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What does it mean when protesters call to defund the police?

Demonstrators walk during a Black Lives Matter of Seattle-King County silent march on June 12, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. The statewide march and general strike was held to honor and mourn the lives lost to police brutality and institutional racism. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Protesters are pushing to “defund the police” over the death of George Floyd and other black Americans killed by law enforcement. Their chant has become a rallying cry, but what does “defund the police” mean?

It’s not necessarily about gutting police department budgets. Still, some activists and lawmakers have also raised the possibility of completely disbanding police departments, clouding the more complicated message.

What is the ‘Defund the Police’ Movement?

Supporters say it isn’t about eliminating police departments or stripping agencies of all of their money. They say it is time for the country to address systemic problems in policing in America and spend more on what communities across the United States need, like housing and education.

State and local governments spent $115 billion on policing in 2017, according to data compiled by the Urban Institute.

“Why can’t we look at how it is that we reorganize our priorities, so people don’t have to be in the streets during a national pandemic?” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza asked during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Activists acknowledge this is a gradual process.

The group MPD150, which says it is “working towards a police-free Minneapolis,” argues that such action would be more about “strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility away from police and toward community-based models of safety, support, and prevention.”

“The people who respond to crises in our community should be the people who are best-equipped to deal with those crises,” the group wrote on its website.

What are Seattle lawmakers saying?

Locally, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County expressed a demand for $100 million dollars of the Seattle Police budget normally used for militarized weapons and equipment to be invested in de-escalation, mental health and crisis intervention teams, community oversight in police contract bargaining, an end to homeless camp sweeps, and creation and full staffing of a black commission to address these and other issues.

On Sunday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan committed to investing at least $100 million in community-based programs that invest in black youth and adults, including employment programs, black-owned businesses, and programs that provide alternative to arrest or incarceration.

Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda called for an inquest into the police department’s budget Monday, and to eventually use half of that money to invest back into other community programs.

Seattle councilmembers join calls to defund police department

As protests continue nationwide, Sen. Cory Booker said he understands the sentiment behind the “Defund the Police” slogan, but it’s not a slogan he will use.

The New Jersey Democrat told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he shares a feeling with many protesters that Americans are “over-policed” and that “we are investing in police, which is not solving problems, but making them worse when we should be, in a more compassionate country, in a more loving country.”

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said part of the movement is really about how money is spent.

“Now, I don’t believe that you should disband police departments,” she said in an interview with CNN. “But I do think that, in cities, in states, we need to look at how we are spending the resources and invest more in our communities.”

“Maybe this is an opportunity to re-envision public safety,” she said.

President Donald Trump and his campaign view the emergence of the “Defund the Police” slogan as a spark of opportunity during what has been a trying political moment. Trump’s response to the protests has sparked widespread condemnation. But now his supporters say the new mantra may make voters, who may be otherwise sympathetic to the protesters, recoil from a “radical” idea.

Trump ramped up his rhetoric on the issue on Monday, tweeting: “LAW & ORDER, NOT DEFUND AND ABOLISH THE POLICE. The Radical Left Democrats have gone Crazy!”

Trump’s 2016 campaign was built on a promise of ensuring law and order — often in contrast to protests against his rhetoric that followed him across the country. As he seeks reelection, Trump is preparing to deploy the same argument again — and seems to believe the “defund the police” call has made the campaign applause line all the more real for his supporters.

Is there any push to actually defund police departments?

Yes, or at least to reduce their budgets in some major cities.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday that the city would move funding from the NYPD to youth initiatives and social services, while keeping the city safe, but he didn’t give details.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to cut as much as $150 million that was part of a planned increase in the police department’s budget.

A Minneapolis city councilmember said in a tweet on Thursday that the city would “dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response.”

“We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department,” Jeremiah Ellison wrote. “And when we’re done, we’re not simply gonna glue it back together.”

He did not explain what would replace the police department.

A veto-proof majority of the members of the Minneapolis City Council said Sunday they support disbanding the city’s police department. Nine of the council’s 12 members appeared with activists at a rally in a city park Sunday afternoon and vowed to end policing as the city currently knows it.

“It is clear that our system of policing is not keeping our communities safe,” said Lisa Bender, the council president. “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period.”

Disbanding an entire department has happened before. In 2012, with crime rampant in Camden, New Jersey, the city disbanded its police department and replaced it with a new force that covered Camden County. Compton, California, took the same step in 2000, shifting its policing to Los Angeles County.

How have police officials and unions responded?

Generally, police and union officials have long resisted cuts to police budgets, arguing that it would make cities less safe.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union for the city’s rank-and-file officers, said budget cuts would be the “quickest way to make our neighborhoods more dangerous.”

“Cutting the LAPD budget means longer responses to 911 emergency calls, officers calling for back-up won’t get it, and rape, murder, and assault investigations won’t occur or will take forever to initiate, let alone complete,” the union’s board said in a statement last week.

“At this time, with violent crime increasing, a global pandemic and nearly a week’s worth of violence, arson, and looting, ‘defunding’ the LAPD is the most irresponsible thing anyone can propose.”

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Associated Press writers Zeke Miller in Washington and Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed to this report.

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