in Brooklyn North, we spent about a million dollars in overtime on the [police] gang unit. But yet we still had a rise in gang activity.

"So what would it look like if we took that million dollars and gave it to the community-based organizations that address violence?" Ampry-Samuel said more funds for alternatives to policing are needed, especially when it comes to responding to homelessness and mental health crises.

The Treatment Advocacy Center estimated in 2015 that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement. A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that from 2009-2012, one in five deaths involving lethal force by law enforcement were linked to the victim's mental health or substance-induced disruptive behaviors. Surveys by the National Alliance on Mental Illness have found that people in a mental health crisis are more likely to encounter police than to get medical attention, resulting in 2 million people jailed every year.

Between 2012 and 2020, police responded to at least 1.2 million mental health crisis calls in New York City alone. The NYPD is the largest police department in the nation, with a total budget of $10.9 billion in 2020. 

"Police officers are called things that most people would never believe," NYPD Lieutenant Edwin Raymond told CBSN Originals. "Pretty much the day is usually emotionally disturbed persons, car accidents and medical emergencies."

Many of those types of incidents, he believes, could be handled without law enforcement. 

"The thing is, when there's not an agency that already exists to deal with something, or if an existing agency is lacking personnel, or other types of resources, it's thrown at police," said Raymond.

There are a handful of pilot programs in communities across the U.S. that have attempted to reassign some of the responsibilities police are tasked with to other agencies. Most notably, in the case of mental health distress calls, there have been efforts to have social services respond. In Colorado, more than 55 law enforcement agencies participate in co-responder programs, pairing law enforcement and behavioral health specialists. Denver's program has grown from four co-responders to 32, although its services are still limited the central downtown area.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced plans for a similar pilot program in two neighborhoods. In July 2020, de Blasio and the city council approved cutting $1 billion from the NYPD, shifting $350 million to the Department of Education for school safety and $4.5 million to the Department of Homeless Services.

Minneapolis city council members endorsed the idea of disbanding the police department as protests erupted over the death of George Floyd, who was pinned down under an officer's knee. But six months later, the city opted not to cut police staffing, passing a budget that shifted about $8 million to violence prevention programs, mental health and other services in what Mayor Jacob Frey called a "both-and" approach to policing and public safety. 

Activists Rally For Justice For George Floyd Ahead Of Trial Of Derek Chauvin
A man carrying a portrait of George Floyd looks on at a police cruiser at a demonstration on March 7, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jury selection in the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of killing Floyd, was scheduled to begin the next day. Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

"A police officer will never walk away"

Some police proponents warn diminishing their role could be a risky move.

"We're talking about switching responsibilities from the police officer on the corner to other agencies," said Patrick Lynch, the president of the largest police officers' union, the New York City Police Benevolent Association. "Why were those responsibilities placed on the shoulder of the police officers in the first place?" He answered his own question: "Because those other agencies failed at their job, and a police officer will never walk away from a crime victim." 

In situations arising from homelessness and mental illness, Lynch said he agrees in principle that the responsibility shouldn't be in the hands of police officers — but that no viable alternative currently exists.

"So to say you don't need police officers, OK, I don't agree. I think we do. We do in my neighborhood," he added. And he warned that major budget cuts could lead to a repeat of the 1970s, when "crime was out of control."

The backlash against defunding includes initiatives like one proposed by Texas state Senator Dawn Buckingham, who filed a bill that would withhold state grants from communities that cut their police budgets more than 5%. 

In public opinion surveys, a majority of Americans seem convinced of the need for reform but don't support total defunding. A July 2020 Gallup poll found 58% of Americans — and 88% of Black Americans — agreed policing 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.