What does ‘Defund the Police’ really mean?

People stand in front of the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct sign, spray painted to replace "police" with "people" as the protesters established what they call an autonomous zone while continuing to demonstrate against racial inequality and call for defunding of Seattle police, in Seattle, Washington, U.S. June 9, 2020. Picture taken June 9, 2020. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC276H9WJ22I

Image: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC276H9WJ22I

Andrew Berkley
Lead, Immersive Technology and Content, World Economic Forum Geneva
John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Demands to fundamentally restructure US police departments have gone mainstream.
  • The World Economic Forum created a visualization of the racial injustice spurring calls for reform.

It’s a phrase that’s spurring momentum for fundamental change. It’s also drawing heated backlash, often due to misinterpretation – either inadvertent or intentional.

When people advocate to “Defund the Police,” they’re generally arguing for a variety of reforms and at least one shared goal: to address the historical racial injustice in policing in a way that better serves people of colour and saves lives.

This push for change comes amid a relentless roll call of black people needlessly dying. A few weeks after a Minneapolis police officer was filmed in May fatally holding his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, sparking protests around the world, Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by an officer in Atlanta after he’d fallen asleep in his car. By the time you’re reading this, there may be yet another horrific incident involving a black victim in the news cycle. The “Defund the Police” reforms now being proposed may help avoid such tragedies, by redesigning law enforcement to function less like a military presence in black communities and more like a public service that keeps the peace.

The notion that policing as currently constructed affects everyone equally in the US is belied by statistics. In 2019, black people accounted for 24% of those killed by police in the country, though they account for just 13% of the overall population, according to the Mapping Police Violence project. That year was not an anomaly.

Image: World Economic Forum

Advocates for reform note that it’s common for more than a third of an American city budget to be directed to its police department that nonetheless may still be unprepared for crucial tasks.

In a number of places, city officials are taking heed and committing to a rethink of police budgets. Minneapolis city council members said they’ll vote to disband the police department and replace it with a “new model of public safety,” while a resolution was introduced in Los Angeles to replace officers with unarmed responders, and Salt Lake City will cut its police department budget while funding more body cameras and providing fewer lethal weapons.

The data clearly demonstrates why there are calls for changes. In California, for example, black people accounted for nearly 16% of police killings last year but just 6.5% of the population – while white people accounted for 24.8% of police killings in the state and 36.8% of its population.

To illustrate the gravity of the situation in the US, the World Economic Forum created a visualization of police killings over the years broken down by race. The blue dots in the visualization excerpt below mark each police killing of a black person since 2013 by location.

Police killings of black people in the US (US date format).
Police killings of black people in the US (US date format). Image: World Economic Forum

Appeals to address racial injustice in policing are not new. In 1968, the Kerner commission issued a report citing police brutality as the cause of urban unrest in a nation “moving toward two societies, one black and one white – separate and unequal.” That followed comparable commissions, and the publication of reports for similar reasons, in 1922, 1936, and 1943. Hopefully, as the concept of fundamental police reform now goes mainstream, this time will be different.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • As of this past Tuesday state legislatures in the US had introduced, amended, or passed 159 bills and resolutions related to policing – and nine had become law, according to this analysis. (FiveThirtyEight)
  • One journalist and lawyer argues that a “grab-bag” approach to incremental policy reform won’t fix the problems with American policing, and a wholesale reimagining of public resources is called for. (Mother Jones)
  • While calls for de-escalation training for police have grown, it won’t be sufficient without being paired with a strong use-of-force policy, accountability, and oversight, according to this analysis. (Scientific American)
  • There are proposals to increase the number of police body cameras in the US and Canada, but this analysis argues that they won’t create more accountability and transparency unless police are forced to use them differently. (Wired)
  • The momentum of Black Lives Matter has ignited similar movements in India, and also prompted questions about why there was no concerted response to a fatal police beating in New Delhi earlier this year, according to this report. (The Diplomat)
  • Police violence is a public health issue, according to research cited in this report. Police in the US sent about 100,000 people to the emergency room for treatment in 2013, and “stop-and-frisk” programmes result in post-traumatic stress for black and Latino communities. (JSTOR Daily)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find visualizations and feeds of expert analysis related to Systemic Racism, Human Rights and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum
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