If phrase “defund the police” is new to you, hearing it has likely raised some questions: What does “defund the police” really mean? Why not reform? How would we handle crime without police? What about violent crime? And if you’re already on board: Where do we start?
The answers to these questions are as complex as they are critical. For many people, the recent protests and activism have unflinchingly exposed what is really at stake: the lives of Black people, who have experienced violence from police in America—by design—since the inception of policing in this country.
At the most basic level, defunding the police means exactly that: taking the money we invest in police and instead investing it in social programs and services that address, at the root, so many of the situations police are called to or become entangled in. It’s part of a larger framework of abolition, a movement to reimagine our entire justice system as one that restores instead of punishes.
That’s a big shift, so it’s expected that you come with questions. What abolitionists ask is that you be curious, that you be open to unlearning ideas you’ve been taught your whole life, that you invite people to help you imagine what restorative justice might look like for your community.
We asked Luis A. Fernandez, PhD, a professor of criminology and criminal justice who studies social movements and the theory and practice of police abolition, to walk us through some of our most basic questions. Over the decades, he’s gotten a lot of questions from people—many from of whom are resistant or afraid. “When somebody comes at me, say, on Facebook, my response is often not to fully engage in that as a scholar,” Fernandez says. “Instead, I say: ‘Do you really want to talk about this? Here’s my phone number. If you really care about what’s happening to crime and what’s happening to people, then we should spend time talking about that. Because I really care about it.’”
“Care” is an apt word here. What do our city budgets say about what we care about—and whom we care for?
A Q&A with Luis A. Fernandez, PhD
What was the genesis of policing in America?
Policing developed in two different ways in the United States: In the South, policing developed around the need to keep enslaved people on plantations. When you have a system set up around slavery, of course, individuals who are enslaved are going to revolt. Slave patrols arose to control that. The slave patrols were mostly local people who were patrolling to make sure either that the enslaved people were not moving from one plantation to the other or, if they were moving, that they had permission. Certain kinds of rules and laws began to develop where an enslaved person could not move from one plantation to the other without a written note; some people consider this to have been one of the beginnings of the identification system. At the same time, enslaved people were not allowed to read or write. The idea was to prevent them from forging their own letters. Out of that developed a series of laws, the slave codes, that didn’t allow enslaved people to have weapons and a series of other things. But in that arena—and this is my short version, by the way—the police developed around the controlling of enslaved people and the suppression of rebellion on the plantations.
In the North, we’re talking about more urbanized places like New York and Boston. Farmers began to move into the cities to work in factories. As the cities got denser and bigger, what developed was something called the watchmen. The watchmen were that typical idea that you have of an individual with a lantern at night, walking around through the streets and making sure that everything is okay. The watchmen were often local individuals who began to get slowly incorporated into the city and its needs. Then people in factories began to rebel against the working conditions, because there was a sharp conflict between the people who were working and wanting more pay and the people who wanted to suppress wages in order to make more profit. So the watchmen developed into a kind of policing meant to control the worker rebellions that begin to occur in cities. That particular dynamic created police in the North that were focused on the control of workers.
That’s a really rough painting of the early history of policing in this country. Different kinds of laws developed in step with policing in both regions: In the South, you see the slave codes, and in the North, you eventually see laws that deal with assembly and gathering and what is needed in order for people to come together to demand higher wages.
From the industrial revolution onward, there were a lot of reforms that took place. In the North, for example, policing began to get taken over by ethnic groups, like the Irish and other groups at different times. Policing became an important institution that allowed some immigrants to get good work and enter the middle class.
What function do police currently serve in American society?
The function of police is to protect the status quo. There are rules and regulations set in place that create a particular historical moment: The police are there to ensure that the social and legal order of that particular historical period is maintained.
Now notice that what I just said says nothing about morality. We can think of the function of law enforcement under slavery, for example, as maintaining that particular social order. Segregation in the South, a more recent example, was allowed by law and implemented both socially and legally. The role of the police is to maintain the law—and to maintain the law under segregation means to maintain segregation.
When people began to protest segregation, the first thing they encountered was the police, because the police’s job was to maintain the social order. And the social order at that particular time was a segregated social order. There you see a dynamic between the law that helps maintain a social order and people trying to change that particular social order. The police are the front line in the maintenance of that order.
How would you characterize the current social order police are upholding?
Racism, unfortunately, is one of the foundations of American history. The United States is born out of a contradiction: a real offering of liberty and freedom at the same time as slavery, which is pure subjugation. You have this contradiction of pure freedom and pure subjugation.
Those two things have played a role in the social order of the United States from the very beginning to now. Even as the means of subjugation has changed from one of slavery to the Jim Crow era to segregation to a new period that we’re in now. Reading The New Jim Crow will help anyone understand that we’re in another social order that still has the contradiction between pure freedom and pure subjugation. We’re in a moment when some people thought that we were in a post-racial world, and in reality, underneath, it is still a racial and unequal order.
These inequalities that exist in the system, they’re not necessarily in the law anymore, because the law is not a segregated law, but they exist in practice in a variety of different ways. And the law is not strong enough to undo these social practices. You have a structural experience where health practices, income practices, education, access to jobs, all of those things are going to be experienced unequally in relation to the social order.
And you also have the daily experience of people of color; you walk through a world that in some ways is dominated by this notion of White supremacy. If you asked me what Whiteness is, I’d say Whiteness is nothing other that: the privilege of not being forced to think of yourself as a racial being. Whiteness disappears as a racial category. It means being in a hegemonic position whereby your entire presence is assumed and doesn’t have to be questioned and you don’t even have to think through it. I think there’s nothing else to Whiteness other than that.
What does it mean to defund the police and why is it a critical movement for creating a society that values Black lives?
You have this social order that is set up in this particular way. It’s an unequal system that creates inequality that’s very serious around race specifically (but also occurs around class, I would say). And the police’s job is to maintain that unequal social order.
What does it mean to defund the police? I would rather answer, “What does it mean to abolish the police?” To abolish the police is to abolish the system that maintains the social order. When movements and people are asking for abolition, what they’re saying is: We want this racial inequality to end. We want it to stop. And we think that the elimination of that system starts with the elimination of the police as an institution. Because that will require us to think about the entire structural apparatus.
Asking for the abolition of police can feel abstract and gigantic. It seems almost ridiculous. But the idea is that the police arise historically at very specific moments. Police have not been around forever; police are historically contingent. They exist in very specific historical settings. And that means that at some point they can also disappear. In fact, the vast majority of history did not have police in existence. And the vast majority of the future could exist without policing. The police are not universal in existence, which is kind of hard for people to understand.
So the movement began to talk about disbanding the police. The idea is to disband the institution and rearrange the city in such a way that the functions that the police are serving will be served by other governmental institutions. So instead of having the police respond to mental illness, for example, have people who are trained to address mental illness respond.
Defunding is another strategy of the abolition movement. Right now, we’re in an economic crisis, one of the biggest ones in multiple generations. And in this crisis, government services are being cut. Teachers are being let go. Budgets are going down. But the one thing that doesn’t seem to be getting cut is the police. The notion is, at the very least, at the most fair level: Let’s match the cutting of education to the cutting of police. If the education budget is being cut 25 percent, the police budget should be cut 25 percent. Or better yet, let’s grab the 25 percent and move it to education or health care or epidemiology that follows this pandemic that we’re going to be living in for a few years.
What other institutions, besides the police, should be disbanded if we want to live in an equal society?
There’s a debate within criminology and a debate within the social movements that I study around trying to figure out how this uneven system is created and supported. One example is the prison system. If you look at who goes to prison for long periods of time, Black and Latinx people are disproportionately represented. It’s not because they commit more crime; they are prosecuted and sentenced at higher rates than White people for the same kinds of crimes.
Think of this system as a conveyor belt: the police arrest, the arrest then goes to the local jail, then to the courts, then to prisons.
Policing, courts, and correctional systems are interlinked. Some activists have focused on abolishing prisons; others, on reforming sentencing in the court. We talk about where to put attention in this particular conveyor belt so that we can reduce these inequalities that result by the time people get to prisons. People are now beginning to understand the police as the entry point to this particular system. If we changed the way police function, the courts, sentencing, and prison systems would be defused. The idea of defunding the police is actually the idea of changing the entire criminal justice system so that the carceral state is addressed—but it’s addressed at the beginning point.
Does police presence deter crime?
Criminologists have been debating and thinking about the relationship between crime and what produces it for at least a hundred years. In that time, multiple theories and perspectives have emerged. There is absolutely not a single definite answer to what produces crime. There are, however, moments when people convince themselves that they understand exactly what produces crime, and policies are implemented in relation to that.
If you ask me, the production of crime is one of the most complex social phenomena, and there are multiple factors that lead to it. But I know that more police in the streets generally does not produce less crime. Otherwise any city that had more police officers would be the safest. And that’s not the case.
How does an abolitionist framework address violent crime without police?
At one level, I think the abolitionist claim is a Utopian claim. I don’t mean that as a dismissive thing. I mean Utopian as an ideal. It’s the kind of thing we need to shoot for: Democracy is a Utopian idea, and we have to choose it completely and move for it and constantly struggle to be as democratic as possible, and we can never fully get there.
The question of violence is a loaded question in a variety of ways. We need to understand what violence we are talking about. Where’s the violence been during these protests? A lot of the violence is coming from the police. The people who are armed—the people who have the bean bags and the stun grenades and the pepper spray and all of that—are the police. The crowds, from what I’ve seen, have done property destruction. It’s very important to make the distinction between breaking something or burning something and killing someone. Humans are not property. We are better than property. We are the thing that has to be protected over all else.
Where does the majority of violence come from? Some people might argue that a lot of violence comes from institutions—from police institutions, from military institutions. If we really want to do something about violence, we have to do something about those particular institutions that are violent. And from some perspectives, you would say the violence is much more devastating when it comes from an institution.
But this question is really about social order. I’m not an idiot; humans can be not very nice! Humans can be violent. How do we deal with that? Developing social programs is one possibility. We rearrange institutions so that instead of the police, other institutions deal with and de-escalate violence. We can begin to retrain and reeducate and restructure our schools in such a way that they begin to engage humans in a different way. We reduce the criminal justice system so that it’s a lot less punishment-based and much more restoration-based. That’s going to change both the systems and the culture.
Why can’t we just reform the police?
There have been issues with policing from the start. The system has been in a constant state of reform from the moment that it arose. And there have been some very important reforms to professionalize the field in ways that are meaningful. But one of the arguments from the abolitionist perspective is that reform doesn’t work, meaning that reform doesn’t eliminate the function. We have to focus on the function of police, not the practice.
Under the Obama administration, the federal government reformed the police in Minneapolis after the first Black Lives Matter moment. They made a series of reforms that were really important: They diversified the police leadership; they did de-escalation training; they created rules that said officers who step out of line should be punished. Minneapolis’s police department was probably undergoing one of the strongest reforms in the last decade. And here we are five years later.
If you buy the argument that police are really about maintaining the status quo, then it means that you can maintain the status quo nicely, or you can maintain the status quo not nicely. You could do it through a model of community policing—but you’re still maintaining a status quo that is unequal. You still have the same rates of incarceration, the same rates of punishment.
Reform shifts our perception away from the function of police to the practice of police. Reformers believe that the practice of police is the issue, and if we change the practice, we change the function. That assumption is what’s under question.
If you’re not a full-time community organizer, how do you help advance the abolitionist movement?
One immediate way is to support the people in the street. The number of people who have joined in the streets is overwhelming. I’m almost tearing up thinking about it. I never thought I’d see it, as somebody who has spent half a lifetime studying this. Lend your support, be there, be present.
If you’re out there and you’re looking for something to do, the simplest thing you can do right now is write your city council exactly where you are, where you live, and ask them to reduce the funding of police and move it to other places we need funding, like education, health care, social services, helping unemployed people, helping people without homes. Your local city council is having to make very tough choices right now because the economy is in dire straits. One place where we can begin to save money to do other things is police budgets.
Next step: Go to city council meetings. Look for groups that are already moving in these particular directions. This is happening nationally right now almost everywhere. It looks to me like the people on the streets are starting to focus in on the locality.
Another thing you can do is support organizations that are doing really good work. Send a little money. Five or ten dollars becomes a gigantic amount of money when a lot of people do that. Tiny contributions are important.
Join groups that are engaging in this. I live in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s a small town of about 70,000 people. There are at least five different groups that have organized in the last two weeks. I mean, if it’s happening in Fargo, it’s going to be happening in your community because it’s happening everywhere. Join some of those groups.
Also: Read. I can’t stress enough that this stuff is not intuitive. It hides. The social reality hides. And we have to read. So pick up some of the books and engage with them. That doesn’t mean you have to agree. I’m not saying, Hey, read this and be indoctrinated. Read on multiple sides—and then make up your own mind about what you think is happening.
Luis A. Fernandez, PhD, is the chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northern Arizona University. His teaching and research focus on social control, social movements, and globalization in late modernity, and he is active in various community-based efforts related to immigration and policing. He is the author and editor of several books, including Policing Dissent: Social Control and the Anti-Globalization Movement, Contemporary Anarchist Studies, and Shutting Down the Streets. His work also appears in various book chapters and journals, including Social Justice, Contemporary Political Theory, Critical Criminology, and Qualitative Sociology.
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