What Defunding Police Departments Really Means For Black Communities
For Valerie Castile, the heart-wrenching video of George Floyd’s life being extinguished by a Minneapolis police officer, stirred painful emotions. Back in 2016, the Minnesota mother lost her son in what’s become a national crisis: police killing Black people across America.
“I’ve been crying for other people, and I cried for my own child,” said Castile in an exclusive interview with BET.com. Philando Castile was 32-years-old when officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed him during a traffic stop in a Saint Paul, Minnesota suburb. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was also in the car along with her toddler, streamed the aftermath of the horrific slaying live on Facebook. The officer was charged, but eventually found not guilty.
Today, Castile heads the Philando Castile Relief Foundation and is one of many nationwide who believe it’s time to consider defunding police departments. “We’ve had conversation after conversation. Panel after panel. They don’t care,” she said of certain individuals in law enforcement. “And these people have been given free rein to kill.”
There have been a series of police and vigilante killings of late: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. They are just three names among the countless Black men, women, transgender, and child victims whose deaths have led to protests across the country and world.
At a recent protest rally, nine of 13 members on the Minneapolis City Council pledged “to begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department and [create] a new transformative model for cultivating safety in our city,” according to a statement released on June 7. It reads in part: “We recognize that we don’t have all the answers about what a police-free future looks like, but our community does. We’re committing to engaging with every willing community member...over the next year to identify what safety looks like for everyone.”
What's At Stake?
While terms vary, experts say “defunding the police” doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating police departments entirely. Because police departments often receive a lion’s share of city budgets, what it refers to are policy proposals that would prioritize investments in various community based resources: jobs, housing, education, mental health, small business capital, etc. It’s a call to reimagine how communities handle public safety.
The FY 2020 police budget in Minneapolis is reportedly $194 million dollars. The decision to defund means there will be a plan to reinvest that money into alternate public safety structures and under-resourced neighborhoods. Local organizers such as Reclaim the Block, Black Visions Collective and other advocates have said that it has the potential to lead to thriving communities.
“This bold commitment is an important step toward healing,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, network president and co-executive director of The Center for Popular Democracy; the organization has a state affiliate called Take Action Minnesota. “It represents a path to achieving public safety and addressing the structural racism facing Black communities in Minneapolis.”
Otis Zanders is CEO of Ujamaa Place, a non-profit in St. Paul, Minnesota whose programming centers around academic, job training, coaching and wrap-around services to support African American men. Zanders told BET.com that local and national governments have dramatically increased spending on policing, criminalization and mass incarceration. Yet, many jurisdictions have slashed investments in social safety net programs. “With the protests, there is a lot of motivation around change and I’m feeling encouraged,” he said. “But we will have to have some uncomfortable dialogue to get there.”
Shifting The Focus To Community
Rashad Robinson, President of Color of Change, supports defunding not only to end policing—which he termed a “violent institution”—but to truly uplift communities after decades of disinvestment. “This is not a time for tweaking or tinkering - it’s time to start over. Minneapolis has taken the first step towards remaking public safety in a way that protects Black lives and invests in Black and Brown communities. We hope cities across the country follow.
The defunding issue has also been championed by activist organizations such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and She The People, and the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a national network of more than 150 leaders and organizations creating a broad political home for Black people to learn, organize and take action.
The group just announced SixNineteen, a weekend of activities focused on saving Black lives to coincide with Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the U.S. They will organize marches in the nation’s capital and various cities nationwide, plus execute a digital strategy to focus on three demands: defunding police, investment in Black communities and the resignation of President Donald Trump.
Mayors and city councils in New York City, Los Angeles, Richmond, Boston, Baltimore and other cities, are listening to calls to explore defunding.
One jurisdiction, however, has already seen the positive aspects of re-allocating funds from the police department and reinvesting them into disenfranchised communities of color. The residents of Camden County, New Jersey saw their police force dismantled and rebuilt in 2013. While critics say the new department is mostly White in a majority Black jurisdiction with its share of social ills, crime has reportedly decreased after a shift to community policing. And former President Barack Obama recently praised the manner in which that police department treated protestors.
In New York City, where police and protestors have had multiple incidents of violent clashes, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced new reforms to the NYPD. The city will shift funding from the police department to youth and social services for communities of color, establish a community ambassadors' program within the department and more.
“These will be the first of many steps my administration will take over the next 18 months to rebuild a fairer city that profoundly addresses injustice and disparity,” de Blasio said.
In Los Angeles, demonstrations have swelled in the streets and protestors have held chanted “defund police” outside City Hall. Mayor Eric Garcetti said he would cut the police budget by as much as $150 million to help fund youth and health initiatives. Still, Black Lives Matter- Los Angeles released a statement saying it’s “not enough.”
A Reactionary Measure
Last week, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and Democrats in Congress introduced the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, a comprehensive approach to better hold police accountable, change the culture of law enforcement and build trust between law enforcement and communities. On Wednesday, June 10, the issue of defunding was raised during a House Judiciary Committee hearing to examine America’s policing crisis.
Darrell Scott, senior pastor of the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland and a Black Trump ally, testified and called defunding “unwise” and “irresponsible.”
“It’s a reactionary measure that can and will result in short-and long-term damage.”
And yet, Scott acknowledged that police brutality does indeed exist in Black communities. “I was roughed up at 13,” he shared. “I could have very easily been George Floyd.”
Not A New Idea
While other cities are looking at “de-funding” police budgets and moving that money into social initiatives, Mayor Ras J. Baraka of Newark, New Jersey favors “a shared responsibility between law enforcement and the community.”
The mayor recently introduced an ordinance which the Newark City Council approved to create an “Office of Violence Prevention.” It will be initially supported by 5 percent, or about $12 million, of the city police budget, according to the city’s website. The office will manage anti-violence policy initiatives, programs and will also establish a database of hate groups. All acts of racism by city employees will result in automatic termination. Employees who fail to take action if they witness such acts will also be fired.
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a Black-led, grassroots think tank in Baltimore, raised the issue of defunding back in 2015 after Freddie Gray died while in police custody. Lawrence Grandpre, LBS director of research, told BET.com that any discussion of defunding police budgets or eventually abolishing police departments must involve “an alternative vision” for public safety and the community “infrastructure” to support it.
“That could include things like violence interrupters,” he said, credible messengers who can diffuse conflicts where traditional law enforcement may not be able to do so.
Issues such as trauma, which can lead to violence, would have to be addressed holistically, he adds. "And that would have to buttressed by an over-arching public policy strategy that addresses the material conditions of our communities. Ultimately, you have to give people access to resources which they control."
As the protests across the nation continue to ignite the debate over defunding, dismantling or fully funding police departments, the solution to policing and public safety in Black communities without excessive force or incessant harassment could lie somewhere therein. The City Council in Minneapolis has taken what many proponents consider a progressive first step, but what comes next may indeed have life or death consequences.
Donna M. Owens is an award-winning multi platform journalist.
BET has been covering every angle of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths in police custody, other social justice cases and the subsequent aftermath and protests. For our continuing coverage, click here.