But even in those liberal bastions, the movement is running into resistance.
“These are very blue places, yet we’re still seeing this kind of dynamic with police spending skyrocketing and cuts to community resources and community-led programs,” said Kumar Rao, director of justice transformation at the Center for Popular Democracy, a liberal Brooklyn-based advocacy group. “This is a political issue on one level, but it’s actually very much a bipartisan problem.”
In the nation’s capital, Mayor Muriel Bowser had “BLACK LIVES MATTER” painted on the street leading to the White House after federal officers forcibly cleared out protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets to make way for a presidential photo op outside a historic church. A day later, Black Lives Matter activists painted “DEFUND THE POLICE” next to the original message.
Bowser, however, has proposed a 3.3 percent increase, to $578 million, in police spending in the city’s fiscal year 2021 budget. She told NPR last week that she was “not at all” reconsidering her position.
“We fund the police at the level that we need it funded,” she said.
That stance is at odds, however, with the city council, which has been inundated by the public outcry for police reform. Dozens of public witnesses testified at a six-hour virtual Metropolitan Police Department budget oversight hearing Monday in opposition to increased police spending.
More than 500 had people signed up to testify, and members of the public submitted more than 15,000 written, video and phone submissions, the local news site DCist reported, noting that the list of speakers was cut off due to time constraints. In contrast, only 22 people spoke at last year’s police budget hearing.
“The theme was clear in the testimony, which was a call to evaluate the budget of the Metropolitan Police Department, make appropriate cuts and redirect the funding to meet the needs of residents that have suffered from over-policing and other government disinvestment,” said Kenyan McDuffie, a member of the D.C. Council and chair pro tempore.
In a phone interview, McDuffie told POLITICO the council has been responsive to the public’s suggestions and is “likely” to cut the police department’s budget to reinvest in the community’s priorities, despite Bowser’s opposition. He noted that the council unanimously passed a series of police reforms last week but warned that police reform is only one step in dismantling systemic racism and structural inequities.
The budget process is continuing to play out in D.C., with budget markups set for next week. The full council is scheduled to hold its first vote on the budget on July 7, and the final vote is expected July 28.
The District is just one of dozens of cities from the East Coast to the West Coast grappling with the message behind the “defund police” motto. To critics, it’s a literal call to bankrupt and abolish police departments. But to many leaders, it’s a call to reform policing; rethink when, where and how police should be deployed; cut police budgets; and invest more money in communities, instead of in policing communities.
“You ask people what does defunding the police mean — you ask three people, you’ll get three different opinions,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told California Playbook in a virtual interview Tuesday. “But I think what is crystal clear to all of us is that we are underfunding black communities — whether it’s economic development, whether it’s education, whether it’s health — and other communities of color.”
Garcetti said he supported a reevaluation of police funding but did not embrace calls to fully defund or dismantle police departments.
Rashad Robinson, executive director of the racial justice organization Color of Change, noted that activists across the country are seeing a movement of cities beginning to examine their budgets more closely amid calls to defund police.
“Budgets are moral documents, right? They say what our values are,” he said. “Beyond any rhetoric, beyond words, they tell the story of what we actually hope to achieve by what we put money in, and far too often, when we have problems in our society, we seek to solve them with people with guns.”
Hundreds of residents and activists have flooded virtual council meetings in city after city with calls to defund and reform police departments. According to a POLITICO analysis of city budgets, crime statistics and census data, there’s no direct correlation between police spending and crime.
The grassroots energy overwhelming city councils comes in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25. Floyd’s death led to global protests against police brutality and racism, and “defund the police” — an idea decades in the making — became a rallying cry.
Minneapolis’ city council has since unanimously passed a resolution to disband its police department and replace it after a year of research and community engagement. But Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo want to reform the department rather than dismantle it.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this month pledged to cut the police department’s funding. De Blasio failed to specify how much he would curb spending, but the city council is eying a cut of nearly 20 percent after calling for a 7 percent reduction weeks earlier. The council has a July 1 deadline to pass a budget.
Atlanta’s city council has a special meeting to adopt its budget Friday, a week after 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot by police outside a Wendy’s drive-thru. Monday’s nearly 12-hour council meeting included the playing of nearly 500 public comments that were submitted.
The council approved two resolutions urging the city and the state Legislature to adopt policies implementing comprehensive police reform and calling for a report of recommendations for the city’s approach to public safety, including systematic changes to policies and reinventing the culture of policing, to be submitted by Dec. 1.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a contender to become Biden’s running mate who signed an order this week to reform the police department’s use of force, has said Atlanta is ahead of the curve because it’s already in the process of reallocating public safety funds.
But the city council is poised to add about $12 million to the police department’s budget when it votes Friday, according to Felicia Moore, the council’s president. Moore told POLITICO that city officials had pledged last year to increase police spending for four years following a study by the Atlanta Police Foundation that found Atlanta officers were paid well below the median rates.
“I can’t speak for what their votes will be, but I would tend to think that reneging on a promise to keep our salaries competitive would be something that they wouldn’t want to do,” Moore said.
“All the money’s not gonna be spent on the day that we adopt a budget,” she added. “They may go back and revisit the budget and make some adjustments. I just think the issue came up in a time frame that doesn’t give the council a full opportunity to make the decision” to defund the police department right now.