The death of George Floyd is not the first police killing of an unarmed Black man that has sparked widespread outrage over police brutality and systemic racism. Protests following the deaths of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and many more laid the foundation for the current uprising. However, many activists and movement leaders contend that this time, it’s different. Almost immediately after Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis, protests spread rapidly across the globe, from Beirut to St. Louis and Melbourne to Nairobi. The global movement has become a major flash point in the 2020 presidential race, with President Trump attempting to win over white suburban voters with law-and-order rhetoric while Democratic nominee Joe Biden condemns looting, but joins protesters in calls for police reform.
Some Americans had never encountered the slogan “defund the police” before this mass movement took root over the summer. However, calls for divesting money from or abolishing policing as we know it have grown prevalent in recent months. The Trump campaign has run ads framing Biden as a supporter of defunding the police, while Biden has repeatedly expressed contrary claims. Despite its increasing ubiquity, there is significant disagreement and misinformation around what this slogan actually means. For example, when asked in an interview by progressive activist Ady Barkan whether he supports re-allocating some funds away from policing to mental health, social services, and affordable housing, Biden agreed – despite claiming he does not support defunding the police.
“What it means to some people is to radically reduce the city budget for policing and transfer those funds to other agencies in the city, or to efforts to invest in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city,” said Richard Rosenfeld, Founders Professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “For others, defund the police doesn’t mean any radical reduction in police budget. It simply means to rethink what we expect of the police, and what other agencies might do to assist the police or even take over some of the functions traditionally assigned to the police. And that can lead to some reduction in the budget for policing.”
Jae Shepherd, Abolition Organizer for Action St. Louis, also had an answer for what it means to defund police: “Defunding the police is the process of reallocating funds and responsibilities from police departments to community-based systems of safety, prevention and de-escalation.”
Before understanding what defunding the police could look like in St. Louis, we need to examine the current situation. However, it’s important to note before going into budget numbers on policing that transparent data on exactly how police budgets are spent is hard to find. Shepherd pointed out, “We recently had a petition going around to get the line item budget of the police because it’s not released anywhere, and even some city officials like the alders don’t have their hands on it. So we don’t know exactly what our tax dollars are going to when it comes to funding the police.”
With that in mind, the total fiscal year 2021 budget for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is $204 million, excluding grants but including pension and retirement costs. Additionally, the department receives about $11 million in miscellaneous grants. That’s the same police department that Shepherd explained “kills more people per capita than any other police department in the country.” According to the Mapping Police Violence project, using data from 2013 to 2019, the department’s average annual police homicide rate was 17.9. That’s significantly higher than every other police department in the country. Black people were killed at 10.3 times the rate of white people in St. Louis.
Public Safety accounts for 55% of the total general fund budget, while the Health and Human Services department receives 0.5%. 33% of the general fund is allocated towards the Police Department.
According to St. Louis County’s Open Budget database, policing receives a revised budget of $147.71 million for FY2020. In addition, the St. Louis County Police Department receives about $4 million in grants each year, as explained by St. Louis County Budget Director Paul Kreidler. Broken down by service, almost 36% of total appropriations is allocated towards Public Safety, while 20% of appropriations go towards the Health and Well-Being service.
Many lawmakers and activists have supported the case for decreasing police funding by pointing out the budget breakdown of majority-white suburbs. For example, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York explained in a June interview on Good Morning America that suburban affluent communities are essentially already models of defunding police because they prioritize health and education over policing. For example, Clayton spends 44% of its general fund expenditures on Public Safety, while Public Safety accounts for 11 percentage points more of the City of St. Louis’ general fund budget.
However, some say that defunding the police would require radical change beyond anything America has seen before, and the role of policing in communities will need to be fundamentally re-examined or abolished. Rosenfeld, one the one hand, asserted that the core function of police is to prevent violent crime, and that re-assigning some of the other functions police currently perform would allow them to focus on preventing and solving serious crime. However, John Chasnoff, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, explained that police have always served another role in Black communities. According to Chasnoff, the “even more fundamental mission of the police department has always been to serve as a repressive arm of the status quo,” and that’s why a radical shift in how we think about public safety is necessary.
Chasnoff pointed to academic and political activist Angela Davis’ book “Are Prisons Obsolete?”, in which Davis advocates for the abolition of the carceral system.
“She says in that book that we can’t quite imagine what it would be like to have a world without prisons. But, we can imagine the steps we need to take to get to a place where we can imagine a world without prisons,” said Chasnoff.
Rosenfeld agreed that the first step to police reform is to step back and examine both police funding and the role policing plays in society: “I don’t think we know yet – I don’t, and I’m not certain most people do, including most policymakers – exactly which of the functions of the police can be safely reallocated elsewhere. And that’s the discussion that needs to be held. […] The police and other city leaders need to listen to the protesters. And the task of the policymaker is to translate protest ideals – something on the order of defund the police, let’s say – into practical policy.”
There are several areas of policing that some experts, policymakers and activists say are examples of unnecessary overfunding and excessive burdens placed on police that worsen situations and allow racial discrimination to go unchecked. For example, Rosenfeld pointed to large crowd events, such as concerts and sporting events. “It’s certainly worth considering, as the number of fires has plummeted over time, why firefighters cannot be used to either assist the police or take over some of that patrolling of big crowd events,” he said. “I think for many kinds of traffic control one can make the same argument – it’s not clear why you need uniformed police officers with firearms to engage in routine traffic control.”
Rosenfeld also explained that there is still more research that needs to go into examining the viability and safety of reallocating police funding. Homelessness is an example. “What we need to know is what fraction of all the calls that the police get about homelessness problems carry a high risk of violence, and what fraction do not. I don’t think we know that right now. But assuming that certainly not all carry high risk of violence – and I would argue probably fewer than half, certainly – then it makes sense to have other agencies respond with the police, perhaps available as backup.” What we do know about the homelessness situation is that compared to the 33% of the general fund budget that is spent on the Police Department, “zero percent of that fund goes to homelessness,” as Shepherd explained.
Shepherd also pointed out other ways that police departments could be defunded: “Really, they’re only trained to use force and violence in any and all situations, so instead of having them respond to traffic accidents, having some sort of unarmed traffic monitor. Instead of having them respond to mental health crises, have some sort of mental health professionals. Instead of having police in our schools, have counselors in our schools. Instead of having police respond to drug overdose, having some sort of street nurses and recovery outreach programs.” Violence prevention and anti-poverty programs that address the root cause of crime, Shepherd explained, would be more effective than the current arrest-and-incarcerate model.
Robert Motley, a PhD candidate at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, also pointed out how the training for police emphasizes a quick resort to violence as opposed to safe diffusion of a tense situation. “We see that you’re only really making less than five percent of arrests for violent crimes. They spent over 80 percent of their training on shooting. So they’re being trained for those violent crimes, not for someone who [is having a mental health crisis]”
There are also larger structural issues with policing that must be resolved, said Chasnoff. One example is the War on Drugs. In Missouri, Black people are 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Chasnoff referenced a statistic from a 2013 report released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, which found an 18-1 disparity in marijuana arrests of Black and white people in St. Louis City.
Advocates agree that defunding the police will come with a reinvestment in communities and areas like education, affordable housing, and social services. Tishaura Jones, Treasurer of the City of St. Louis, explained that these are areas that have long been systematically overlooked in policymaking. “We’ve been defunding education for years and no one is screaming about that. We’ve been defunding healthcare for years and no one’s screaming about that, but all of a sudden, police seem to be untouchable,” she said. Building strong community organizations is also essential, according to Romona Taylor Williams, longtime activist and former Executive Director of the Metro St. Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equity. “St. Louis is not investing in its people,” Williams explained. She said, “I believe in not only identifying the problems and talking about the problems, but we have to also come up with innovations and innovative solutions in order to resolve the problems. And a lot of that starts at the grassroots level. You know, one thing that is void in St. Louis is strong community based organizations.” Money needs to be divested from sources like the St. Louis penitentiary known as the Workhouse, Williams said, and invested into long-neglected and disadvantaged communities such as North St. Louis.
If you believe Black lives matter, you should be saying defund the police”
— Jae Shepherd
The process to defund the police will not be an easy one, Chasnoff explained, because no end result is in sight yet. However, many movement leaders are hopeful as the concept continues to gain traction and awareness increases. Shepherd said, “In 2014, it was radical to say Black lives matter, but now it’s like, super radical to say defund the police […] If you believe Black lives matter, you should be saying defund the police.” Jones also expressed hope for future progress under new leadership: “Do I think that it’ll happen under the current leadership? No. Do I think that if we had more bold leadership that would challenge that and possibly defund or reallocate funds […] Yes, under different leadership I think we would.”
While several academics and policymakers see reasoning behind the idea of defunding the police, there are several others who disagree with the idea– bringing up the necessity for police and the ‘impracticality’ of police defunding within the nation. Even top Democrats including Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip James Clyburn have steered away from supporting the cause. “I think people are afraid of the phrase ‘defund the police,’ and not realizing that we’re talking about expanding public safety to include all of the things that make people safe in their homes and their neighborhoods,” said Jones.
St. Louis County Police Officer Shanette Hall agrees that oftentimes the idea of defunding the police is misunderstood. Hall is a board member of the Ethical Society of Police, an organization founded by African-American police officers in 1972 to address and expose problems of racial discrimination within the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. “I think we have to understand what people are asking for when they say defund the police. And oftentimes, we will have pro-police people or even police departments who take that as, you just want to take away all of of our money, or you want to cut our jobs, or you want to cut our salaries,” she said. However, Hall explained that defunding the police is about addressing root problems and systemic issues with policing. “Sometimes we are requiring police officers to do more than what they are trained to do. And the people are being affected by that because you have police officers responding to things that they’re not adequately able to or able to effectively do. And so this is where I wholeheartedly support the reallocation of funds. I think if we want to leave the same amount of funding in police departments then we need to expand the type of people who work within police departments […] police departments should hire social workers, police department should hire a liaison, let’s say, for the unhoused.”
On the other hand, a big problem that Tim Fitch, former St Louis County Police Chief and Councilman of St Louis County District 3, sees is that defunding the police would take away something that police officers need the most: crisis situation training.
“The first thing that go when there is a budget crunch is training and travel. So if you take away the training that you just demanded, like additional crisis intervention training, or de escalation training, or any of those things, how now are you going to deal with the public wants to know, additional training?”
Fitch also argued that defunding of police is not needed because police officers are trained to deal with crisis situations, especially within such a big police department like St Louis County’s. “They’re already doing social work. They’re already doing crisis intervention, trained and to do that. To take money away from the county police, and give it to some other group to do the same thing [police officers are] already doing doesn’t make sense to me,” Fitch also questions what would happen if social workers did replace police officers, and went into dangerous situations alone. “You can have a house where somebody wants to report that their sick brother is not on his medicine. And what happens when that social worker gets there and [the brother] hurts the social worker”?
Fitch believes that the real problem is the defunding of mental health services in St Louis. He explained that there used to be a lot more support from the state for mental health services, but those eventually got removed due to tax increases. “I used to have a place when I was a young police officer when I found a person that was drunk. We used to have a place we could take them [to] detox. None of those [places] exists in St. Louis region anymore.”
Another problem that that several opposants bring up is that police defunding simply won’t work– the example most used being the defunding of police in Camden, New Jersey.
In 2012, Camden disbanded its police force. Hundreds of officers were fired from their jobs and made to reapply following new training and psychological evaluations. From first glance, the program looks like a success (crime having decreased 42%), but community members have consistently argued that they feel unsafe within their own neighborhoods.
Motley argues that this is due to how Camden disbanded their police department. “[The disbanding] was really a cost saving measure. Instead of paying police officers 90,000 a year, we can pay them 40,000 so now [they] can get two police officers instead of one. So now you have more police officers but it just exacerbated the [previous] problem.”
Defunding the police has never officially been done before. However, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer means that both large-scale social change and policy change concerning the issue of police funding may be imminent.