Arts & Culture, Our City, Our World

Not Reform, Receipts: Unpacking the Defund Movement


Photo by Allison Sepanek.

The ACLU’s Data For Justice Project reports that this week, the city of Boston is scheduled to approve a budget of over 400 million dollars for its police department for fiscal year 2020-21. This amount, largely in keeping with the previous year’s approved budget, is quadruple the budget allotted for the Public Health Commission. Moreover, there are marked shifts in allocation within the budget. The ACLU highlights the four bureaus receiving cuts within the police department: the Bureau of Intelligence & Analysis, the Bureau of Professional Standards, the Bureau of Professional Development, and the Bureau of Investigative Services. 

Simply put,” writes Lauren Chambers of the ACLU, “the BPD programs focused on ensuring professionalism and accountability are being slashed.”

As of Wednesday, June 10th, Mayor Walsh has provided only vague references to “discussions” taking place with the police department to potentially reallocate funds. 

Today, The New York Times published a comprehensive assessment of police budget increases across the country between 1977 and 2017. As it stands now, the current budget for police in the city of Boston represents approximately one of every ten dollars in local government spending.

While the allocation of funding fluctuates internally, the budget uptick has remained an unfortunate reality for decades. External forces are calling for a larger reckoning. Yet, while the slogan “defund the police” is succinct and well-suited for chanting, it often leaves people wondering: is the call to defund the same as the one to abolish? 

Can we picture a society without a force that has, by mutual constitution, presented itself as the preeminent response to crime and violence? 

What would that really look like?

In short: no, yes, and good question. And the importance of specific, actionable reforms is crucial to implementing an initiative of this scope. 

Defunding is not the same as calling for the abolition of a protective system, nor does it necessarily mean bringing the budget to zero. “Defund the police” confronts one of the most profitable and powerful levels of entanglement in our nation: opulence and oppression. The undeniable glut of capital poured into our police departments not only empowers a culture of militarism and binary morality within its ranks, but has also engendered a false sense of permanence and precedent for the existence of police as they operate today.

Avatar of Racism: The Origin of Policing in the U.S.

TIME magazine traces the roots of the police back to the antebellum south. “In the South,” writes columnist Olivia B. Waxman, “the economics that drove the creation of police forces were centered not on the protection of shipping interests but on the preservation of the slavery system. Some of the primary policing institutions there were the slave patrols tasked with chasing down runaways and preventing slave revolts.” Rather than a primordial, unchanging institution, the police force was formed as a response to a distinct period in history and nurtured to its current formation within a hotbed of racism. 

While the origins of policing in the U.S. are chilling, specifying the historical environment from which it sprung can serve to empower us now. We cannot, as Marshall Project journalist Jamiles Lartey says, realistically expect reform from a system that has long been an “avatar of racism” in our country. What we can do is recognize that, out of this critical rupture of perceived normalcy, we have the power to confront and reject a definition of “normal” that serves to oppress Black Americans, as well as other POC and Native Americans

Photo by Ryan OHearn.

From Why to How: Actionable Steps in Defunding

Nothing confers legitimacy quite like money, which is why questioning the bloated budget of police departments across the country means interrogating more than just their bottom line. In their 150-year performance review of the Minneapolis Police Department, the collection of activists known as MPD150 presents defunding as a process of reimagination. While it’s valid to ask, as Atlantic columnist Annie Lowrey does, “why are we paying for this?” moving forward means reframing that “why” into a “how.” Defunding calls for a collective consideration: How do we diffuse funds from a singular “force” into an impartial and specialized web of social services to reflect the myriad needs of our communities? 

There is no singular definition of what it means to “defund the police,” as the act of defunding is a process, a spectrum of initiatives as direct as freezing all hiring initiatives and redirecting salaries of retired officers to community programs, while also leaving room for reimagining the structure of a protective force without the undue criminalization of addiction, homelessness, sex work, and other social realities. 

As MPD150 concludes: “The first step on the road to a police-free city is determining the needs of our communities, and identifying alternatives that can meet those needs.”

The question of divestment implicates not only state and city police departments, but also the entirety of the Department of Justice, including our country’s prison industrial complex, and issues of access to housing and healthcare in our communities. What’s more, the call to defund only references one portion of the entire initiative. What we do fund is just as important, if not more so, than what we defund. 

Photo by Ryan OHearn.

“Responding to violence is one of the most difficult challenges we face as a city, with or without police,” acknowledges the MPD150 report. Yet some of these responses can come from somewhere besides law enforcement, like “providing much-needed resources to different communities, giving them space to create their own safety strategies, and reducing our reliance on the ineffective and harmful responses.”

But the notion of defunding—gerund, ongoing, processional—shouldn’t scare us, especially when we consider the true cost that our police departments incur. There is a bankroll we don’t address as readily, one which insulates officers from accountability specifically in cases of excessive force and police brutality. 

A Closed-Loop System: Accountability for Police   

There are several components that protect officers from accountability in cases of brutality and/or excessive force. There is an exorbitantly high burden of proof required to press criminal charges against a police officer. In the case of George Floyd, the Attorney General of Minnesota has issued a criminal charge of second degree murder to former officer Derek Chauvin. Criminal charges are at the discretion of the District Attorney or other governing bodies, which means the families of victims of police brutality cannot seek justice on this level themselves. 

Civil suits of this nature, which can be brought by individuals, often fall under what are called “Section 1983 Claims.” This type of claim references the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a federal statute that enables people to sue officers or other agents who are acting (with the greatest of irony) “under color of” state or city laws, charging them with violating or depriving the plaintiff of their constitutional rights. Unfortunately, this degree of violation is difficult to prove, in large part due to the caveat of qualified immunity for officers. 

It’s understandable that activists and advocates like Rep. Ayanna Pressley are calling for legislation to abolish qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is one of the prime examples of a closed-loop approach. Essentially, it acts as a state-sanctioned umbrella. As long as it can be argued and proven that an officer has acted “under color of” the law and has not violated any clearly stated federal law, they are absolved of any personal liability for their actions. 

Photo by Allison Sepanek.

The wrongful death suit filed against Louisville police officers by the family of Breonna Taylor will likely run up against these same issues at the civil level. None of the three police officers involved in her murder have received criminal charges, meaning that at this juncture, it is likely that any sort of compensation Ms. Taylor’s family receives will be from the public coffers of the city of Louisville. While the officers remain on “administrative leave” and the FBI has launched an investigation, their department largely insulates them from the justice process.

In the case of the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, none of the officers involved were indicted on criminal charges. A year and a half afterward, the city of Cleveland, OH settled with Rice’s family in a civil suit for 6 million dollars. Timothy Loehmann, the officer who killed Rice, was fired three years later due to a finding unrelated to the murder. He had neglected to inform the Cleveland Police Department that he had been previously deemed unfit to handle a firearm during his time with a different police department in the suburb of Independence, OH. Hauntingly, the Deputy Chief of the Independence Police Department wrote in Loehmann’s file: “In law enforcement there are times when instructions need to be followed to the letter and I am under the impression that Ptl. Loehmann, under certain circumstances, will not react in the way instructed.” 

No mention of the report was made internally during the hiring process. The report was not highlighted in connection to the murder of Tamir Rice during the ensuing civil suit. The internal mechanisms meant to ensure the safety of all officers and civilians, and to instill a sense of accountability, simply failed. 

This is not to take issue with the specifics of internal investigations, but rather to point out that even the best of efforts can’t help but fall short within a rigged system. What this process has shown, time and again, is that we cannot expect justice from a system that reroutes accountability through the use of taxpayer dollars. In these instances, the person or people whose behavior most needs to change are not paying in any meaningful way, monetary or otherwise. By keeping the officers involved in these incidents out of the loop of retribution, we are allowing money meant to better our communities to instead fund the continued abuse of police force and power. 

“Hit Them Where it Hurts”: The Economic Power of Protest

While the timeline for reallocating funds and strengthening social service resources will undoubtedly be a long one, there are immediate steps that we can take to begin to dismantle the culture of impunity within what is meant to be a protective system.

Gary Chambers, Jr., an activist and founder of the media platform The Rouge Collection, posted a video on his Instagram in late May describing the economic ramifications of protesting and the power protestors hold within the larger workings of the Defund movement. 

“Number one, the people who are out there in Minnesota protesting are forcing police resources to be used in a way that they would otherwise not be used,” explains Chambers. “[Police] are going to stand in the street for hours and hours and hours. So the goal is not to antagonize them, it is to make sure that they can’t go home, right? You protest to ensure that they can’t go home and rest, because you can’t rest.”

Courtesy of Gary Chambers Jr.

Chambers also emphasizes the importance of protesting in our current climate. “Every day that a protest is ensuing, you are costing the government money. And in a time of COVID-19, when city and state governments are pinched because they are already allocating resources to healthcare that they were not planning to allocate, to unemployment that they were not planning to allocate, you could break a system and bankrupt it right now. You could bankrupt a city by just standing in the streets. By organizing and demanding that they pay attention to your issue.”

The Long Game

“Yes, things have happened slowly, but things are incrementally getting better in some places because advocates are being strategic and organized and pushing for the change to happen in their communities,” says Chambers. And he’s right. As The Marshall Project reports, “some efforts to reimagine how police departments operate have worked. In 2011, the Camden Police Department in New Jersey became the first law enforcement agency in recent memory to implode as the state struggled to pay for officers.” Instead of continuing to rely on four separate police unions, the county police department hitched itself to a single union. As the scope of police influence diminished, community efforts improved. Now, “Camden has a national reputation as a place where residents and cops get along.”

The movement to defund the police may be aspirational, but it should not be mistaken for naïve. Chambers notes the crucial perspective activists must adopt moving forward. “[Understand] that this is not just about protest, but it’s about legislation and political power,” he says. “If we’re not taking over every level of government with people who think about Black people, care about Black people, love Black people, prioritize Black people, then all of this is for nothing.”

“It’s the long game. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. People who tell you that protesting doesn’t work, those are the people who are usually seeking a seat at the table by the same people who are killing us in the streets.”

The calculation might be cynical, but it works: “If you mess with these people’s money,” says Chambers, looking directly into the camera, “if you mess with their money, they will respond.”


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