Defund The Police Movement Gains Momentum As Police Killings Continue
El Paso for Black Lives protest demanding immediate defunding of the El Paso Police Department Wednesday, June 10, in downtown El Paso. BRIANA SANCHEZ/EL PASO TIMES via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY NETOWRK via Reuters

“What have the police been good for?” Samantha Master of Organize Black said. “They have not prevented crime.”

Organizing Black, the group she works with, had just shut down a street in downtown Baltimore, blocking it off with cars so that others could paint ‘Defund the Police’ in giant letters in front of Baltimore’s City Hall. It was June 12, and inside of City Hall, the city council was considering cuts to the police budget, interrogating Commissioner Michael Harrison and other members of command about the Baltimore Police Department’s budget of more than half a billion dollars a year.

“What we know is that policing has not made our community safer,” Master added.

On June 15, Baltimore City Council advanced a plan to cut $22 million from the Baltimore Police Department’s proposed $509 million dollar budget, $9.5 million from the city’s General Fund (city tax dollars), leaving another $12.7 million unallocated, or money that’s expected from grants or other sources.

These cuts, which amount to just 4% of the BPD’s requested budget, fall far short of what Organizing Black demanded.

Baltimore leads the US’s 12 largest cities in per capita police spending, according to a 2017 report by the Center for Popular Democracy. Baltimore spends more on police than it spends on healthcare, housing, civil rights, and its contribution to its local school system combined (Baltimore City Schools’ FY20 budget was $1.1 billion, the majority of which is funded through the state and federal governments).

“We want the Baltimore City Police Department to cut the police budget by $270 million and take that money and invest it in community-based solutions,” Master said on Friday. “What has made our community safer are mental health counselors in schools, ensuring people have well-funded youth programs, and that youth have summer jobs.”

Activists have also called for more funding for Safe Streets, a violence prevention program credited with reducing shootings by over 50%. It faces a $225,000 budget shortfall, and supporters say such grassroots-based violence reduction programs could achieve much more if they were properly resourced. Mayor Jack Young has rejected calls to shift funds cut by the council from the police budget into programs like Safe Streets.

Ralikh Hayes, also with Organizing Black, said on Friday that defunding the police won’t happen overnight.

“I know that removing the police in their footprint in our city and redefining public safety is going to be a long process,” said Hayes. “I’m willing to work with anyone who understands that, who actually wants to improve the city.” Organizing Black did not respond to a request for comment on June 15.

As nationwide protests against police brutality and racism enter their third week after the police killing of George Floyd, the movement to defund the police continues to gain momentum in Baltimore and other cities across the country, even as police continue to kill unarmed African Americans.

Renewed protests erupted in Atlanta over the police killing Rayshard Brooks, who was shot in his own car after falling asleep in a Wendy’s parking lot. Officer Garrett Rolfe, who chased Brooks and fatally shot him in the back, was fired, and Atlanta’s police commissioner Erika Shields resigned in the wake of the shooting.

The Minneapolis City Council voted on June 12 to advance a proposal that would defund and dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a community-led public safety agency. Los Angeles is considering cutting $150 million from the police budget and investing $250 million into Black communities.

The New York City Council has backed a plan to cut $1 billion from the $6 billion New York Police Department budget, and announced its plainclothes units—which have been involved in 31% of fatal shootings since 2000 according to The Intercept—which the police commissioner called a “seismic shift.” (Baltimore’s City Council, for comparison, cut funding for the city’s marine and mounted units.)

San Francisco announced it will stop using police to respond to non-criminal complaints, instead directing non-law enforcement agencies to connect those in need with community-based or city service providers. The plan also calls to “demilitarize police” by barring the use of “chemical weapons such as tear gas, bayonets, and tanks,” against unarmed civilians.

In recent years, there has also been a push to introduce more private police forces to offset police budgets, and the idea has been floated in neoliberal circles as what should happen if police departments are defunded. In particular, campus police forces have been introduced—and opposed by those looking to reduce policing powers.

In Chicago, activists staged a 19-hour sit in at the University of Chicago to demand an end to its campus police force. Last week, Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University announced it was “pausing” the implementation of it’s armed, private police force that was approved by legislators in 2019, but has been opposed by activists for years.

“We want Johns Hopkins to be part of the conversation about what is possible for our city and country in rethinking the appropriate boundaries and responsibilities of policing, and to draw on the energies, expertise, and efforts of our community in advancing the agenda for consequential and enduring reform,” a statement from the University said.

Activists who have opposed the private police force for years say they want Hopkins to abandon the police force all together.

In a statement, The Garland Sit-in and Occupation, which took over a campus building for a month in 2019 to oppose the private police force, cited a recent petition launched by 100 faculty members that’s received 6,000 signatures calling for “the abandonment of all plans for an armed private police force at Johns Hopkins.”

The group added they are also demanding “the reinvestment of the over $50 million dedicated to the private police plan, an immediate cut to all ties with BPD, and for the swift resignation of Ron Daniels and administrators who supported this offensive project, which would further endanger Black and Brown Baltimoreans, staff, and students.”

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.