In June, more than 15 million people across the US protested against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others, making the Black Lives Matter protests the largest movement in US history. Protestors called for their cities to defund, downsize, or eliminate police departments, which can include cutting police budgets, reallocating funding to social supports, and abolishing and replacing police departments with public safety systems grounded in public health rather than punishment. These calls to defund the police seek to end police violence, which disproportionately harms and kills Black people, Indigenous people, Latinx people, and persons with disabilities.
In response to the protests, leaders in several cities pledged to cut police budgets. We explored whether leaders followed through, what challenges they faced, and how community members responded in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and San Francisco.
Following a month of protests after the police killing of George Floyd and calls from local activists, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a proposal to abolish the city’s police department. The amendment (PDF) proposes replacing the police department with “a department of community safety and violence prevention, which will have responsibility for public safety services prioritizing a holistic, public health–oriented approach,” led by a director with non–law enforcement expertise.
However, the Minneapolis Charter Commission voted against including a referendum on the November ballot to eliminate the police department’s minimum staffing requirement and voted to take an additional 90 days to review the council’s proposal, causing it to miss the deadline to appear on the ballot. The council now hopes to include a similar measure on the November 2021 ballot and is focusing on the mayor's budget proposal, which includes a nearly 10 percent increase in funding for health services and a 7 percent cut to police funding.
Though the mayor opposes abolishing the police and the chair of the charter commission called the council’s proposal too unclear, a poll of Minneapolis voters found that 61 percent planned to vote for the charter change, and 32 percent planned to vote against it. Importantly, 70 percent of Black respondents were in favor of the measure.
While the June protests amplified calls to defund the police, activists in LA were already organizing to oppose Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020–21, which raised allocations for police spending and cut funding for most other city agencies.
In response to the proposed 7 percent increase (about $122 million) in police funding, Black Lives Matter-LA assembled a group of community-based organizations to create the “People’s Budget.” The People’s Budget proposes reducing the share of the city’s discretionary spending that is allocated to the Los Angeles Police Department from 54 percent, which totals more than $3 billion annually, to 5.7 percent, and reallocating funding to support housing and mental health services.
On July 1, the Los Angeles City Council approved a $150 million police budget cut, including cutting police hiring and reducing the number of sworn officers. According to councilman Curren Price, two-thirds of these funds will be reallocated to support “services in Black, Latino, and disenfranchised communities, such as hiring programs and summer youth jobs.”
Police union leaders vehemently opposed the cuts, while others criticized them as not nearly enough to address the outsize police budget. Even with this $150 million decrease, more than half of the city’s discretionary spending will continue to go to the police.
On June 15, the Baltimore City Council voted to cut about $22 million (about 4 percent) from the police department’s $550 million budget. But only the mayor can reallocate funding, and he stands by his original budget proposal.
A 2017 consent decree between Baltimore and the US Department of Justice (DOJ), which was reached after a DOJ investigation into the 2015 arrest and police killing of Freddie Gray found that Baltimore police officers routinely violated residents' civil rights, complicates efforts to defund the police. In July, US District Court Chief Judge James K. Bredar said Baltimore has a legal obligation under the decree to continue with its reform efforts—efforts which require increased police funding and more officers.
Local advocacy groups vocally oppose these reforms, and instead advocate for community-led peace forces and institutional changes to public safety systems so police are used only as a last resort.
In June, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and supervisor Shamann Walton committed to reallocate funding from the police department’s $700 million budget to the Black community in the 2020–21 fiscal budget. To determine the reallocation, leaders commissioned a report by the city’s Human Rights Commission (PDF), which was informed by a citywide survey and meetings with community members and organizations.
On July 31, Mayor Breed announced a $120 million cut to San Francisco law enforcement agencies. Relying on the commission’s report, she proposed reallocating 60 percent toward mental health, wellness, and homelessness, and 35 percent toward education, youth development, and economic opportunity over the next two years.
Unlike in many other cities with proposed police budget cuts, police chief Bill Scott expressed support for the reforms, responding, “There’s going to be pain and sacrifice in terms of making these cuts, but we’ll absorb it.” However, activists called the cuts surface level and criticized the mayor for not fulfilling her previously announced plan to replace armed officers with trained professionals to respond to nonviolent calls for service.
Police budget cuts are an important step, but not the norm
These reactions demonstrate responsivity by municipal leaders to the protests and obstacles faced by people advocating to defund the police. Though a few major cities made headlines for their announced budget cuts, more than half increased or maintained police spending as a percentage of their discretionary spending. Overall, police spending as a share of general funds in 34 large cities decreased less than 1 percent from last year.
Budget decisions are also happening during a pandemic, which has caused significant state and local budget shortfalls and cuts. Further, cutting police funding is not enough for protestors, who are also calling for cities to invest in non–law enforcement crime prevention and interruption strategies, as well as holistic social supports. To achieve these goals, it will be necessary to hold leaders accountable to the pledges they have made and to the needs of the communities they serve.
Research can play a critical role in supporting accountability and change. As cities across the US consider defunding the police, research about police budgets, community-driven public safety investment, and the effects of downsizing, abolishing, and replacing police departments can empower people and communities to build a more equitable and just system.