Defunding the Police: What Does This Mean?


This article is an overview and reflection on the new mantra to defund the local police departments across the United States. Certain agencies of change have begun an old rally cry to defund the police. This is not a new movement, however, in the wake of the death of Mr. George Floyd, has reignited. These agencies of change, are calling for the defunding and, in some instances, the complete abolishment of municipal police departments. This article will define what defunding actually and explain the history of this ideology as a way to reform the criminal justice system.

Keywords: defunding, George Floyd, social change, criminal justice reform

Defunding the Police

In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, there is a rallying cry to “Defund the Police.”  Hearing the words defund and police in the same sentence can create confusion and cause you to ask yourself; are people seriously asking municipalities to take away the funding for the police?

As Activist groups such as Black Lives Matter call for criminal justice reform and the ability to hold our law enforcement officers accountable.  Defunding, reforming, and complete abolishment of the police is now a topic of debate.  This topic will certainly be paramount and at the top of the campaign talking points for politicians in 2020.  This, as we have been witnesses to officers who have appeared to be completely out of control and have caused the deaths of many people.  As we are video witnesses to these events, which have involved the deaths of unarmed African-Americans (George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Eric Garner) over the past several years; defunding or redistribution of funds has emerged as a possible solution to be included in criminal justice reform.  It is because of this heightened awareness and the ability to watch the police, public awareness and outcry in the aftermath of these events has created protests.

Given the remarkable history of unrest between the police and African Americans, the attempt to reform the criminal justice system by “getting tough” on crime has is many cases backfired.  Scholars, Police, Corrections Officers, and States Attorneys who are all a part of the criminal justice system, have now learned that building larger privately funded prisons, and having harsher sentences clearly aimed at punishing people of color, has not worked.  It is because of this latest stance on crime that an overwhelming cycle of mistrust exists between African Americans and the police.  However, given this mistrust, many African Americans continue to call the police and in doing so create unnecessary contacts with the police in situations that are out of the realm and scope of their capacity.

Due of the lack of social services in these underrepresented areas, minority communities tend to reach out to the police for non-police related matters.  In short, the African American population keep inviting the police into their environment and creating the unnecessary contacts that can escalate (Gardner, 2020).  For example, if the situation involves unruly children, instead of calling the police, an alternative option should be calling a statewide Child Welfare Services or non-profit organizations that works with the state or local government.  The police may not be the best option for dealing with an unruly child; therefore, the community should have other viable options available.

African Americans account for nearly 33% of the prison population and are six times more likely to go to prison than their white counterparts (Carson, 2020).  Activists such as Black Lives Matter are calling for change, they want action and one of the ways for them to create a new system of public safety begins with defunding the current system that is in place (CNN, 2020).

The call for defunding simply means municipalities should cut funding to the police department and redistribute those funds to community-wide social services.  As the budget for most police departments is a substantial portion of the budget for municipalities such as Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York City, activists and some politicians are for the redistribution of funds to other areas. This redistribution of funds could provide social services and focused attention on issues that the police are not equipped to handle from call to call.  Some of the funding would be for preemptive services such as after school activities for children and drug awareness and intervention.  Other services would include mental health and domestic violence professionals.  These agencies would operate outside of the scope of the police, but would be viable partners and a better option than to call 911 for service.

Defunding the police of 10-15% of their budget could send millions of dollars to help fund these social services. The calls for change has left people uncertain of what those changes would mean and how cities would reimagine police work while maintaining public safety. Many see this as giving the police the opportunity to be able to use its resources in a more resourceful matter (Quattlebaum & Tyler, 2020).

The criminal justice system has to undergo some level of change.  Sadly, these views may run along with political affiliations, but certainly, people of the minority class to include African Americans, Latinos, and Asians would probably agree; a different system is warranted. The current criminal justice system continues to find its local government paying out millions of dollars annually for violations of Civil Rights and Wrongful Deaths.  Each President over the past 30 years has vowed to make the criminal justice system fair and free of racism; however, we continue to see our police looking more like a military force and less like citizens on patrol.  Therefore, a complete fundamental shift to bring about the change that is needed (CNN, 2020).

Can defunding the police actually work?

Our over-reliance on our law enforcement agencies is a problem.  Calling the police to unlock your car, or investigate a barking dog or loud music complaints are issues that we have to be able to work through via commonsense, or exercise a mild degree of tolerance in some instances.  We use our police all too often unnecessarily and having the police involved or overused can make matters worse.

In order to fix the issues in policing, there must be recognition that we tend to use the police in the wrong matter.  We as a community have to understand that the police cannot do everything effectively.  Issues such as dealing with mental health and property disputes are just two examples where other agencies could be more equipped to handle. Escalation can occur due to a lack of understanding the factors involved in dealing with a person with mental illness.  An officer showing up to deal with a mentally ill person could trigger anxiety for the person and cause an escalation to the situation just by being there.

The stress of police work plays a huge role in how the police patrol and respond to those around them.  They have to know and understand their department’s policy on the force continuum and we expect them to make life or death decisions at a consequential moment in time.  Their jobs can involve work that may be more social services than that of a criminal nature, which is not fair to them.

Defunding and reeling in the scope of what our police are responsible for may not be as morbid as it initially may sound.  Many police officers would agree that they are overworked and underpaid. Many officers have to work extra jobs to make ends meet.  Allowing the police the opportunity to concentrate and focus solely on protecting the public is more directly in line with our understanding of their work.  Taking away monies that are for other services that are loosely connected to police work and channeling monies to other entities of government is potentially worth exploring.  There are professionals in the field of social services who are better equipped to handle some of the unique situations that are social and not criminal in nature.  This shift could define a new wave of social change and use of funds and renewed focus for law enforcement agencies.

President Trump has urged that we need more police to “dominate the streets” in a show of force. The local, state, and Presidential results of the 2020 elections could set a new course for the criminal justice system and reform. The referendum that our law enforcement agencies may encounter in the coming years are critical to what their roles will be in municipalities such as Los Angeles and New York City.  Across the United States, there are serious considerations to defund the police and reallocate monies to other agencies (Villansanta, 2020).  This adds another layer to the uncertainly of what shape criminal justice reform may take in the near future.



Carson, A. (2020) United States. Bureau of Prisons. (NCJ 253526). United States Department of Justice: Prisoners in 2018. A review of the work of the Federal Bureau of Prisons during the year ending 2018.

Cable News Network, CNN (2020) How we can start systemically reforming the police. (2020). CNN Wire.

Quattlebaum, M. & Tyler, T. (2020). Beyond the Law: An Agenda for Policing Reform. Boston University Law Review, 100(3), 1017–1046.

Villansanta, A. (2020, June 9). New York, LA Start Reforms Despite 65% Opposing Police Defunding. International Business Times – US Ed.Gardner, T. G. (2020). Police Violence and the African American Procedural Habitus. Boston University Law Review, 100(3), 849–893.


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Dr. Travis L. Smith is an advocate for criminal justice reform, violence in the workplace, and prisoner re-entry programs to lower recidivism. The views of those expressed in this article are solely those of Dr. Smith and are in no way the views of Columbia Southern University. Dr. Travis L. Smith is the Undergraduate Lead Faculty of Criminal Justice at Columbia Southern University’s College of Safety and Emergency Services.

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