June 13, 2020


How Do We Respond to “Defund the Police”?

Dear PERF members,

Today I’d like to discuss an issue we’ve been hearing a lot about over the last week – and one we’ll certainly hear more about in the coming weeks:  “defunding the police.”

Because many city budgets operate on a fiscal year that begins on July 1, we’re in the “budget season” for police chiefs.  All across the country, police chiefs are meeting with their mayors and going before their city councils to discuss their budgets, and many of them will face elected officials talking about “defunding the police.”

By the way, this isn’t entirely new.  The COVID-19 pandemic threw the United States into a recession, so even before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, many police chiefs were preparing for the likelihood of budget cuts.  A police department budget is typically the largest single item in a city’s finances, so when cuts must be made, often it’s impossible to avoid cuts in policing.

In a normal environment, mayors and city councils usually try to protect police budgets as much as possible.  We’re no longer in a normal environment.  You can’t turn on the news or look at a newspaper without seeing stories about “defunding the police.”

So I’d like to take a moment to give you my take on what this means, based on a lot of work that PERF has done in recent years.

First, people are using the term “defund the police” to mean entirely different things.

Unfortunately, some people – maybe most people – understand the term to mean something like this:  “The killing of George Floyd is just the latest in a long line of bad incidents involving the police.  Every time this happens, we hear a lot of talk about how to fix the problem. But nothing ever happens. So our only recourse is to just stop giving money to the police.  The fewer police officers we have, the fewer scandals we’ll have about policing abusing their authority.”

Fortunately, I think this line of thinking won’t really take hold in most cities and towns.  I think that in most places, people are generally satisfied with their police.

But many people are also using the term “defund the police” in a more thoughtful way, to mean something like this:  “Police are doing all sorts of work that is more like social work, not law enforcement.  Police respond to calls about people with mental illness, or people who are having a drug overdose, or people who are homeless.  In the best circumstances, the police have had some training on mental illness and de-escalation. But this isn’t really what policing is about. And it’s never a great idea to send someone with a gun to these situations. So it’s time to ‘defund the police’ a bit and give those responsibilities (and money) instead to city mental health programs, homelessness programs, drug treatment programs, etc.”

This is an argument that actually resonates with me on some level.  Why? Because PERF has conducted many projects in recent years about the police response to homelessness, the police response to the opioid epidemic, the police response to mental illness

As part of these projects, we typically hold a conference where 150 or 200 police chiefs and other experts discuss the issue. And I couldn’t count the times I have heard police chiefs say, “We didn’t ask for this role.  But nobody else was stepping up, and we were the ones getting the 911 calls at 3 in the morning about an opioid addict unconscious on the street, or a mentally ill person acting out and waving a knife at people. So we have to respond.”

So again, I think the calls to “defund the police” will have limited appeal to mayors and city council persons, because they will understand that we need police to answer those calls at 3 a.m.  Police officers have saved thousands of opioid addicts’ lives by administering naloxone to people who have overdosed and are minutes away from dying.  Elected officials will understand that we still need those officers to be available and ready to handle those calls.

To the extent that the call to “defund the police” will result in more funding for mental health care, drug treatment, and programs for people experiencing homelessness, that will be a good thing.

But I think the challenge will be for police chiefs to explain to elected officials that cutting police budgets will be counterproductive.  PERF conducted several projects about the impact of the 2008 recession on policing, and we learned two key facts:

  • As much as 90% or more of a police budget goes to personnel costs.
  • And police chiefs overwhelmingly told us that maintaining patrol staffing is their highest priority. They said if they must make budget cuts, their choice is to cut civilian employees, training, technology, and equipment budgets first. Why? Because their first priority is to make sure they have enough people to answer those calls for service, which never stop coming in.

So if people think that defunding the police will have a good effect on the quality of policing, they’re dead wrong:

  • Cutting training will stop the reform process in its tracks, because training officers is how you implement better policies and tactics.
  • Cutting technology, communications, and equipment is also counterproductive. For example, body-worn cameras are an essential type of equipment for ensuring accountability. And in the first months of the COVID pandemic, some departments reported that they struggled to work remotely, because employees did not have department-issued laptops and cellphones.
  • Laying off civilian employees doesn’t eliminate the need to do the work that civilians do, so often it just results in sworn officers being reassigned to do that work.

These are certainly challenging times for police executives. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over; in fact, new infections are actually increasing in some states.  And the righteous outrage about the death of George Floyd is causing a backlash that police chiefs must respond to with strength and subtlety.  They have to reassure their communities that the killing of George Floyd was not a typical police action, and they have to reassure their officers that their work is still appreciated and valued.

But I’m confident that PERF members will rise to this challenge.

As always, thanks to all our members for helping PERF on our Daily COVID Reports and Critical Issues Reports.

I hope you will join us for PERF’s two virtual Town Hall Meetings:

  • Next Thursday, June 18, from noon to 2 p.m. EDT, and
  • Tuesday, June 30 from noon to 2 p.m. EDT.

To register for the June 18 meeting, click here and use the passcode “police.”




Weekend Clips

Politico Magazine: The city that really did abolish the police

As a movement grows in American cities and suburbs to overhaul police departments and confront their long records of racially unjust, violent enforcement, Camden is one rare—and complicated—success story, a city that really did manage to overhaul its police force and change how it operated. And it took a move as radical and controversial as what some activists are calling for today: Camden really did abolish its police department.

And then the city set about rebuilding the police force with an entirely new one under county control, using the opportunity to increase the number of cops on the streets and push through a number of now-heralded progressive police reforms. And with time, the changes started to stick in a department that just years earlier seemed unfixable.


Daytona Beach News-Journal op-ed by Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood: Law enforcement, at its best, protects rights and dignity

We are a nation of protesters. That’s how America started, and it’s how we’ve slowly made progress ever since.

We are a nation of great promise, a country that aspires to liberty and justice for all. Freedom, equality, dignity and sanctity of all human life – these are all embedded into the DNA of America.

But we’re also a nation of faults, and our DNA is coded with those, too. Throughout our history, we have written ugly chapters of the American story that we can’t erase. Our original sins of brutality, slavery, racism and segregation may seem like ancient history to some of us. But the echoes of our past are still with us today.


Washington Post op-ed by former Miami Beach Police Chief Daniel Oates: I used to be a police chief. This is why it’s so hard to fire bad cops.

Reform advocates are starting to focus on police unions’ immense power to block the discipline of bad cops. Where have they been? Police chiefs have been fighting this lonely battle for years. From our experience, we know there cannot be true reform unless Americans elect politicians willing to take on obstructionist labor leaders.

In Minneapolis, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo quickly fired the officers involved in the death of George Floyd. But very few chiefs have this ability. In my time as a chief in Michigan, Colorado and Florida, I never did, thanks to a combination of state and local laws, union contracts, and past labor precedents.

Much more typical is this scenario: A cop commits serious misconduct. The chief suspends him immediately. Often, the cop still gets paid to sit at home, because this is legally required. Internal affairs investigates, but the process is delayed by exasperating legal and contract hurdles. Meanwhile, the community stews: Why hasn’t the chief fired him?

Finally, the chief has the evidence to act. If merited, the cop is fired. Months have gone by, but that was the easy part. Now the cop will appeal — because the review process is staggeringly favorable to bad cops.

The case goes either to an arbitrator or to a panel, a “civil service commission” appointed by the city council. The arguments are always the same: The chief’s investigation was shoddy; the chief had a vendetta against this particular cop; other cops did this before and weren’t fired; the alleged misconduct wasn’t really that bad. Too often, arbitrators feel the pressure to “split the baby” in their decisions. Perhaps the cop is docked pay or demoted; otherwise, he’s back on patrol.


Boston Globe op-ed by former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and Harvard Kennedy School Professor Frank Harmann: Police unions must police their members

Again, and again, progress in policing in America has been thwarted by collective bargaining agreements negotiated by police unions and signed by elected officials. The Globe, in October 2015, probed the inability of police chiefs to impose discipline on troublesome officers because disciplinary investigations can often take years to resolve.

It is time to raise the issue again. The cost of not addressing it, not fixing it, is far too high.


The Atlantic op-ed by Georgetown Law Professor Rosa Brooks: Stop training police like they’re joining the military

The nation is now debating how to “fix” American policing, and much of the criticism of current police practices relates to the paramilitary aspects of policing. It’s an important critique, but one that often focuses narrowly on police uniforms, weapons, and equipment, rather than on underlying issues of organizational culture and structure. If we want to change policing, we need to also turn the spotlight onto police academies, where new recruits are first inculcated into the folkways of their profession.

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