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Protests call to reform, defund and abolish police — but what do they mean?

The debate of how to enact change in policing ranges from incremental reforms to abolishing police departments altogether. Here's what the terms actually mean.
/ Source: TODAY

In an unprecedented moment in recent history, the Minneapolis City Council announced Sunday that they intended to defund the Minneapolis police force. This announcement was made following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of four local officers and after more than a week of protests throughout United States and around the world.

With increasingly vocal calls across the country, the debate of how to enact change range from training police in de-escalation techniques to a complete dismantling of the criminal justice system. As the ACLU states, “The policies and actions of the police are instrumental in deciding who gets stopped, searched, arrested and funneled into the criminal justice system; indeed, the United States’ over-incarceration crisis begins at the front end of the system.”

But how do we parse out the difference between a movement for, say, the abolishment of stop-and-frisk policies, versus a movement to dismantle police forces altogether? Below, we’ve provided a short summary of some of the key terms that you’re hearing around this debate:

Police reform:

Advocated by organizations like Campaign Zero and the ACLU, police reform aims to create more accountability for authority figures and improve relationships between the police departments and the communities they serve. This could take the form of de-escalation techniques, or limiting interventions by police whenever possible.

Campaign Zero recently released its “8 Can’t Wait” initiative, which includes eight policies that police departments can adopt nationwide, including a ban on shooting at moving vehicles, prohibiting chokeholds and the required use of body cams, among other proposals. The ACLU similarly champions policy-based police reform and states that “our efforts are intended to address the longstanding adversarial relationship between police and communities and to help create police departments that work collaboratively and democratically with all of the communities they serve, increasing transparency, accountability, fairness and public safety."

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Defund police systems:

Police departments are some of the most well-funded public services in the country. In New York City, for example, the budget for the NYPD between 2014 and 2019 was approximately $42 billion dollars, with a $6 billion budget for 2020 alone. This amount dramatically outstrips the city’s budget for health and housing, youth development programming and workforce development, according to the organization Communities United By Police Reform. And in the wake of uprisings protesting the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, where citizens have been detained illegally, gassed, and bludgeoned, there is an increasingly vocal call to defund the police and instead reinvest that funding into the community.

In a letter sent from New York City comptroller Scott M. Stringer to Mayor Bill de Blasio on June 6, Stringer wrote: “Breaking down structural racism in New York City will require long-term, lasting change — and that must include reducing the NYPD’s budget. If our budget is a reflection of our values, it is unconscionable that services for black and brown New Yorkers are on the chopping block while the NYPD’s budget remains almost entirely untouched.” Organizations like Communities United By Police Reform call for a divesting of the police departments and a subsequent investment in social services, community programs and education, among others. As an example, the Los Angeles City Council Budget & Finance Committee will be considering a motion on June 15 to reallocate $100-$150 million in LA Police Department funds to programs that specifically uplift and support communities of color.

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Abolish police departments:

There are many advocates for whom police reform and police defunding are not enough to fix a broken criminal justice system in America. When black and brown individuals are disproportionately harmed, arrested, tried and convicted within a criminal justice system, the argument is that it's a system beyond redemption. “The communities in which black people live have become occupied territories, and black people have become seen as enemy combatants who don’t have any rights and can be stopped and frisked and arrested and detained and questioned and killed with impunity,” said Dr. Melina Abdullah of California State University in Ava DuVernay’s documentary "13th."

The movement for complete police abolition found a toehold in the '60s and was championed by intellectuals such as Dr. Angela Davis. But what happens to communities without police? The activist group #8ToAbolition, which stands in response to Campaign Zero’s “8 Can’t Wait” policies, articulates an eight-step plan to dismantle police altogether. The idea is that as police forces are defunded and disbanded, those resources can be reinvested in community organizations and support structures, making the need for the police to maintain law and order obsolete.

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A 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compounded five years of police reporting data and concluded that black men and boys are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men. The study predicts that approximately one in every 1,000 black male Americans will be killed by police. As Dr. Angela Davis stated in an interview with The Guardian, “There is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan.” Now, Americans are uprising to hold police systems accountable for these racial disparities, and to hold accountable the law and order arm of the United States. The question is how to do so.