The Call to Defund the Police: What Does It Mean?

The Call to Defund the Police: What Does It Mean?

The death of George Floyd, a black gentleman killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, sparked frustration and outrage in communities all over the world. Protestors, communities, and families are demanding an end to brutality, misconduct, and racial profiling by the police.

In the past, police reform efforts included implicit bias and de-escalation training for officers, mandatory body cameras, increased community outreach, and new use-of-force policies. But, for many, these efforts have failed—completely. And now people are demanding more than policy reforms and justice for Mr. Floyd. They want change.

And if the system can’t change, they want to change the system.

Change the System: Reimagining Public Safety

Calls to defund, dissolve, disband, and dismantle police departments are dominating the news headlines and social media platforms. What do these terms mean? Can a city really eliminate its police force or its funding?

In a word, yes.

Does that mean living in a police-free society?

Not likely.

There’s no magic formula for the changes being suggested, but for many, the intent isn’t to abolish the police. Reform seekers want to reimagine public safety and how it works. They want a fresh start.

Why Change the Entire System?

The rationale for completely overhauling—rather than further reforming—the system is the belief that the very foundation of policing is flawed and overtaxed. To advocates for change, without a strong foundation, reform efforts cannot succeed.

Flawed Foundation

At its core, police promise to “serve and protect.” But, for many, this core promise doesn’t ring true. People of color and other marginalized populations point to a police system rooted in a history of racism, intimidation, and brutality. Recent use of riot gear, tear gas, rubber bullets, and armored tanks have only added to, and spread, more fear and distrust within communities.

Overtaxed and Overburdened System

History isn’t only to blame for what advocates consider a broken system. Recent policy decisions reflect a reliance on police to solve society’s problems, even those that aren’t fundamentally about crime.

Police respond to almost every type of 911 call—calls reporting criminal activity, medical emergencies, fires, mental health crises, and quality-of-life complaints (such as neighborhood prostitution, loitering, and public intoxication). In this way, many say that police are stretched too thin. Reformers, and even the police, question the logic in making police officers take on the roles of health professionals, mental health specialists, social service providers, and other experts. These are duties they are ill-equipped, yet often expected, to handle.

How Can an Entire System Be Changed?

Policing is a centuries-old institution. Change is difficult and often takes time. So what are reformers seeking in their calls to defund and dismantle the system?

Dissolve, Disband, Dismantle

Some reformers would like to see a police-free society, eventually. But others, including the Minneapolis City Council, seek to dismantle the current system and rebuild it in a way that rethinks public safety and regains public trust.

According to this view, dismantling a department could be used to root out corruption, restructure leadership and funding, and eliminate a toxic culture. With community input, some local governments hope to rebuild a better, stronger public safety system, potentially:

  • bringing in new leadership
  • implementing a new mission and purpose for public safety officers
  • changing emergency response protocols, and
  • increasing the use of community services and interventions.


Efforts to defund the police would likely take on different meanings depending on community needs. But, for the most part, defunding efforts would shift some or most of the money that currently goes to police departments and reallocate it to the community to improve and increase access to services and opportunities. Funds might shift to support social services, medical and mental health services, victim support services, substance use treatment, housing, jobs, and education.

The hope is that these measures can prevent crime before it starts, by getting to the root of the problem: addiction, mental health issues, homelessness, hunger, unemployment, or conditioned violence. Under this approach, reducing crime and crises could alleviate pressure on the police and allow them to focus on working with the community.

Has a City Ever Defunded and Dismantled a Police Department?

Although they don’t reach the level that some reformers want, system changes implemented by a city in New Jersey come close to defunding and dismantling the police.

In 2013, the Camden City Council dissolved its local police department and started over. The drastic transformation was spurred by a spike in homicides and violent crimes, increased tensions between the community and police, exposure of corruption in the department, and funding problems.

Because it determined that the department was too broken to fix, the city decided to dissolve the department (and its union) and pivot to a community-policing structure.

Police officers in Camden were required to reapply for positions, and the police force grew. The department put more boots on the ground, but to serve in a different capacity. Police officers knocked on doors—not to make an arrest—but to introduce themselves. And the daily police presence in neighborhoods wasn’t in response to a crisis or crime—police wanted residents to know they were there for them.

While the Camden community and police still think more work needs to be done, they can proudly point to a drop in violent crime rates and excessive-use-of-force complaints. And when riots broke out surrounding Mr. Floyd’s death, the police didn’t don riot gear. They brought an ice cream truck to the march and walked alongside the protestors, in solidarity.

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