Budgeting and Forecasting

The Debate Over Defunding the Police

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In response to the police killing of George Floyd, protestors across the nation have rallied to demands for local

governments to “defund the police.” If the purpose of a slogan is to call attention to an idea, then the “defund the police” movement has been a remarkable success: The call has led local governments to reexamine funding for police agencies and alternative structures for safety and justice services in their communities. This outcome tracks with public sentiment: in a June 2020 survey, nearly three-quarters of Americans said police violence against the public was a problem.

If the purpose of the slogan is to win majority support for a specific policy response or series of policy responses, however, it has been less effective and potentially counterproductive. The same survey found that just 15 percent of respondents support abolishing police departments, and fewer than half support reducing funding for police departments and reallocating those funds to other programmatic responses that impact crime and social challenges.

The reality is that “defund the police” means different things to different people. For budget officials, it clearly means that there is a new debate about just how to fund core functions of local government designed to support public safety and justice. It is a debate in which budget officials need to actively engage.