What would it mean to ‘defund’ the police–and what would come next?

A protester holds a sign that reads “DEFUND THE POLICE” during a Juneteenth rally outside the Brooklyn Museum, Friday, June 19, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free 155 years ago. AP Photo/John Minchillo

The movement to “defund” police departments in the U.S. has been catalyzed by protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people who have been killed by police.

Proponents of defunding want more oversight of police—but they don’t necessarily agree on how to achieve that goal, notes Ben Struhl, executive director of the Center on Crime and Community Resilience at Northeastern. 

Portrait of Ben Struhl

Ben Struhl is executive director of the Center on Crime and Community Resilience at Northeastern. Photo courtesy Ben Struhl.

Some advocates wish to abolish police departments altogether; others hope that a portion of public funding that currently goes to police will be routed to social service organizations that are better able to address problems within marginalized communities.

Struhl believes that more attention should be paid to the cycles of violence that are affecting those communities. He says the defund movement could result in new investments in prevention strategies that could be led by community groups. Struhl adds that a reduction in surveillance activities (including racial profiling) and other police interactions could help reduce tensions.

“We have partnered with a number of nonprofits—Boston Uncornered, Inner City Weightlifting, Roca, and SOAR, which is run by the city of Boston—and they all have the theory that you can prevent violence by working proactively with people who are in gangs and getting them to buy into new ideas,” says Struhl. “There is a lot of research showing that police can be negative to community dynamics when policing is focused on surveillance, crime stats, and enforcement.”

Struhl, who aligns with governments and charitable organizations around the world to promote the use of research evidence in solving health and safety challenges that are facing disadvantaged communities, is in favor of more accountability for police. At the same time, he says police can play an important role in working with communities to build new systems.

“I’ve done work across Latin America, where people are exploring a lot of ideas for breaking communities out of the cycles of violence,” Struhl says. “I have never seen a big effort work without police being involved.”

Based on the fact that federal, state, and local governments are facing budget shortfalls as a result of COVID-19, what is a realistic approach to the question of defunding police?

The idea is, why don’t we take this money that is being spent on the police and put it into other programs? That is a discussion that a lot of researchers have been trying to have for a very long time.

But the big-picture question is: What if everything is going to be defunded? It’s a real possibility if the current financial trajectory continues, just given where the state and local budgets are. When people are saying, ‘Defund the police and put the money into research and other things,’ well, that might not happen. You might see a defunding of the police and other social services.

What would be a constructive path for the defund police movement?

I wish that people would focus on adding the kinds of resources that disadvantaged communities are asking for—that’s where the attention of the defund police movement could do the most good. Because people living in those communities really don’t have a fair shot. That’s a big part of our focus at the Center on Crime and Community Resilience; a lot of communities have been mistreated by government, and they’re trying to come to a place where they have resilience—the resources and techniques to govern their own problems. Sometimes research can help make that leap.

We don’t have to wait until we’ve finished this debate over police departments and how they use their resources. We can start paying more attention to those communities now.

What would be a constructive path for the defund police movement?

One approach is sometimes called “focused deterrence” or “group violence intervention.” It’s about focusing on a very small number of people who are falling into violent gangs—it’s a small number of people who are driving a large part of the violence in their cities overall.

It starts with the community coming together to discuss problems and generate ideas. They may say, “If we had a better social program in this area, then we might not have this type of problem.” Or, “This abandoned building has been a huge problem in our neighborhood, and if we could get someone to knock this over, the whole neighborhood would have a better feeling.”

And then the community works with law enforcement to approach people who are involved in violence—you actually bring them into forums and talk with them. The message of these “call-ins” is to say, “We as a community are coming together and saying the violence has to stop. Here are all sorts of social services we’re offering you, which are alternatives to what you’re doing. And if you don’t stop, law enforcement is going to be laser-focused on solving homicides and shootings and stopping violence.”

It’s an approach that started in Boston, and we’re actively exploring it in other cities now. We have a great partnership in Oakland, and we have colleagues who are developing a similar approach in Mexico City.

What prevents police departments from being constructive partners in the changes that are being proposed by the defund movement?

In Minneapolis, they seem to be very serious about getting rid of the police department for a number of reasons. The police chief was prevented from firing officers who were caught in significant abuses, and the city council was blocked from shifting part of the police department’s budget onto violence prevention. 

In other cities, there are people who believe that some resources need to be taken away from police and put into services that can respond to overdoses, mental health challenges, and other issues; some police leaders and officers agree with that approach, because they would like to not have to deal with these types of situations.

In some cases where police aren’t constructive partners, the bigger problem is actually the government as a whole. Bad police are often a symptom of bad government systems. Even if elected officials would like to hold police accountable, they’re not allowed to do so in some cases, sometimes because of opposition by police unions. 

If we can’t elect people to carry out the things that we want them to do as our representatives, that goes way past the problems caused by police—and I think you see that in all kinds of ways in government: Schools, police, even social services can be ineffective if government isn’t working.

If police departments are defunded, will there be community initiatives ready to step into the void?

Historically, the answer has been that it can be really hard to set up new programs on short notice. I’ve seen a lot of scholars and activists who work in communities of color say that if we’re going to take resources away from police, and those resources aren’t actually replaced with effective programs, it could be really bad for communities that are already suffering. 

I think there is going to be a big budget crunch and we’re going to have to refocus our resources in a lot of ways. We have some really promising models for community initiatives. There will be opportunities to focus on the people who are most at risk of being involved in violence, and we should take those opportunities in any way we can.

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.