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What ‘Abolish’ and ‘Defund’ the Police Really Mean

By Jessica S. Henry, associate professor of Justice Studies

Posted in: Faculty Voices, Humanities and Social Sciences

Jessica Henry teaching a justice studies class in 2019.

By Jessica S. Henry, associate professor of Justice Studies

Calls to “abolish” or “defund” the police are echoing throughout the country. But what those phrases actually mean depends on who you ask.

As a former public defender with an expertise in criminal justice reform, I’m asked about this a lot, so I’ve developed a primer on four broad approaches to this highly complex issue.

  1. Defunding the Police Means Reforming the Way We Police in America

In its most modest iteration, “abolish the police” doesn’t really mean abolish, and “defund the police” doesn’t really mean defund.

Instead, these phrases are rallying cries designed to provoke immediate and sweeping police reforms and to provide protections for Black and brown people against police violence.

Under this view, the call to abolish or defund the police is a provocative way to demand serious change to law enforcement. Those who embrace this position believe that the system of policing is badly broken, but it can still be revamped and repaired.

    1. Defunding the Police Means Reallocating Funding to Other Service Providers

Defunding the police means redirecting funds traditionally allocated for police to social service agencies. It would involve scaling back the size and scope of police responsibilities and investing in social services that help people. Advocates of this approach argue this makes the most sense since 9 out of 10 police calls are for nonviolent events.

Shifting money to programs that address addiction, mental illness, homelessness and employment training may reduce crime and improve public safety in the long run. An additional reform under this model could include the decriminalization of many behaviors, including drug crimes, which can then be addressed outside the criminal justice system and in treatment and harm-reduction programs.

  1. Defunding the Police Means Restarting from the Ground Up

Some proponents of defunding the police are skeptical that existing police departments can ever be reformed. They call for demolishing what is currently in place and starting from scratch.

New Jersey is no stranger to scrapping a system that isn’t working and starting over. In Camden, the entire city’s police force was fired and the county took over with new guidance and a new culture shaped by community activists. Crime in Camden is down and so is police violence.

It appears that Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd died after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, may be embracing the idea of dismantling their local force. In its place, the Minneapolis City Council is proposing the creation of a new “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.” The scope and authority of such a department has yet to be defined.

  1. Abolish Means What It Says: End Policing

Then, there are abolitionists who say abolition, in fact, means just that – an end or elimination of the institution of policing, once and for all.  This is not equivocal.

The push for police abolition is not new. It first gained momentum in the 1980s and 1990s when a group of academics and activists called for the abolition of what they called the “prison industrial complex.” Policing was included within that abolition vision.

Abolitionists may envision “community care workers” rather than police, and restorative justice models to respond to crime in ways that do not involve locking people into dehumanizing prison cells.

In this model, policing would be replaced by fundamental societal change that would render the police largely unnecessary. Many of today’s “policing” tasks, abolitionists argue, could be better accomplished by trained professionals who could respond to prevent violence and then respond where necessary. And with dollars no longer going toward the police, more money could go toward health care, housing, education, employment – all of which would reduce the need for police in the first place.

The devil, of course, is in the details. And abolitionists themselves admit that their goal is years in the making. In the meantime, some abolitionists call for steps that would advance their goals, such as disbanding police unions and overturning the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which makes it difficult to investigate police for misconduct, downsize and defund the police, and reallocate resources to social service agencies and violence prevention programs. Some, or all of these measures, might also be part of a defunding platform.

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Despite the differences in approaches, one consistent thread runs throughout: Advocates want change now.

That change must end policing practices that result in injury and death to people of color. It must include plans to stop over-policing, over-arresting and over-incarcerating people who live in poor communities. It must reconsider the heavy reliance on police to solve a whole host of social, emotional and health problems that could better be addressed elsewhere.

Ultimately, changes – in whatever form – must promote public safety while embracing the truth that Black lives matter.

Associate Professor Jessica S. Henry is a former public defender whose expertise is in criminal law and procedure, criminal justice policy, criminal justice reform and wrongful convictions. Her new book, Smoke but No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened is available August 4.