What Does “Defund the Police” Actually Mean?

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“Defunding the police” means reallocating some portion of a police budget to community services such as housing, health, counseling, and education. These forms of community service have been proven to lower crime rates while also boosting public wellbeing. Unfortunately, the phrase “Defund the Police” has been subject to politicization and misinformation, and sometimes misconstrued with a call to abolish police departments. In actuality, most calls to “defund the police” simply seek a more efficient, less violent, and wholeheartedly compassionate use of taxpayer resources.

Criminal justice reform is urgently necessary in the United States. The Land of the Free incarcerates more people than any other nation. Since the 1980s, the US has spent more and more on law enforcement, with less and less equitable results: over 1,000 civilians are killed each year by America’s law enforcement officers; Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police in their lifetimes. Defunding the police is one step towards a more equitable and humane system of criminal justice.

Prioritizing Community Support

For too long, discussions on how to fight crime have hinged on a false equivalency: that more police equals less crime. But the social issues underpinning crime are layered and complex. Simply pumping cash into police departments isn’t as effective as a more measured, scientific approach. Taxpayers are rightly questioning whether the high budgets granted to police departments consist of money well spent.

Calls to defund the police entered the mainstream in May 2020, during protests centered around the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Popularized further by the Black Visions Collective, the phrase “Defund the Police” gained traction as an actionable and practical response to misconduct by law enforcement officers. But defunding the police isn’t meant as a punitive action: redistributed funds would be allocated to community support services in housing, health, counseling, and education.

Unfortunately, the calls to defund the police have been misconstrued, both intentionally and unintentionally, as meaning an abolishment of police departments. Such distortions play into public fears associated with that original false equivalence, that more police equals less crime.

But defunding the police isn’t meant to be an extreme option: moving even a small amount of a police department’s funding to non-violent community programs would be considered defunding the police, and it’s something that’s happened countless times already.

How Much Money Do Police Departments Get?

America’s police departments have plenty of resources and funding to be reallocated. The nation spends over $100 billion per year on policing, and another $80 billion a year on incarceration. In Los Angeles, the LAPD takes up over half of the city’s unrestricted general fund revenue, and 17 percent of the city’s $10.5 billion budget.

Those who support efforts to defund the police would like some of these police departments’ cash and resources redirected to jobs programs, health initiatives, and other support services that can reduce instances of crime and approach social issues in a prescriptive, rather than punitive, manner.

The Militarization of American Policing

Over-resourced police departments can also encourage, rather than reduce, instances of police violence, creating an us-versus-them mentality. Wisconsin’s law enforcement agencies have $28.7 million worth of landmine-resistant armored vehicles, some of which were used to quell protests against civil rights activists in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The West Virginian town of Moundsville, with a population of 8,486, has a tank-like armored vehicle called the 2019 Cougar MRAP; it, too, is touted as being resistant to landmines.

In both cases, the heavy equipment was provided by the federal government through the 1033 program, and, though coming at no cost to the individual police departments, represents a militarization of police departments and a questionable allocation of resources. When social media offers video evidence of law enforcement officers using their guns, clubs, and knees in an improper manner, the public is inclined to ask the benefit of giving those same officers access to military-grade technology.

It doesn’t have to be us versus them, though, and shouldn’t be. Effective criminal justice is everyone’s concern, as are safe policing and safe communities. The question, then, is what is the adequate response to the problems of crime and police misconduct? How do we dispense justice most effectively?

Steps Toward a Fairer System for All

Nine out of ten calls for police service are for nonviolent encounters. The skills of today’s police officers are not necessarily the most fitting for incidents stemming from addiction, poverty, and mental health. In some cases, responding officers, who are trained in dealing with force, can exacerbate non-violent situations to the point that they become violent ones. Defunding the police and distributing funds to community services would shift cities’ attention to the causes, rather than symptoms, of social problems. It would allow police officers to do what they’ve been trained to do, but also allow more community professionals to do the same.

In June of 2020, New York City passed a budget that called for $1 billion in cuts and cost shifts for the NYPD, amounting to one-sixth of the department’s operating budget. This act of defunding the NYPD was contentious and made headlines. Progressives believed the proposal didn’t go far enough, while conservatives believed it was the opposite of what was needed during climbing crime rates.

The issue, in the end, may have been moot: an independent analysis found that the actual cuts to the NYPD budget were much smaller than $1 billion, and spread out over several years.

San Francisco and Baltimore have also taken independent steps towards reallocating chunks of their police departments’ budgets. Other cities will follow suit, each adjusting the budget to tailor their own specific strengths and needs. It will take time to measure the effects, and time for the public to adjust, but the results will be a more effective use of resources.

A rich nation like America should be leading the world in criminal justice policies. It isn’t. Denmark, Sweden, and Finland all have lower funding levels for their police departments than the US; they also have significantly lower violent crime rates. Part of the reason for this disparity is that the Nordic countries also have strong social welfare systems and extremely low inequality levels. With solid social support services in place, Nordic police departments can focus almost exclusively on solving and preventing actual crimes.

While the fact that Americans allow private gun ownership means that the rate of violence will always be higher than a country that restricts private gun ownership, there’s still a lesson to be learned from our allies in Europe.

Police officers are highly trained tactical specialists; they shouldn’t need to be mental health counselors, addiction specialists, social workers, high school counselors, and community organizers, too. Defunding the police will allow police to be police, and give the public a more fitting suite of services to call upon for help.

It isn’t the only path to criminal justice reform, but, when properly understood and implemented, defunding the police can be a crucial step in the right direction.


Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about the increasing digitization of investigations, the growing importance of forensic science, and emerging areas of investigative practice like open source intelligence (OSINT) and blockchain forensics. His writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best, including leaders and subject matter specialists from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). As part of the Big Employers in Forensics series, Matt has conducted detailed interviews with forensic experts at the ATF, DEA, FBI, and NCIS.