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‘Defund’ the Police? What Does It Mean and Can It Be Done?

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

“Defund the police.”

It’s a phrase that has been chanted and painted on signs across the U.S. in the midst of nationwide unrest over police brutality and systemic racism. The phrase has in mere weeks gone from a fringe idea to a mainstream policy stance. 

The nationwide protests have sparked calls in Maryland to demilitarize local police forces and look at reallocating police funds. Now, some policymakers and local government officials in the state are taking a serious look at what they can do to reform public safety. 

What is meant by ‘defund the police?’ 

When protesters call for the abolishing or defunding of police, they aren’t necessarily calling for an end to law enforcement – but rather a different approach to public safety. They say some of the money spent on police departments would be better spent on housing, education and social services. 

The definition, of course, varies depending on the views of advocates. Some want the complete and total abolition of police departments – a refrain that has repeated itself since militarized police forces were first established in the United States.

Other activists want to dismantle and rebuild police departments, while still others want to reduce their size and power. One thing advocates of police defunding tend to agree on is that government spending on law enforcement is too high. 

Spending on police departments has consistently increased in the past 40 years. State and local government spending on police increased from $42 billion to $115 billion from 1977 to 2017, according to the Urban Institute — a number is adjusted for inflation. 

That spending has remained mostly the same as a percentage of direct general expenditures, researchers noted, hovering just under 4%.

Calls for police defunding erupted across the United States in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. Derek Chauvin, a police officer with an extensive history of misconduct complaints, pressed his knee into the neck of Floyd, for nearly nine minutes on Memorial Day. An autopsy found that Floyd died of “asphyxia due to neck and back compression.”

Chauvin, who pinned Floyd even as he begged for his life, has since been charged with second degree murder. Other officers who stood by and watched as Floyd was killed have also been charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder.

The idea of defunding or even disbanding the police, which was once perceived as radical, is now being considered in some municipalities. The Minneapolis City Council pledged this month to begin the process of dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department.

“Decades of police reform efforts have proved that the Minneapolis Police Department cannot be reformed and will never be accountable for its actions,” Minneapolis council members said in their pledge, according to the Star-Tribune. “We are here today to begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department and creating a new, transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis.

The complicated history of police militarization in the United States is enough to fill books. During protests, police with military equipment have been seen launching tear gas and shooting rubber bullets into crowds of protesters. Some protesters say that policing, as it currently exists in the United States, is enforcing systemic racism.

According to a report by the ACLU, the militarization of police and raids by heavily armed SWAT teams have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Nationwide demands for change have led local governments to mull how they can change policing.

Can local governments actually defund the police?

When it comes to defunding, creating or disbanding municipal police departments, local governments have wide authority in Maryland.

Jim Peck, a research specialist at the Maryland Municipal League, said many local governments in Maryland don’t even have their own police departments. Instead, those municipalities lean on county sheriffs and state police for their law enforcement needs.

Eighty-one out of 157 cities and towns in Maryland have their own police department, Peck said. He added that he hasn’t recently been asked by a municipality for guidance on this topic.

Whether local governments should defund police is a separate question. Many advocates say it’s the first step in dismantling systemic racism

Enforcing harsher penalties on crime doesn’t actually improve a community’s situation, said Dayvon Love, the policy director of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore public policy think-tank. 

“The past several years there’s been a spike in the rate of homicide,” Love said. “A lot of times the knee jerk reaction from legislators is ‘we need to increase penalties.’ We’ve had to push back on that. That actually doesn’t address violence.”

Love says community measures, like the Safe Streets Baltimore initiative, is an example of effective crime prevention that doesn’t necessarily involve police. He added that those initiatives “don’t get nearly the amount of resources that police get.”

Attempts at reform have also reached Baltimore. City Council President Brandon M. Scott, who declared victory in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary, called on incumbent Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D), to create a task force and look into reallocating police funds. Baltimore City Council members were set to begin taking a serious look at reallocating funds away from police departments during a Friday night meeting.

Montgomery County Councilman William L. Jawando (D) said he has detected enormous change in attitudes toward systemic racism in the year and a half he’s been in office. Jawando spearheaded a local bill requiring independent criminal investigations of police-involved deaths in Montgomery County last year, and said he received intense criticism and even a few threats for doing so. 

“We’re in a different place,” Jawando said, “but there’s been many people, and I count myself in this number, that have known that this is an issue and we’ve had disparate policing for a long time.”

Jawando and his fellow council members recently passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. He envisions a future where health experts or social workers, rather than police, respond to calls concerning mental health issues or homelessness. 

Police leadership, on the other hand, have pushed back on calls to defund or abolish their departments. Many police officials have condemned excessive use of force, but say defunding police would create a slew of problems. 

Local police have condemned police brutality and the killing of Floyd, with Montgomery County’s Police Chief Marcus Jones, who is Black, saying in a Thursday evening town hall that police need to have a “guardian-type of mentality, not a warrior-type of mentality.”

Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. vocally opposed defunding the police in a Thursday interview with Time, calling it a “terrible idea.”

Instead, Hogan proposed more investment in police. He said having diverse, well-equipped and well-trained police forces makes communities safer, and added that investing in other programs in conjunction with police is his preference. 

“You’ve got to invest in those communities and … help with some of the underlying socioeconomic problems,” Hogan told journalist Katie Couric. “But eliminating or defunding the police is not the way.”

Jawando said local governments need to be more active in policing their police departments.

The Maryland State Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to a request for comment. 

But activists point to the high rates of crime as evidence of police failure in Baltimore, where police spending is higher on a per-capita basis than other cities. Several groups rallied in Baltimore Friday night calling for the defunding of police.

The Baltimore City Police Department is already subject to a federal consent decree after the U.S. Department of Justice found a slew of Constitutional violations several years ago. The court-enforceable decree requires extensive reforms.

Attempts to defund the police have sprung up in Maryland before. In 2018, then-Del. Bilal Ali (D-Baltimore City) called for the Baltimore Police Department to be disbanded. He cited police corruption and brutality as reasons for rebuilding the department from the ground up, but was dismissed by other politicians at the time and lost a bid for a full term in the Democratic primary that year.

But Jawando said attitudes among policymakers and residents have changed.

“This is our 1968,” he said. “This is our summer ‘67. This is people watching Bloody Sunday on the TV and being called, convicted, for action.”

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‘Defund’ the Police? What Does It Mean and Can It Be Done?