Demonstrators gather in Downtown Oakland to listen to speakers during a protest against police violence on June 3, 2020. Beth LaBerge/KQED
Demonstrators gather in Downtown Oakland to listen to speakers during a protest against police violence on June 3, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

'Defund the Police': What it Means and How Bay Area Cities Are Responding

'Defund the Police': What it Means and How Bay Area Cities Are Responding

Among the tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters who continue to pour into the streets of cities across the country — and the world — decrying America's long history of violent, racially unjust policing, one rallying cry has gained particular traction: 'Defund the police.'

But what that actually means varies widely depending on who you ask, from dismantling or flat-out abolishing existing police forces to slashing their hefty budgets and diverting those funds to social service programs, which proponents say would much better serve and protect many communities.

Broadly speaking, 'defunding the police' entails minimizing the outsize role law enforcement has come to assume in most U.S. cities as the default responder for all matters of complaints, and delegating many of those responsibilities to unarmed social workers and other behavioral health specialists.

“When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is, ‘Invest in the resources that our communities need,'” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said recently on NBC’s “Meet the Press." So much police response, she added, “is directed toward quality-of-life issues, homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence and conflict.”

As local leaders scramble to institute police reforms — from banning chokeholds to heightening accountability — many activists argue those tweaks won’t ultimately fix a system they consider fundamentally unjust. Real change, they contend, can only come about through a sweeping process of tearing down police departments and rethinking public safety.

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Since the 1970s, when tough-on-crime policies took hold, most U.S. cities have funneled an increasingly large share of their budgets into public safety, often at the expense of social service and anti-poverty programs. And police officers have been tasked with an ever-wider range of responsibilities.

In most cities, spending on local police typically dwarfs investment in just about any other sector. In Oakland, for instance, about 20% of the city's entire budget (total expenditures, not including education) — more than $318 million — goes to policing. That's nearly double the amount of any other city department.

Until very recently, any proposal to divest from police departments would have been dismissed by most city leaders as politically untenable. But as public pressure mounts in response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police — among many other glaring recent incidents of police brutality — the idea has gained a strong foothold among a small but growing contingent of locally elected leaders.

Case in point: In Minneapolis, the epicenter of the current wave of protests, a veto-proof majority of nine City Council members recently said they would move to dismantle the city's long-troubled police force, even as the mayor declined to support the effort.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti grabbed headlines this month when he unveiled a proposal to take $150 million from the city's massive police budget of over $1 billion and reinvest it in jobs programs, health initiatives and other services in communities of color. Although some activists say that doesn't go anywhere far enough, it marks a significant turnaround from April, when the mayor proposed a 7% funding increase for the police. And on Monday – in an meeting once considered unthinkable – the Los Angeles City Council heard from a coalition of activists who presented a plan to end the city’s reliance on police officers and adopt new community safety strategies.

Lessons From a City That Disbanded the Police

Disbanding a police department and starting from scratch is not without precedent in the U.S. The city of Camden, New Jersey did it in 2013.

Following years of unabated violent crime, the city council literally shut down the police department — one that had long been considered inept and corrupt — and created an entirely new non-unionized department under county control. All officers were laid off and had to reapply for their jobs.

Since then, the city's homicide rate has plummeted, as have once-plentiful excessive force complaints, while community-police relations seem to have significantly improved. The overhaul wasn’t a panacea by any stretch — problems with police accountability and racial disparities still exist in the city — but the experiment is generally considered a success.

In California, however, many liberal leaders wary of appearing soft on crime or of incurring the wrath of powerful police unions are walking a fine line on an inherently thorny issue, acknowledging the need for reforms while clearly remaining reluctant to support sweeping overhauls.

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At a recent forum in Oakland on policing and racism, Gov. Gavin Newsom tiptoed around the issue.

“If you’re calling for eliminating police, no,” he said. “If you’re talking about reimagining and taking the opportunity to look at the responsibility and role that we place on law enforcement to be social workers, mental health workers, get involved in disputes where a badge and a gun are unnecessary, then I think absolutely this is an opportunity to look at all of the above.”

In the Bay Area, city leaders are beginning to propose policing reforms of various size and scope. None, though, has yet acceded to protesters' demands to completely dismantle or defund entire departments.

Here is the latest on what top local officials have so far proposed in the region's three largest cities, each of which has had its own troubling history of policing in Black and brown communities.

San Francisco

SFPD budget (2019-20): $695.7 million
Sworn officers: 2,260

Update: On July 31, San Francisco Mayor London Breed unveiled a proposed budget that includes pulling $120 million dollars from law enforcement agencies and putting it into programs that support the city’s largely underserved Black community. The previous month, Breed also directed the police department to no longer respond to noncriminal complaints, revise its accountability and anti-bias practices and stop using military-grade equipment.

Despite pressure from activists on the street, Breed made clear she has no intention of dismantling the city's police department.

“I think it's understandable that people are feeling that way, but the fact is you have people who kill people, you have people who rob people and commit really horrible acts. And in those particular cases, there is a very strong need for law enforcement,” Breed recently told KQED's Scott Shafer.

"I think it's important that our policies are adjusted and that we work to make our department better. And that definitely takes time. But to completely dismantle? It is not something at this time that I think will serve the public."

Last week, however, Breed — who as mayor has consistently supported increasing SFPD's budget — proposed a set of major reforms that could transform San Francisco's on-the-ground policing operations. Most notably, SFPD will no longer respond to noncriminal complaints, such as neighbor disputes, behavioral health crises and school discipline interventions. For calls that don't involve a threat to public safety, officers would be replaced by trained, unarmed social workers and behavioral health professionals, who Breed said are better equipped to de-escalate conflicts and limit unnecessary confrontations.

“We know that a lack of equity in our society overall leads to a lot of the problems that police are being asked to solve,” Breed said in a statement. “We are going to keep pushing for additional reforms and continue to find ways to reinvest in communities that have historically been underserved and harmed by systemic racism.”

Breed additionally proposed strengthening police accountability and anti-bias policies, and banning the department's use of military-grade weapons. She also joined Supervisor Shamann Walton in calling to divert an unspecified amount of funding from SFPD's budget to support programs in the city's African American community as a reparation for city policies that led to “decades of disinvestment.”

While few details about that plan have been given, Walton told Mission Local he wanted to see “at least $25 million” redirected from the police department “if we are really trying to change some of the systemic issues oppressing Black people here in San Francisco.”

Breed's reform proposals don’t include a budget or specifics, but are rather intended as a set of guidelines for the city's Police Commission and other city agencies to map out over the coming year.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott recently said he was "open" to defunding a portion of his own department, as long as it's done "thoughtfully."

“We’re at a time in policing in this country where the whole world is speaking to us and we need to hear what’s being said,” Chief Scott said during a panel hosted by the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club on June 8. “And what’s being said is, ‘We have to change the way we do policing in this country.’ And I think for me, I’m open to that.”

Oakland

OPD budget (2019-20): $318.7 million
Sworn officers: 792

UPDATE: On June 23, the Oakland City Council passed a budget that included more than $14 million in cuts to its police department — mostly by shifting some non-sworn positions into other departments, freezing vacant jobs for sworn officers and delaying a police academy. City leaders pledged to reallocate those savings to fund alternative safety measures, including the creation of a non-police unit to respond to some 911 mental health crisis calls. The city also plans to convene a committee tasked with shifting public safety resources from enforcement to prevention services, with the eventual stated goal of reducing OPD's budget by 50%. Although a nod to activists' defunding demands, the new budget fell far short of the more substantial cuts that many are demanding.

Top officials in Oakland have so far mostly supported leaving the Oakland Police Department’s hefty budget largely intact.

During Mayor Libby Schaaf's virtual town hall on "structural racism and police reform" last week, just a day after thousands of protesters showed up outside her house demanding she defund the police department, she acknowledged the need for major changes in the city's policing model.

“There's a growing schism around what safety means,” Schaaf said. “Many people feel police are here to protect and serve,” she said. ”But for a growing number of people, particularly people of color, police do not invoke a sense of safety. They evoke a sense of oppression, of racism, of violence and abuse.”

But similar to Breed, Schaaf emphasized that defunding the department was not a prudent path to take.

Schaaf said Oakland needs a well-funded, capable police force to keep the streets safe. The city's police officers responded to over 100,000 calls last year, she noted, and have been instrumental in saving lives, preventing crime and bringing justice to victims.

“We have a moment where we can continue to see this divide, or choose a third story, where government intervention and armed response is no longer necessary,” she said.

Schaaf also touted her current budget proposal — one submitted before Floyd's death — as a step in the right direction. It would cut about $5 million from the police department, reflecting citywide reductions due to the coronavirus economic fallout, but add roughly $22 million to programs supporting affordable housing, homelessness services and job training, she said.

“I do not believe we need to defund in order to invest in these community priorities," Schaaf said. "That is what this budget does.”

In an interview last week with ABC7, she added, "We also must invest, not divest in training and holding accountable our officers, to make sure they are policing without any bias, without any unnecessary force, that they are conducting themselves in the ways that are consistent with our progressive values in Oakland, that requires investment."

While offering little in the way of specifics, Schaaf suggested the need to invest in more "non-law enforcement methods of safety," akin to Breed's proposal.

"There is definitely room to create more responses that don't involve a gun or a badge," she said, noting a program in Eugene, Oregon that dispatches mobile crisis response teams, not law enforcement, to handle about 20% of all 911 calls.

Meanwhile, Oakland City Councilwoman Nikki Fortunato Bas is taking a tack more in-line with protesters' demands, proposing Oakland divert some of the $300 million it spends on its police department to other social services and crisis responders.

To start, Bas said $25 million of the police budget should fund trained mediators and social service programs.

“In places like Oakland, where we've been under a negotiated settlement agreement to get to constitutional policing, and we have not achieved that in 17 years, I think the time for reform is over,” she said. “We have to rethink how we get to safety.”

And last week, the Oakland Unified School District got one step closer to dismantling its internal police force after OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell announced her support for a proposal put forward by two school board members.

“I am recommending that we move forward to create a district-wide safety plan to ensure safe, healthy and positive school environments for students and adults without a school district police department," Johnson-Trammell said during a virtual school board meeting. “Together, we can reimagine how to keep our schools safe, healthy and welcoming.”

Activists led by the group Black Organizing Project have been pushing to dissolve the OUSD police department since 2011, when a school district police sergeant shot and killed Raheim Brown, a 20-year-old Black man, in the passenger seat of a car parked near Skyline High School.

Supporters of the proposal argue the cash-strapped district should redirect its police budget to hire more school social workers, psychologists and restorative justice practitioners.

This is an opportunity “to redefine community safety in our schools, to reinvest in our schools, to reinvest in our students and to be a model for this entire country of what is possible,” BOP director Jackie Byers said.

San Jose

SJPD budget (2019-20): $464.5 million
Sworn officers: 959

Protesters also recently paid a visit to San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo's house, similarly calling for him to defund the city's police department. Liccardo has flatly dismissed that demand.

Rather than diverting money to social or health services, Liccardo's proposed 2020-21 budget — of $4.1 billion — would keep SJPD fully funded with a stronger focus on policing reforms, including reallocating $150,000 in police overtime wages for an independent police auditor to review “use of force” policies, and creating a separate city office to address racial inequities in the nation's 10th largest city.

“We have much work to do to confront our long and terrible history of police brutality against black and brown Americans,” he said in a June 8 statement. "Defunding urban police departments won’t help us do it. It is the wrong idea at the worst possible time."

Liccardo said he wants to build on the success of reform measures the city has recently instituted, such as mandatory violence de-escalation and implicit racial bias training, and enhanced data collection to track and publish every pat-down, arrest or use of force incident by the race. Those efforts, he said, all require funding.

In his annual budget message, released last week, Liccardo said he agrees with protesters that now is the time to discuss how to “reduce police involvement in social problems for which they may be poorly equipped or trained.”

But “defunding the police will undermine our efforts to keep San Jose’s community safe — particularly for those members of our community who have suffered the most from systemic racism,” he added. “Our residents have told us, again and again, they want more police — not fewer.”

Activists say Liccardo's incremental approach won't result in meaningful change.

“I’d ask that you begin to listen and hear the voices of Black and brown communities and communities of color here in San Jose, respectfully, sir,” resident Matt Cohen told Liccardo during an emotional virtual public hearing Monday, ahead of the City Council's budget vote.

“You have been very out of touch in the last few weeks, and I think your insistence that you will not defund the police is clearly communicating that you are not listening.”

This post includes reporting from KQED's Sara Hossaini and Vanessa Rancaño.

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