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For racial justice advocates, ‘Defund Police’ remains central rallying cry

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

Defund the Police
People protest in Brooklyn, New York on June 7, 2020. Photo Credit: Fiora Watts.

When a mob of pro-Trump insurgents carrying Confederate flags and neo-Nazi insignia violently stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, video footage of a Capitol police officer taking a selfie with a rioter went viral. As the day wore on, many were quick to contrast the underwhelming response by law enforcement toward predominantly white terrorists, with the tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and violence mostly Black and brown activists were met with last summer while peacefully protesting police brutality following George Floyd’s murder.

For racial justice advocates, the treatment by law enforcement was predictable. Multiple studies have demonstrated Black Americans’ distrust of police--distrust rooted in Southern “slave patrols” and a long history of discriminatory policing.

According to Mapping Police Violence, Black people are 3 times more likely than white people to be killed by police and 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed when killings occur. In 98.3% of killings, police officers are not charged with a crime.

The police violence experienced by Black Americans, coupled with the lack of accountability when such violence occurs, have increased calls by Black Lives Matter activists in recent years to defund police.

The idea: if police aren’t making communities safer, then why not shrink their budgets and reallocate funding toward things that do?

Advocates argue incremental reforms, like restrictive use of force policies, don’t go far enough and should take a backseat to the more transformative solution of slashing law enforcement budgets, to free up funding for quality healthcare, housing and other programs that centuries of racist policymaking have denied Black people and communities adequate access to.

Denver STAR Program
Denver’s Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) program sends a medic and mental health clinician to respond to emergency calls. Photo Credit: Mental Health Center of Denver

Some cities are putting this theory to the test. Denver’s Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) pilot program, which launched last June, allowed a medic and mental health clinician to take emergency calls traditionally answered by police officers and firefighters. In the first six months of the program, the STAR team responded to 748 emergency calls, none of which led to arrests. Austin is diverting money from its police budget to fund supportive housing. Seattle is using participatory budgeting to give residents a say in where to redirect funding cut from its police budget.

Almost a year after last summer’s protests for racial justice, advocates remain committed to building public and political will for reimagining community investment and rethinking the power and scope of policing.

Written by Aditi Ramaswami. Follow her on Twitter @aditiramaswami.

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