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'Defund the Police' dominated 2020. What happened?

As Democrats run from the "defund the police" movement, more cities restore their police budgets.
Image: A Black trans liberation activist wears a bandana that reads \"Defund the Police\" in New York City.
Defund the police is far from dead. But it faces some serious questions.Stephanie Keith / Getty Images; MSNBC

An August Reuters report found that many cities across the U.S. that cut police budgets in response to calls for sweeping police reform in 2020 have reversed course this year.

Slashing police budgets has fallen out of fashion in many places that pursued it or took interest in it.

The quick reversals — in some cases, involving unprecedented spikes in police budgets — have mostly been in response to a rise in crime. They underscore the precarity of the "defund the police” slogan; in light of concerns among Democrats that increased police presence is needed to control both crime and perceptions that crime is being taken seriously, slashing police budgets has fallen out of fashion in many places that pursued it or took interest in it.

So does this mean that the defund the police initiatives have already collapsed, a mere year after the slogan exploded in the national consciousness? It’s a question that’s not easy to answer.

The defund movement, after all, is not just about divesting from traditional law enforcement, but investing in alternative policing and alternatives to policing — and those efforts can co-exist alongside increases in police budgets. On the other hand, Democrats have become so scared of the slogan over the past year, and so eager to trash it as the murder rate has surged, that it’s worth revisiting the question of whether the term carries more costs than benefits for the criminal justice reform movement.

2020 has seen an extraordinary surge in the homicide rate; the U.S. saw the biggest spike in its murder rate in decades, and murders are up by almost 15 percent this year compared to this period last year.

It’s notoriously difficult to establish the causes of crime waves — to this day scholars are fiercely debating what caused the sharp plunge in the crime rate in the 1990s. With a small set of contemporaneous data today, it’s especially difficult to draw definitive conclusions. But many experts cite a number of factors, including the social and economic disruptions caused by the pandemic; a rise in gun carrying; and some pullbacks from proactive policing in response to the pandemic and widespread criticisms after the killing of George Floyd.

The pullbacks in policing, which could involve things like individual police officers declining to patrol certain neighborhoods the way they normally did, should not be confused with police budget cuts. The overwhelming majority of American cities did not pursue defund the police initiatives, and the murder rate trends were national. “Despite claims that Democratic mayors or progressive criminal justice policies are driving the increase, it also appears indifferent to the political party in charge: As [Jeff] Asher and criminal justice expert John Pfaff have shown, murder rates increased in cities run by Democrats and Republicans, progressive and not,” wrote Vox’s German Lopez in July.

The U.S. saw the biggest spike in its murder rate in decades, and murders are up by almost 15 percent this year.

But overall, many cities’ response to a rise in the murder rate has been to increase police budgets and to attempt to get more officers on the streets — including cities which just last year had cut police budgets under the defund the police banner. The mayor of Washington, D.C. marched with defund the police protestors last summer and called for police budget cuts, but this summer has shifted to calling for more money for more officers in the wake of high-profile shootings.

Reuters has recently reported on many examples:

In New York, Atlanta and Seattle, Democratic city politicians have abandoned or scaled back police budget-cutting efforts and other proposals they touted amid the uproar over the 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis. … New York pivoted from slashing almost $1 billion in police funds last year to adding $200 million this year. Oakland, California, boosted its police budget in June by $38 million after last year setting a goal to cut it by $150 million. Austin, a liberal bastion in conservative Texas, this year passed its largest-ever police budget under pressure from state Republicans over rising crime. Last year, Austin had diverted $150 million in police funds to other priorities.

The trend is a major blow to momentum for defund-aligned groups, which last year successfully pushed for at least $840 million in direct cuts from police departments. The increase in police budgets represent an immediate shift in policymakers’ appetite for experimenting with how to reduce police contact in communities, one of the fundamental demands of defunding the police.

However, the other piece of defund the police programs is investment in alternative resources for community safety, and on this front the future looks rosier. Monica Bell, a sociologist at Yale University who studies policing and alternatives to it, pointed out to me examples of cities that left police budgets intact but simultaneously invested in alternatives, like San Francisco's street crisis team, which addresses psychiatric issues, substance abuse, and other behavioral issues. She also noted that some cities have simultaneously increased police budgets and alternatives to conventional policing, like Durham, North Carolina’s community safety department, which uses social workers and other civilians to respond to 911 calls.

Similarly, Oakland also passed a 6 percent increase in its police budget this summer, but is currently rolling out a pilot program with trained civilian responders within the Oakland Fire Department. There are also many non-traditional policing approaches across the country which pre-date the 2020 criminal justice movement and get their funding through police departments themselves, like the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, which likely benefit from overall increases in police budgets.

In other words, calls for increases in police budgets are far from a death knell for campaigns to find more progressive and less aggressive modes of law enforcement.

That all being said, the prospects of defund the police should not only be considered on a policy level but also on a political one. And the past year shows that this is where defund the police advocates have some serious thinking to do. The slogan itself only focuses on the divestment side of things, and it is so acutely vulnerable to bad faith messaging from the right — wherein Republicans and other conservatives suggest that the movement is basically calling for lawlessness — that it’s become a source of constant anxiety for Democrats, particularly as the midterm elections approach as murder rates increase.

Rather than trying to explain the true meaning of defund the police or engage in conversation with it, nervous Democrats in Washington have tried to outflank the GOP by trying to promote themselves as more faithful champions of funding the police and, in a long shot messaging maneuver that’s too cute by half, insist that Republicans are the ones trying to defund the police (because they have declined to back coronavirus relief bills that have provided money for law enforcement).

Dems have also signed onto symbolic Republican measures in Congress agreeing that local governments that try to defund the police should be stripped of funding out of a desperate (and naive) hope that it will neutralize bad faith Republican messaging that they support defund the police. The fact that liberal lawmakers are terrified of being associated with defund the police doesn’t bode well for its long-term prospects.

If “defund the police” is not even an accurate summary of the movement’s goals, then isn’t it doing itself a disservice?

Some in the movement aren’t convinced that this is a problem. For example, Woods Ervin, the communications director at Critical Resistance, a grassroots group pushing for prison-industrial complex abolition, told me they’re not particularly surprised by the Democrats’ maneuvering given the long bipartisan consensus on being tough on crime. They argued that regardless of the specific wording of slogans, efforts at “reducing resources and the power of policing is going to get putback regardless of how we frame it.”

It’s a fair point, but still I can’t shake the feeling that if “defund the police” is not even an accurate summary of the movement’s goals — since it omits its investment and safety goals — then isn’t it doing itself a disservice? And if even liberals in power are naturally predisposed to object to this movement’s demands, isn’t it still in the movement’s interest to a) frame its ideas in a way that is likely to maximize their base of support and b) reduce the ease with which the opposition can weaponize its vulnerabilities against it? It would seem there are alternative slogans available that call for society to reimagine policing without compromising the principles of the movement.

Defund the police is far from dead — it’s been in the national spotlight for a very short period of time and swiftly made a meaningful, even if small, policy splash, thanks in no small part to grassroots organizing that preceded its rise by many years. But if it wants to thrive, there are probably some serious questions that the movement should reckon with.