June 7, 2020; CNN, Washington Post, New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Guardian
Last December in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, the city budget—passed by what is widely seen as one of the most “progressive” councils in city history—raised police funding by $10 million to $193 million. That’s six times what was allocated for affordable housing ($31 million). It is over 400 times what was budgeted for the Office of Crime Prevention ($400,000) and over 800 times was budgeted for “community organizations working with at-risk youth ($250,000).
Minneapolis has not been alone in prioritizing police spending, either. In Los Angeles, the police receive $1.8 billion—that’s more than half the city’s general fund. In New York City, the police receive $6 billion. Nationwide, police budgets total $115 billion.
Something seems very wrong with this picture. As is commonly the case, the US underinvests in the critical social services that would prevent criminal activity while overinvesting in “after-the-fact” policing solutions, resulting in higher crime rates in the US, even as the US far outspends others on policing and public safety.
Now, that may be changing. Yesterday, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council announced their intent to dismantle the city’s police department. This amounts to a veto-proof majority of the 13-member Council.
This declaration follows through on statements Council members made last week. Jeremiah Ellison tweeted, “We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department” and “dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response,” while City Council President Lisa Bender said at a press conference, “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period.”
Our commitment is to do what’s necessary to keep every single member of our community safe and to tell the truth: that the Minneapolis police are not doing that. Our commitment is to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.
Will Minneapolis—and perhaps other US cities—break the US pattern of supporting the police at the expense of other city services? It won’t be easy. The 13-member council in Minneapolis includes, as a recent New York Times article noted, 12 Democrats and a member of the Green Party and has “two transgender members, both of whom are Black.” Still, even as some city councils implemented reforms—Minneapolis was a leader in doing so—police budgets have been sacrosanct.
As Sam Levin wrote earlier this week in the Guardian, “The COVID-19 economic crisis has led cities and states to make drastic budget cuts to education, youth programs, arts and culture, parks, libraries, housing services, and more. But police budgets have grown or gone largely untouched—until pressure from protests this week.”
Farah Stockman and John Eligon elaborate in the New York Times: “Redirecting funding is one of the few levers that elected officials have over the police, who are frequently shielded by powerful unions and labor arbitrators who reinstate officers fired for misconduct.”
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Steve Fletcher, a City Council member in Minneapolis says, “We have an opportunity to reimagine what the future of public safety looks like.” Alondra Cano, who heads Minneapolis city council’s public safety committee, lifts up the mutual protection neighborhood groups formed in the midst of the protests. Cano suggests these could become nodes of a more civilian-oriented public safety system. “There’s a moment of deep commitment that I’ve never seen before, and that gives me latitude as an elected official to start experimenting with other systems,” she says.
Specifics remain to be laid out. In the Guardian, Levin identifies what may be in store:
Supporters are pushing for the council to start with taking money away from the police budget and investing in other government departments, social services, and programs, while launching a community process for creating alternative systems.
An alternative safety model, advocates say, can start with finding “non-police solutions to the problems poor people face,” such as counselors responding to mental health calls and addiction experts responding to drug abuse.
Needless to say, advocates’ victory is far from complete. The proof will be in the actual plan and implementation—and much could go awry in between.
Already, in other cities, we have seen calls to “defund police” to be less significant in reality than in rhetoric. For example, in New York, Daniel Dromm, city finance committee chair, tells Stockman and Eligon the right things, recognizing that “the culture in the New York City Police Department has not changed. The white shirts, the commanding officers, they kind of get it and talk the talk, but the average beat cop doesn’t believe in it and we’ve seen this over and over again.”
And yet, Katherine Wells notes in the Atlantic, the proposed police budget there would cut a modest 0.39 percent. By contrast, she notes, “the Department of Youth and Community Development, which funds after-school programs, literacy services, and summer youth-work programs, is losing 32 percent of its budget.” Indeed, the proposed 2020–2021 New York City budget for youth and community development ($598 million) is less than budgeted police overtime payments ($700 million).
In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to cut $150 million from the police budget. That sounds impressive. Still, back in 2015, the city adopted a $1.44 billion budget for police, so if $150 million is cut, the $1.707 billion the department would receive would still be 21.9 percent above the amount budgeted just five years ago. By contrast, a coalition of 18 Los Angeles community groups, after surveying thousands of residents, has put together a People’s Budget that proposes far greater cuts.
Nonetheless, the Minneapolis pledge does provide some reason for optimism. In Kingfield, a south Minneapolis community not far from where George Floyd died, neighborhood association president Chris DesRoches observes, “The killing of George Floyd has opened the eyes of people to the worst-case scenario of police.” DesRoches hopes Floyd’s murder makes it possible “for white people to start hearing what communities of color and community leaders have been saying all along, which is that the police are an organization which has been actively harmful to our communities.”—Steve Dubb