After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter movement led a nationwide call to “defund the police.” Most Americans assumed that this was just rhetoric, on the order of eliminating the military or the personal income tax, but a significant number of people—a vocal minority—mobilized around precisely this issue. Protesters always make demands, often setting the bar higher than can be realistically attained. It’s a common strategy for pursuing social change.
This time, though, political leaders fell in line. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti quickly acceded to the demands of the defunders. Not to be outdone, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio promised to reduce the NYPD budget by $1 billion. Most dramatically, the Minneapolis city council voted to abolish the city’s police force, though exactly how that would be implemented remains to be seen.
None of the politicians who acted so abruptly consulted the public. According to a recent poll, most Americans do not want to defund the police. Two-thirds oppose the movement, with 60 percent specifically opposed to reducing police budgets. The same poll showed, however, that 57 percent of blacks support defunding the police. As a black man with many black friends, I find this a dubious statistic: my black friends, relatives, and neighbors are neither conservatives nor strong supporters of law enforcement, but none supports defunding the police. Violent crime is on the rise across the country, and it disproportionately affects black communities. Black people need police to keep their neighborhoods safe.
One possible explanation for the disconnect: many people agree with Black Lives Matter and its demands—at least in theory—because “Black Lives Matter” can mean many things. As a principle, it’s relatively inarguable. As a social movement for police reform, it’s debatable, depending on your point of view. As a functioning organization, however—one that supports the dismantling of the nuclear family, capitalism, and most else that defines the American way of life—BLM is radical and destructive. This same eye-of-the-beholder dynamic applies to the phrase “defund the police.” Some people think that it means reducing spending on military-grade hardware and improving cadet training; others genuinely see it as a call to abolish armed law enforcement in U.S. cities.
In the absence of police, one would have to rely on the kindness of strangers. A Minnesota neighborhood has taken up this experiment in the aftermath of the George Floyd episode. Powderhorn Park, a Minneapolis neighborhood near where Floyd died, made a collective decision not to call law enforcement into the community. Its residents soon learned that maintaining a community without police is easier said than done. Shortly after residents initiated the new arrangement, their neighborhood park was flooded with hundreds of homeless people setting up a makeshift tent city. The homeless brought with them increased traffic, noise, and drug use.
Four Powderhorn Park women called a meeting to vent about the camp. One burst into tears, while another said that she had stopped walking her dog through the park. Another man was robbed at gunpoint by two black teenagers who looked to be about 15. He called the police. Later, though, in a text message, he wrote: “I regret calling the police. It was my instinct, but I wish it hadn’t been. I put those boys in danger of death by calling the cops.” A month into its no-police experiment, Powderhorn Park is a 24-hour open-air drug market, littered with syringes. Shootouts have occurred across a residential street, with gunmen emptying their pistols at one another.
I know a woman with a friend in Minneapolis. She supported the “defund the police” cries until she and her 12-year-old son were carjacked. The thieves nearly drove off with her son in the car. “This happened in broad daylight while people walking by witnessed it,” she wrote on Facebook. “When I tried calling 911, it just rang, and rang, and rang. Thankfully, a witness was able to get them on the phone.” She continues, “I NO LONGER FEEL SAFE IN MY CITY IN BROAD DAYLIGHT. Nor does my 12-year old son. Mayor Jacob Frey, this is what will push people out of Minneapolis. People DON’T FEEL SAFE.”
In New York, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, an ex-cop, urged residents annoyed by incessant fireworks not to call the police. “Stopping fireworks cannot turn into fireworks between the police and the community,” he said. “We want a good community response to dealing with a nuisance. This is a nonviolent act. So those three numbers that we all dial, 911, get over that.” Adams encouraged residents to “go talk to the young people or the people on your block who are using fireworks” instead of calling the authorities.
Shatavia Walls, a resident of East New York, took Adams’s advice. She was shot and killed for her troubles. We call police to handle situations like the one that cost Walls her life. We ask cops to mediate and deescalate conflicts, or potential conflicts; their absence can lead to vigilantism, or to clumsy efforts at self-defense, as we saw in St. Louis, where a couple was charged with a weapons felony for brandishing guns at protesters who came onto their property. However one chooses to view that incident, one thing was clear: police were not coming to help them.
The proper approach to police reform is simple and, alas, unglamorous: we should do everything we can to support good police while demanding accountability for bad ones. But our current political temper assumes that most police officers are bad. This attitude will yield nothing but animosity and failure. More certainly needs to be done to improve the fractured relationship between cops and the communities they are sworn to protect, but that can only happen with a concerted effort between police and citizens of good will. Extreme anti-police rhetoric and politics, coupled with demoralized cops backing off from doing their jobs, won’t get us there. The unavoidable truth is that defunding the police is not the answer—and most Americans seem to know it.
Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images