The Logic and Limits of “Defund the Police”

“Defund the police” has dominated discussion on police reform since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. The issue has been front and center in the mayoral race for New York City, receiving something of a repudiation with Eric Adams’s victory in the Democratic primary. According to a report at Bloomberg Citylab, some cities have acted on the “defund the police” logic, though not as many or as much as activist groups would like. Fadel Assan writes at Axios that 20 big cities reduced police budgets. Still, the Citylab authors write that “political realities” prevented “meaningful cuts,” in most places. Many cities, including 24 of 42 where Democrats gained vote shares in last year’s elections, actually increased police budgets.

My hometown Austin, Texas cut its police budget more than any other city percentage-wise, by about a third. Perhaps a contributing factor is that, a few weeks before Floyd’s death, an Austin police officer shot and killed Mike Ramos, a black and Latino man who was unarmed at the time. The district attorney’s office has charged the officer with murder. According to Assan, Austin previously spent 40 percent of its budget on policing, and is spending 26 percent in its new budget—though some investigative reporting calls into question the extent and depth of these cuts. The city council reallocated some of the money into mental health, domestic violence, and other violence prevention, and combatting homelessness.

You’ve probably seen a number of essays and videos explaining what defunding the police “really means.” And there is some logic to the idea, relating to the imperative of addressing root causes of crime and social dysfunction rather than punitively responding to symptoms. Still, cutting or reallocating police budgets should not be the litmus test for successful police reform. Rather, indicators of success should relate to how well cities improve public safety and quality of life for residents.

More fundamentally, the “defund” logic raises the question of the relationship between public spending on social services and the health of a free society. That relationship may not be as linear as defund proponents think, and city budgets alone don’t provide a complete picture of civic effort or societal flourishing. Yet, the reasonable elements of the logic behind “defund the police” point to the need for multidimensional civic effort to address social problems through a renewed sense of civic agency and the “spirit of association” that Alexis de Tocqueville praised in American democracy. 

The Logic

One strand of the defund argument is that police often end up responding to situations where a more fine-tuned, specialized response would be appropriate. There is some evidence to support the claim, particularly with regard to mental health. According to a 2015 Washington Post investigation, a quarter of people police shot and killed that year suffered from mental illness. Prisons and jails, too, are filled with people who have substance abuse and mental illness problems. As has been frequently remarked, Cook County Jail in Illinois is among the largest mental health “providers” in the country. Barry Friedman makes a strong case for rethinking first responder services and the role of police to “replace a system that relies on a few harsh tools [with] one that offers a range of alternative approaches to the actual problems that police are called to address.” You don’t have to believe police across the U.S. are integrally racist or over-militarized to concede that cities are relying on police to solve too many social problems.

Thus, the broader point of the defund argument involves a more general critique of American social policy and public spending at the federal, state, and local levels of government. Christopher Ingraham notes that, at the national level, spending on “law and order” doubles welfare spending in terms of the share of national income. Some big cities like Austin spend as much as 40 percent of their budgets on police; Minneapolis spent around 30 percent before the recent restructure. Along the same lines, Annie Lowry writes that the U.S. spends more on policing and security than other rich countries, yet we still have higher murder rates. Ingraham describes a pincer movement of increases in law and order spending and decreases in welfare spending since the 1980s: “We funneled money away from poverty prevention to beef up our response to one of poverty’s biggest consequences: crime. We now treat the symptoms rather than the underlying disease.” Defund activists and supporters would have us reimagine public safety to treat the diseases that cause crime rather than responding violently and punitively to the symptoms.

Defund advocates support not just cutting spending on police but also reallocating funding toward social services. These might include investments in public health to treat mental illness and addiction, along with job training and measures to address homelessness. Austin’s city council, for instance, rerouted some of its police cuts toward purchasing hotels to offer free housing for homeless people. The logic is that, rather than providing social services like education, job training, and mental healthcare, city governments are responding to symptoms of social breakdown with punitive measures, rather than dealing with the root causes. I think there is something to this, particularly with regard to mental health and substance abuse in the aftermath of the deinstitutionalization movement of the last half-century. Progressives and left-liberals support spending more on social services for obvious reasons, but conservatives too, might reason that overreliance on police as primary responders to problems like mental illness is a misguided strategy, a band-aid covering a deep wound.

David Brown, former Police Chief of Dallas and current Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, powerfully expressed the idea that American society is putting too much on police in a 2016 press conference related to the investigation of a shooting in July that killed five police officers and injured two others:

We’re asking cops to do too much in this country…. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding. Let the cops handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding. Let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. You know, schools fail. Give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African American community is being raised by single women. Let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems. And I just ask for other parts of our democracy, along with the free press, to help us. To help us, and not put that burden all on law enforcement to resolve.

Brown may not be a defund proponent, but he captures the broader logic behind the slogan. It contains a nugget of truth, perhaps a larger nugget than its proponents realize.

The Limits

There is a reasonable logic behind “defund,” but it’s incomplete. Generally, focusing on budget cuts is too input-oriented. True, budgets matter because they signal social priorities. But what if we have to spend more on police to improve performance? Improving police training and accountability, reforms that have broad public support, might cost more money, a point President Biden made and that policing expert Peter Moskos agrees with. In other words, the imperative of police reform is likely in conflict with the idea of reallocating funds from police departments to social services. There is also no reason increased spending on effective anti-poverty or mental health programs must come specifically from police budgets, particularly if improved training and attracting recruits with higher qualifications is a part of needed police reform. Reformers should keep the focus on improving outcomes, whether that means more or less spending. Rather than focusing on budget cuts, activists should focus on clearance rates for serious crimes, crime reduction, and accountability.

Second, recognizing the interrelatedness of different policy areas and sectors of society is wise, but the assumption that more city spending will necessarily improve outcomes with regard to wicked challenges like homelessness and poverty is questionable. Consider the notion that Austin City Council has acted upon: instead of policing, governments should pour money into housing to solve homelessness—the “housing first” idea. This, as Theodore Dalrymple has written in Law and Liberty, is questionable as the solution to homelessness. Findings from housing first programs in California are mixed. A Rand Corporation report documented some success and overall savings in Los Angeles because of a decrease in health expenditures for participants in the housing program. On the other hand, Stephen Eide shows in a Manhattan Institute report that California’s unsheltered homeless population has increased in tandem with the increase in free supportive housing. No doubt, subsidized public housing has helped some people onto their feet. On the other hand, the approach may have contributed to a further demand for free housing, and thus to the continued problem of homelessness. The defund logic suggests we have the know-how and simply need to reallocate spending to solve social problems like mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness, but that’s not the case.

Some social problems we face relate more to the generation of social capital and personal resiliency than the need for resources, though of course they are entangled. Recall, for instance, Brown’s point about family breakdown. The defund logic points our attention to these underlying social problems, but stops short of promoting the multidimensional civic, interpersonal, and cultural effort needed to address them. That brings us to the more fundamental problem with the defund logic: an implied social theory overstating the role of government spending and understating the role of other civic initiatives in promoting personal and social wellbeing. This view is false both descriptively and philosophically.

Activists treat defunding as a litmus test for seriousness on criminal justice and social reform, but politicians and analysts should not.

Descriptively, city government spending on social services only captures a fraction of a city’s social services, leaving out all the resources and volunteer hours city residents pour into the activities of churches, nonprofits, and schools, all of which contribute to civic vibrancy and health. In greater Austin (Austin, Georgetown, Round Rock, and San Marcos), for instance, nonprofit mental health agencies draw in around $145 million in annual revenues. Austin’s nonprofit sector as a whole rakes in over $11 billion annually, more than double the combined city budgets of greater Austin. Some of that probably comes from the city government, but obviously not all of it. A large portion probably also comes from the state and national governments, though again, not all of it. Further, foundations have funded some of the kinds of efforts defund advocates want to see spending reallocated toward, like the RIGHT Care program in Dallas, which included paramedics and social workers in responses to emergency mental health calls. 

Philosophically, to treat the city government as the sole or primary provider of social services is to adopt a stance of impotence and passivity unbecoming of a free people. Tocqueville, ruminating on the art of association in Democracy in America, discussed the challenge of governance in democratic societies, where civic association is the main way of getting things done:

Those who govern democratic societies are in a very difficult position. If they always want to take the place of great associations, they prevent the spirit of association from developing and they take on a burden that weighs them down; and if they rely only on associations, very useful and often necessary things are not done by anyone.

The trick is to figure out what citizens can do for ourselves and what government has to do for us. Doing too much with government, fully embracing a services model, can undermine citizens’ sense of agency. Tocqueville urges us to keep in mind that preserving and spreading the spirit of association is essential to the freedom and health of a democratic society: “The principal aim of good government has always been to make the citizens more and more able to do without its help. That is more useful than the help can be.”

An alternative, more holistic social theory would treat the primary job of civil government as providing law and order, along with some commercial and social regulation. Unlike with other services, the civil government is the sole agency tasked with administering justice. Civil governments may help provide other public goods, but that’s not their main function. On this view, a city spending 30 or 40 percent of its budget on policing is not strange in the least. Other agencies then take on other social functions, providing services and partnering to solve social problems and improve the community.  

Renewing the Spirit of Association 

Activists treat defunding as a litmus test for seriousness on criminal justice and social reform, but politicians and analysts should not. In the main, it appears the moves of city officials in Austin and elsewhere to cut police and reallocate police budgets has been a political gamble in response to protests with uncertain consequences, both politically and in terms of the wellbeing of city-dwellers. Amidst rising crime rates, defund is not likely to remain a political winner, to the extent it ever was. Eric Adams’s claim that “public safety is the prerequisite for prosperity” is one that resonates when violent crime is rising.

A good deal of the impetus for police reform and the defund movement has to do with racial disparities in regard to the criminal justice system and other indicators of health and wellbeing. Yet, some astute analysts have observed that black voters, including Democrats, are not uniformly in favor of defunding police. While desiring police reform, black respondents to Pew surveys also tend to express more concern about crime than others. Jim Henson and Joshua Blank point out similar “cross-pressures” for Democratic voters of color in Texas. Polling by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune suggests most Democrats didn’t favor defunding police even in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s murder, and support for the idea is concentrated among white liberals.

Regardless of the political prospects, advocacy for defunding and reallocating police budgets preceded the events of summer 2020, and will continue after it. Some of this advocacy draws on a line of thinking that the police and the U.S. justice system are fundamentally unjust because they were built to defend “white supremacy.” Some dedication to the defund proposition is, I think, born of straightforward, genuine, and well-meaning adherence to the logic outlined above.  Flawed as it is, the defund logic points to the truth that a healthy society depends on strong social institutions such as families, community associations, and religious congregations. Solutions to deep social problems are not as simple as a budget reallocation, but that does not preclude renewed civic effort to address problems of mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness. Perhaps, despite itself, the logic of “defund the police” can point American society in the right direction, toward a renewed spirit of association.