As tens of thousands of Americans have descended into streets for nearly two weeks to protest police violence, they have articulated a clear demand among the calls for justice and accountability: defund the police.
In a matter of days, the demand some groups had been raising for years — that officials reallocate resources from police terrorizing communities to invest in initiatives and social services that keep those communities safe — became a rallying cry that pushed city councils to reevaluate their budget proposals and forced some mayors who had at first disdained the idea to give in. For the most part, campaigns to defund police have been aimed at local governments, which control police departments and their budgets — some $100 billion annually nationwide.
But on Wednesday, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, in a striking rejection of the growing movement demanding better use of public dollars, reminded Americans that there is also plenty of money for police coming from the federal government when he called for an additional $300 million in federal incentives “to reinvigorate community policing in our country.”
“I do not support defunding police,” Biden wrote in an op-ed for USA Today. “The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms, and to condition other federal dollars on completing those reforms. … Every single police department should have the money they need to institute real reforms.”
As the force of the defund police movement has taken some by surprise, Biden has hardly been the only politician to seek to defend the status quo. Even his one-time rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, indicated in a recent interview that he objected calls to defund the police. “I think we want to redefine what police departments do, give them the support they need to make their jobs better defined,” said Sanders. “So I do believe that we need well-trained, well-educated, and well-paid professionals in police departments.”
That’s what officials have promised for years. Proponents of police reform, including some who sit on Biden’s criminal justice task force, have been pitching solutions to police violence that include more resources for police at least since the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The protests that followed ushered in an era of massive investment, much of it with federal dollars, to pay for things like bias training, as well as body cameras and, especially, more officers to staff “community policing” initiatives flooding already over-policed neighborhoods and schools.
These proponents usually call for “procedural” reforms that do little to tackle the underlying problems of the institution itself, said Alex Vitale, author of “The End of Policing.”
“Procedural justice is the idea that if police take the time to explain what they’re doing, hear your side of the story, act in a professional manner, that people are going to accept police actions,” Vitale told The Intercept, “and therefore that you can reform the police by making them more professional and nicer, and people won’t question them or protest them, and they will let the police go back to doing what they do with no interrogation whatsoever of whether or not what the police is doing is actually right.”
While an industry of consultants has boomed around police reform, those who have been calling for an end to police violence for years say the police reforms Biden is once again proposing have already failed. Minneapolis, which starting in 2014 received millions of dollars in federal funding as part of the pilot National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, is a poster child for such a failure, and community members there have been demanding — and so far, winning — a much more radical approach to ending police violence by reducing the presence of police altogether.
“The COPS Program has helped precipitate the policing crisis that we find ourselves in today. This is money that should have gone directly to people instead of policing.”
But as communities across the country push their local officials to redraw next year’s budgets, a number of groups have also begun calling on Congress to do its part to defund the police.
In a letter sent this week to the House Judiciary Committee, a coalition of national advocacy and local grassroots organizations have called on representatives to “permanently end and cease any funding to local law enforcement in any form.”
Specifically, the group called on Congress to defund the COPS Program — which stands for “Community Oriented Policing Services” — a federal initiative that critics have long accused of hiding behind the sweet-sounding notion of police developing relationships with communities while de facto flooding those communities with more officers. “The COPS Program has helped precipitate the policing crisis that we find ourselves in today,” the group wrote. “This is money that should have gone directly to people instead of policing.”
The COPS Program was established as part of the 1994 Crime Bill and to date has granted more than $14 billion to state and local governments, much of it used to hire more police. In the first few years of its existence, it contributed to the swelling of local law enforcement agencies by some 100,000 officers. The program has also funded new equipment and technology for police across the country and has resulted in the escalation of militarized SWAT teams even in small-town departments.
Just last week, as the nation was reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and as protests against police violence raged, the COPS office announced almost $400 million in grants to hire nearly 3,000 new police officers in more than 500 agencies across the country. And the $300 million Biden is now calling for comes in addition to $300 million that was just allocated to COPS as part of the HEROES Act for Covid-19 relief.
“What’s been particularly insidious about the COPS program is that the name masks what is really happening, which is that we’re essentially just flooding the streets in communities of our country with more and more police under the guise that it is going to be community-oriented,” said Kumar Rao, director of the Justice Transformation Program at the Center for Popular Democracy, one of the letter’s signatories. “It’s obvious to anyone living in communities across this country that are heavily policed that there has been nothing about policing that has been community-oriented, and the actions of this last week have revealed that in dramatic fashion to even people who have not been living under this heavy policing apparatus.”
While COPS provides federal incentives for local governments to hire more police, those governments are then left to pay for the cost of keeping the officers when the federal funds expire. “So we’re getting $100 million of ‘free’ money to hire police officers,” said Rao. “But two years later, you have a dozen new police officers on the force, and you need to pay their salaries and their pensions and their overtime and their brutality settlements with local money.” In some cities, the cost of police already eats up more than 50 percent of the local budget.
Defunding COPS is part of a broader push, by a growing number of groups, to dismantle and replace the 1994 Crime Bill itself. It is only one of several federal initiatives that advocates want to end; another is the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which transfers equipment from the military to police and which critics say has contributed to certain communities’ perception of police as an occupying force. Advocates are also calling for an end to Operation Relentless Pursuit, a $71 million initiative that was introduced by Attorney General Bill Barr in December and aims to increase the number of federal law officers in seven “of the country’s most violent cities,” according to the FBI’s announcement of the initiative. And they want Congress to reexamine the Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program and other federal grants that fund a criminal justice system they say has long failed to deliver either safety or justice.
“Federal resources that continue to perpetuate police violence and harm against Black and Brown communities must end,” the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a statement earlier this week, as it also called for defunding COPS and other programs. “Congress must reinvest those dollars into resources that end systemic racism, inequality, and disparities in Black and Brown communities. Congress must invest in true health and safety in communities that have for too long been harmed by the status quo.”
As the movement to defund the police picks up momentum, those looking to learn from the experiences of past divestment campaigns can look to efforts to get police out of schools as a blueprint. One of the most immediate outcomes of the Minneapolis protests was the decision by the local school board to end its relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. Days later, the Minneapolis City Council announced plans to dismantle the department altogether.
“In the last few weeks, we’ve seen suddenly an echoing of the defunding police narrative across the country,” said Dmitri Holtzman, director of Education Justice Campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy. “But where some of the most specific articulations and policy pushes around the broader defunding police framework have gotten most traction has been at the school board level and specifically around police-free schools.”
Schools are where calls to redirect funds from police to initiatives that keep students safe and thriving, like mental health counseling and job programs, have been the longest running and most successful.
“School is a microcosm of society,” he added. “There is actually a very clear path towards abolishing police in schools, which I think presents an opportunity for the broader movement as we think about defunding police more broadly.”
Through the 1994 Crime Bill, the federal government has played a leading role in the escalation of school-based police. COPS, for instance, has provided some $1 billion for law enforcement initiatives in schools, most of it going toward the hiring of “school safety officers.” As The Intercept has previously reported, school-based police have greatly contributed to the criminalization of children, and their presence has proved particularly devastating to students of color and undocumented students.
But schools are also where calls to redirect funds from police to initiatives that keep students safe and thriving, like mental health counseling and job programs, have been the longest running and most successful. In Milwaukee, for instance, black students have led a campaign to rewrite the public school system’s racist discipline code. They have also won a $1 million divestment from school-based police, reducing the number of police officers in their schools from 16 to six, said Dakota Hall, executive director of Leaders Igniting Transformation, the youth group behind the effort. The group has now joined others across the country in calling for an end to federal incentives to police, particularly school-based police, and for a reinvestment of more than $300 billion into K-12 education.
“Congress was the genesis for a lot of this with their programs in the ’90s that were tough on crime,” said Hall, in reference to the criminalization of youth of color. “So they have a very important role to play in the defunding of police departments, as well as removing cops from schools.”
Hall noted that Milwaukee students were continuing to put pressure on state and local officials, for instance, calling for the repeal of a “truancy abatement and burglary suppression” state law that mandates that Milwaukee schools must have police. But Congress, he added, needed to do more.
“The accountability has been placed on the shoulders of local officials,” he said. “And many senators in Congress, people who are still in office who voted for these bills back in the ’90s … they definitely should be held accountable as well.”