Ask two people what “defund the police” means, and you may get two different answers: the growing movement has called for everything from modest cuts to policing budgets to the abolishment of police forces altogether.
The most popular explanation, however, appears to be: reallocate some policing costs toward mental health, addiction treatment and social services while reframing the role of the police themselves — particularly in Black and Indigenous communities.
But experts are worried the issue has been muddled among the general public.
“I think it definitely becomes a political football and it misses the point,” said John Powell, a civil rights expert and director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The point is — and I think we have a high consensus on this who believe it — that police are out of control and we need to actually do something to make the police more accountable and to make them really be concerned with public safety for all people, not just white people.”
Yet confusion over what advocates are pushing for has persisted, which experts say is allowing critics to dismiss the movement without confronting how it could help with police reform.
That confusion needs to be solved and turned into meaningful policy, they say, which can only happen through difficult conversations.
“The most important thing lawmakers can do is listen, and listen honestly, to what these groups’ concerns are,” said Irwin Cohen, as associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of the Fraser Valley.
“And then it’s incumbent on them to find solutions.”
Some Canadian politicians appear to have already made up their minds. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he doesn’t believe the move “would make Canadians safer,” arguing the focus should be on stamping out systemic racism from within police forces.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, when asked about defunding, said “I don’t believe in that for a second” and called for more training.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has expressed support for redistributing police resources while calling for a “mixed approach” with other reforms. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for his part, said Canada “need(s) to explore the range” of “many different paths.”
In the United States — where police defunding has been a key demand of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death — President Donald Trump and his supporters in the Republican Party and the media have seized on the minority of calls to abolish law enforcement, reframing the debate as a Democratic plot to “take away your police!”
Top Democrats like Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive opponent for the presidency in November, have since disavowed the defunding movement. Instead, Biden has said he wants to give police more money in order to “implement meaningful reforms,” with even more federal funding contingent on enacting those reforms.
Other Democrats have voiced support for the movement to shift resources from police to other areas, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who likens the approach to the way resources are allocated in affluent, mostly white suburbs.
Experts like Powell and Cohen point to years of admissions by police chiefs across the U.S. and Canada that law enforcement officers are being stretched thin by the growing demands of their jobs, from conducting wellness checks to serving as truant officers in schools, which they are not necessarily well trained for.
Advocates say redirecting those resources elsewhere would not only ensure such situations are managed more thoroughly and safely, but may also help restore trust in police if they’re only being called in for high-risk, “appropriate” situations.
“Police have a role to play, but they shouldn’t be leading these initiatives, they shouldn’t be the sole organization responsible for addressing these concerns,” said Cohen, clarifying what much of the defunding police advocates stand for.
“Certainly, there are people who are taking advantage of the fact that not everyone knows this or understands this. But in time, I think more people will understand, and we can look at where the money is really going.”
At the moment, however, public opinion appears to have largely turned against the defunding movement, at least in the U.S.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released June 11 found just 39 per cent of Americans surveyed supported the phrase “defund the police,” with 56 per cent against.
A similar Ipsos poll conducted for ABC News, released just a day after Reuters’, found the disparity was even starker: 64 per cent were against defunding, while 34 per cent supported the idea.
Yet those same polls also found that, on average, 76 per cent of respondents support the aims that many say defunding actually calls for: redistributing some police funding to mental health, homelessness and community services, as well as better training for officers.
Democrats who have supported those aims appear to be frustrated that they’ve been tied to a phrase that confuses the issue. Rep. Karen Bass, one of the authors of the party’s police reform legislation package, told the Washington Post that “defund the police” is “probably one of the worst slogans ever.”
But Cohen says it’s not protesters’ job to come up with the right slogan.
“Their job is to shine a light on concerns that we probably knew about, or maybe didn’t necessarily see, and point us to where action is required. And they’ve done that,” he said.
Cohen also pushed back against British Columbia Premier John Horgan, who said last week that defunding the police is “a simplistic approach to a complex problem” while also appearing to support its redistribution aims.
“It requires a rethinking, a repositioning of the police and what their core responsibilities are,” Cohen said.
“But we also have to determine what role police can continue to play in areas where we need to put other people in the driver’s seat, and I don’t think that’s a simple proposition at all. People will have different ideas of what that means, and it requires a lot of hard discussions.”
Powell said those discussions need to happen sooner rather than later in order to enact change quickly for racialized communities, and is cautiously optimistic that public opinion will turn toward what the defunding movement is largely calling for.
“When people say, ‘yeah, you know, segregation is wrong, killing a Black kid is wrong, but we have to go slowly’ — well, you had your chance to go slowly,” he said. “We need to do something, and we need to do it immediately.
“It’s complicated. And unfortunately, you know, people like these three-word phrases. But three words just isn’t going to cut it this time.”