The movement to defund the police has grown in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25. The idea of defunding police is rooted in the decades-old prison abolitionist movement and amid increasing protests, and increasing police violence against protesters, it has become a topic of national conversation.
“The movement is aimed at creating a world where public safety is not defined by police and crime but how communities use their resources to care for each other,” said Ralikh Hayes, Deputy Director of Organizing Black, a grassroots member-led collective demanding Baltimore cut police spending in half to fund education and social services in disinvested Black communities.
Democratic and Republican leadership has so far rejected the idea of defunding the police, “The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms,” presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wrote in a recent USA Today op-ed. Instead Biden has proposed spending an additional $300 million on community policing, along with reforms that activists have rejected as ineffectual.
“We know that policing in this country hasn’t worked for a long time and Biden’s response shows how out of touch the Democratic Party is with its base of Black people,” Hayes said.
Grassroots pressure has resulted in victories on a local level across the country. A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council supports disbanding its police department. Mayors in Los Angeles and New York have vowed to cut their multi-billion dollar police budgets to invest in local communities. In Baltimore, activists and progressive council people targeted recent week-long budget hearings to highlight excessive police spending in the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget, which is greater than education, healthcare and civil rights combined.
For the 2020 fiscal year, the city budgeted $536 million for the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) versus $278 million for public education (Baltimore City Schools’ FY20 budget was $1.1 billion, the majority of which is funded through the state). Baltimore spends the most per capita on police among large cities.
City Council President Brandon Scott, recently declared the winner of the June 2 Democratic primary– which effectively decides the election—said he is committed to reducing police spending and increasing spending on social programs such as education.
Scott says he has identified tens of millions of dollars in potential cuts in the police budget, urging Mayor Jack Young in a June 8 letter to “re-allocate its budget away from the current dependence on the police department.” Scott went on to say, “we must reinvest these dollars in our historically underfunded neighborhoods by building a new, more equitable system and bringing our budget into greater alignment with our values as a city.” Young responded by cautioning “against making any dramatic cuts that may result in unintended consequences for the City of Baltimore.” Due to Baltimore’s “Strong Mayor” system of governance, only the mayor has power to add money to the budget, the council can only cut funding.
Hayes, who is helping to organize a protest on June 12, the day City Council will vote on the police budget, said Scott’s proposal was not enough. Organizing Black demands state lawmakers turn over control of the Baltimore Police Department to local authorities (unlike most police departments, Baltimore City’s department is a state-controlled agency).
Hayes explained that grassroots-led efforts that operate on a shoe-string budget have far better results in reducing violence than Baltimore’s scandal-ridden police department.
“We know for a fact that programs like Safe Streets, community mediations…work, and need to be brought to scale,” he said.
Studies have found that the Baltimore Ceasefire movement, which fights violence through outreach, connecting vulnerable populations with resources and by building community, reduced shootings by 52 percent. Meanwhile the violence interruption program Safe Streets has been credited with reducing shootings by over 50% in “zones” where it is operating.
Hayes says opposition to defunding the police is rooted in racist views that Black communities need policing instead of the investment in education and other social services given to affluent, white communities.
“It shows that they are not ready to redefine what public safety looks like,” Hayes said. “I challenge them to follow Black leadership, and trust we have thought about this for a while and that we’re ready to create a pathway to make that happen.”
Leading calls to defund the police are The Youth, an organization of young people in Baltimore who have led a series of marches that have brought thousands into the streets in Baltimore over the past couple of weeks.
“We decided this is now or never. As Black youth, our lives are on the line,” said A’niya Taylor an 11th grader at City College High School, who helped organize a June 10 march from The School for the Arts to the City Schools Headquarters.
Taylor’s demands include cutting the police budget to fund clean drinking water in schools, increased mental healthcare for students, and a culturally relevant curriculum that empowers Black students.
The Youth are also demanding an end to the presence of police in schools.
“There’s a chance if we don’t do this, we could be the next victims of police brutality,” Taylor said.
Many, including parent-activist Melissa Schober have noted Baltimore City’s investment in policing pales in comparison to its investment in youth, while spending more than $7 million dollars a year on its own school police force: “Given the economic downturn, it’s really, concerning that we’re going to spend $7 million of scarce resources…on a police force,” Schober said.
She explained that Baltimore City school students meanwhile, don’t have drinkable water, efficient HVAC, textbooks, laptops or internet access.
Officials in Prince George’s County, Maryland announced they were joining a growing number of districts such as Minneapolis and Portland to remove school resource officers (SRO) from schools. On June 10, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender joined that demand.
“We cannot wait for a catastrophe at the hands of an armed police officer in our schools to make a change,” OPD’s statement read. “By removing SROs from our schools, this Board can take the first important step in dismantling the school security apparatus, and reimagine schools without police. Together, we can create the safe schools our students deserve.”
Eleventh grader Taylor said that police simply aren’t necessary in schools.
“I feel like students don’t need police, we go to schools to learn, for a lot of students schools are a safe place for us, ” Taylor said. “When we see police officers it’s a fear factor, we should invest in guidance counselors and prevention teams.”