What Defunding the Police Really Looks Like Around the World

By David NaarLast Updated Jul 8, 2020 1:25:23 AM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Erik McGregor/Getty Images

We are living in tumultuous times. Petitions, protests and even riots are occurring on American soil in response to excessive force from police and systemic racism against Black Americans. Most of the country acknowledges the long overdue need for change, but we have far differing opinions about how we should achieve it.

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In the context of present-day events, many Americans are calling for the defunding of police and the demilitarization of all police forces — two complicated processes that most people don’t fully understand. As a result, it shouldn’t be surprising that many people are afraid of the potential consequences for our country. Let’s take a look at the real meaning and the outcome for cities right here in the U.S. that have tried it.

The Real Definition of Defunding the Police

If you take the phrase "defunding the police" literally, you probably immediately imagine a lawless, insane, chaotic world gone mad. Empty police precincts, abandoned cop cars and packs of ill-prepared neighborhood watch vigilantes complete the mental picture in a way that almost looks post-apocalyptic. This interpretation of police defunding is completely off base and the total opposite of what the protestors want.

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The extreme, frightening imagery doesn’t align with the real meaning of the phrase at all. Instead, the intention and movement behind it is to take funding from police departments that are currently armed with military-grade weapons that can be used to exert excessive force. The movement also wants the reformation of the entire law enforcement system to incorporate stronger checks and balances.

Additionally, the concept of defunding the police doesn’t mean the government keeps the extra money. It means some of the funds currently funding the police would be reallocated to fund medical personnel, social workers and mental health care professionals to work in conjunction with the police rather than asking the police to respond to calls involving people experiencing mental health crises.

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Some Facts Related to Defunding

It’s important to keep several key facts in mind related to defunding the police. First, support for this idea has surged since the death of George Floyd, but the movement has been around for decades. It’s not a new concept. Defunding is about allowing the police to do their actual jobs instead of trying to handle situations they aren’t trained to handle.

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Unfortunately, the term "defund police" isn’t used consistently in a way that means what the term actually means. In fact, not everyone using the term agrees on what defunding would look like or even what it means, and that makes it hard to convince people that the real definition has nothing to do with getting rid of the police.

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The U.S. spends almost twice as much on police, prisons and courthouses than it spends on income supplements, welfare, health care benefits and food stamps, yet those forms of low-income public assistance receive the most criticism from taxpayers. One goal of defunding is to create a system where less money is needed for law enforcement and punishment, so more funds could be used for mental health and social services.

Some American cities have tried different versions of defunding, including Austin, Texas; Camden, New Jersey; and Eugene, Oregon. The question is whether they are on track to spawn a new type of life-saving law enforcement in America.

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The Proven Results of Defunding

Some places around the world have drastically different models in place for their police departments than what we see in the U.S. American cities may be able to learn from these other locales as the dismantling and overhaul of the current system takes place.

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The Republic of Georgia, formerly a Soviet nation, has famously struggled with government corruption for quite some time. Bribery ran rampant through the police force, and that led to massive mistrust of the authorities. In 2004, a new government came to power that determined the police force was too corrupt to be saved, so the leaders abolished the force entirely, firing about 30,000 officers. This drastic action was followed by a three-year process of replacing those officers with a small force that was free of corruption and better trained. The example set by Georgia inspired the adapted version that is now in use in Camden, New Jersey.

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In Stockholm, Sweden, the government has been using ambulances and other medically trained responders instead of the police for calls involving mental health crises for several years. Mental health care workers are better trained and equipped to de-escalate situations with citizens who have mental health issues. Police officers simply do not have that kind of training. Sending in mental health care workers has made a huge difference in successfully handling volatile situations, and that could be extremely good news for American cities like Oakland, California, that are working to adopt a similar model.

In fact, Eugene, Oregon, has already adopted a similar program for working with law enforcement, and the city has seen dramatic changes in positive outcomes. The program there is called Cahoots (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Street). Cahoots is a nonprofit that has been around since 1989, but it recently gained more attention due to the police brutality events in 2020 and the public outcry for change.

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Cahoots handles non-criminal crises involving people who are disoriented, intoxicated, homeless or dealing with a mental illness episode or psychotic break. The organization is wired into the 911 system in Eugene and responds to most of their calls without the police getting involved. The group uses only $800,000 per year, plus vehicles, which accounts for only a fraction of the police department’s $58 million annual budget.

Potential Changes for the Better in the U.S.

If America as a whole adopted these positive models for "defunding the police" for non-criminal issues, the country would look very different in a short time. Today, police precincts are overwhelmed with calls related to mental health crises or other matters that police officers aren’t trained to handle. If defunding took place, those are the types of situations that officers would no longer be responsible for handling. Instead, that portion of funding could go to organizations, nonprofits and other groups who are trained to deal with those types of issues. The number of arrests would drop, and the number of unnecessary deaths would be lower. Officers would also be less overworked and less stressed, making it safer for everyone — officers included — on the streets.

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Programs in Dallas, Austin and other cities are already underway and are making a huge difference in those cities. Some recommended changes that could benefit us across the nation include repealing laws that criminalize minor behaviors and passing laws that legalize certain minor behaviors that don’t harm anyone. We could end the presence of police in schools, which can exacerbate racial inequalities, and ban traffic stops based on false pretenses and racial profiling. Police unions should not be allowed to protect officers from being tried for crimes they commit, and the methods that can be used to restrain suspects should be strict and clear.

If massive police budgets were spread across more groups that are equipped to deal with different societal problems, experts believe that decades of racially driven social control and oppression would be addressed at the root. On the other hand, if the funding isn’t changed and the laws supporting the brutality don’t change, those same experts believe that oppression, tension and terror on American soil will only increase.

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