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What It Means To ‘Defund The Police’

Protesters gather outside the Monroe County Courthouse at the June 5 "Enough is Enough" Protest.

Protesters gather outside the Monroe County Courthouse at the "Enough is Enough" protest on June 5. (Photo: Payton Knobeloch) (Payton Knobeloch)

Since the end of May, demonstrators have taken to the streets around the world demanding a number of changes to policing policies and strategies, chief among them an end to the pattern of brutality against Black people.

Amid calls for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others, one demand has broken into the mainstream: “Defund the police.” But what does it mean?

Put simply, when protesters are calling to defund police, they say they are demanding that police funding be redistributed toward social services and programs addressing the root need for policing in the first place.

“In recent contexts, I’ve heard the suggestion to reallocate funds to mental health services and community redevelopment,” says Dr. Jeannine Bell, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law who specializes in policing. “It doesn’t mean that there will be no funding for the police. Rather, police, in the defund condition, will only be involved in the investigation of serious crimes, like murders.”

Jessy Tan, an organizer and moderator of the Monroe County Area Mutual Aid group on Facebook, says these incidents don’t align with officers’ training.

“The police are dispatched for all sorts of things [they] don’t know how to deal with interpersonally, like running off unhoused people, domestic disputes, mental health issues,” Tan says. “The root of these problems are social issues much better solved by professionals in those categories who have the training and expertise to deal with them.”

Others see defunding police as a clear response to the long list of incidents of police brutality toward Black people and other people of color. 

A key response to that systemic brutality, proponents of the "Defund" movement say, is to re-invest those resources into communities often targeted by police.

"Our goal is to allocate funds directly to Black and/or minority-based organizations working on community development," says Selena Drake, one of the organizers behind June 5's "Enough is Enough" rally in Bloomington. "The allocation of funds can be directed to education, healthcare and programs to train individuals within our community to use these skills for our neighbors, friends and family."

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, an IU History and Gender Studies professor and member of Bloomington’s Black Lives Matter Core Council, told Noon Edition last week that problems with racist policing go far beyond the defense that a few “bad apples” are to blame.

“If you look at what happened in Minnesota, several of the officers on the scene were not white,” Chakrabarti Myers said. “This is an institutional problem, a structural problem. Policing is, at its core, a structurally racist institution.”

Alex S. Vitale, author of 2017’s “The End of Policing,” tells NPR, “Part of our misunderstanding about the nature of policing is we keep imagining that we can turn police into social workers. That we can make them nice, friendly community outreach workers. 

“But police are violence workers. That's what distinguishes them from all other government functions. ... They have the legal capacity to use violence in situations where the average citizen would be arrested,” he says.

Abby Ang, founder of No Space for Hate Bloomington and co-organizer of the “Enough is Enough” rally, says redirecting money toward initiatives addressing mental health, homelessness and domestic violence is just a starting point.

“I think there is a need to bolster services so that the cops don’t answer for mental health calls or homelessness, where they may not be equipped or trained to handle [them],” Ang says.

Ang noted that, as an organization, No Space for Hate Bloomington does not have an official stance on defunding police or police abolition.

In a press release last week, Bloomington Police Chief Michael Diekhoff wrote that BPD has already taken steps to address the root causes of issues typically handled by police. In 2014, BPD developed the Downtown Resource Officer unit to work with people experiencing homelessness. And since 2019, the department has employed a full-time Police Social Worker to assist the DRO unit.

“This is being done in an effort to address the root causes of police involvement with this population and try to break that cycle,” Diekhoff wrote.

And in 2019, two Neighborhood Resource Specialists were added to the department as “non-sworn” staff with the goal of conducting welfare checks and resolving issues in neighborhoods.

Protesters at June 5's "Enough is Enough" demonstration walk down Walnut St in Bloomington.
Protesters march down Walnut Street in downtown Bloomington on June 5. (Photo: Payton Knobeloch)

It’s worth noting that calls to defund police are not the same as calls to abolish police departments entirely, although there is some overlap.

Many have called for abolition as an extension of the “defund” argument, redirecting funding toward social services until, ultimately, police are rendered unnecessary. But abolition advocates like Tan say it’s crucial not to remove one police department and replace it with a police force by any other name.

“If they just gave social workers guns and told them they had qualified immunity, that’s just the police again,” Tan says.

While the arguments to defund police have gained traction on social media, the movement still faces a number of challenges. 

An ABC News/Ipsos poll published Friday found that 64 percent of U.S. adults oppose redirecting police funds toward community programs. And police departments and unions have historically opposed budget cuts of any kind.

But advocates for defunding police argue these reforms are long overdue.

“It’s time to simply stop talking about these problems, because we know what they are, and it’s time to start moving toward structural solutions,” Charkrabarti Myers told Noon Edition.

When asked Friday if there was an opportunity for the city to reevaluate its police funding, Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton told WFIU News that “all ideas are on the table,” but did not lay out definitive next steps.

“These are of course powerful times to re-examine our public safety efforts,” Hamilton says. “We are looking at all the activities as well as budget priorities, in addition to the pressures from the economic slowdown, we are looking at how we can be most effective in protecting public safety.”

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