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This article is written by Christina Fernandes (BBA LL.B (H) of Amity Law School, Noida pursuing internship under Legal Vidhya.

Recent Movements of Police Defunding & its Effects


The appeal to “defund the police,” made by grassroots activists in the summer of 2020, has dominated public discourse. Yet, there is a lot of doubt over the demand. In this essay, we use the word “defund” at its value to describe and differentiate between four distinct substantive policy stances that may be bolstered by legislative changes to police budget. It argues that ideological critique launched by grassroots activists who use the term “defund the police” as a discursive tactic to highlight deeper changes in government practises that normalise structural marginalisation of black people enforced through criminal law exists on top of policy debates between these positions. By understanding the societal context of the desire to defund the police, this study illuminates two crucial points for the public at the present time. The first thing it does is urge people to think about how potential legislative changes would affect police finances while also bearing in mind the institutional marginalisation of black people. Second, the desire to “defund the police” has created a condition of uncertainty that the Essay urges the public to embrace when thinking about future social changes.


In May of 2020, “Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Floyd’s murder and the police assassination of Breonna Taylor sparked political demonstrations throughout the United States that summer of 2020, and numerous other instances of police killing unarmed black people, often without officers being held accountable by the law. The slogan that emerged from the protests was simple: Defund the police. But what does that imply? The position is contentious as a public-policy demand. Pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle have flatly rejected the demand. At the same time, the demand emerges at a critical juncture in which people from across the political spectrum are expressing interest in advancing criminal legal reforms, including policing, albeit for very different reasons. Unsurprisingly, policymakers are proposing reforms that will, in effect, reduce police funding, despite their discomfort with the term defund the police. However, because the demand for police defunding has become a political lightning rod, there is considerable uncertainty about the significance of such reforms. This research paper aims to clear the air, thereby facilitating public discourse. It uses a literal interpretation of defunding to clarify and distinguish four alternative substantive policy positions that can be validated by legal reforms relating to police funding. It contends that policy debates between these positions exist on top of the ideological critique launched by grassroots activists who use the term defund the police as a discursive tactic to highlight deeper transformations in government practices that normalize structural marginalization of black people enforced through criminal law. This paper provides two important insights by recognizing the socially contextualized meaning of the call to defund the police. First, it emphasizes that when evaluating legal reforms that may impact police budgets, the place to begin is not with funding or policing, but with the structural marginalization of black people, which we have all been conditioned not to question. Second, when considering future social reforms, it encourages the public to embrace the state of confusion created by the demand to defund the police. I’ve divided my research into 2 parts. Part 1 is, where it highlights the significant implications that each meaning has for people who are structurally marginalized because of their race or class. Part 2 situates grassroots activists’ demand for police defunding in a social and historical context, separating critiques of the demand as a discourse from debates between the policy positions described in Part I. It contends that the controversy surrounding the call to defund the police stems in part from grassroots activists’ substantive demand to confront the structural marginalization of race- and class-vulnerable populations enforced through criminal law. The controversy is also fueled by grassroots activists’ attempt to assert epistemic authority over two concepts—policing and defunding—that legitimize changes in government policy and make structural marginalization appear unresolvable.

Part 1- A Classification of Defunding Police Reforms

The transitive verb defund means “to withdraw funding from or to withdraw financial support from. In the context of US practices, defunding refers to either a reduction or elimination of funding. It is critical to grasp the literal meaning of the term because much public debate revolves around social interpretations of the term in the context of policing. As discussed in greater detail in Part II, grassroots activists’ demand in 2020 to defund the police in response to police killings of unarmed black women and men has a specific, contextualized meaning. To fully grasp its significance, we must separate it from the ongoing policy debates surrounding legal reforms that affect police budgets. This section situates the literal act of defunding the police within four different policing policy positions. It identifies various legal reform proposals that support each of those positions. This section progresses from those who are most willing to engage with structural marginalization enforced by criminal law to those who are least concerned with that reality.

Abolition of the Police Force

Abolitionists rejects the notion that imprisonment and policing are solutions to the United States’ social, political, and economic problems. They believe that reform efforts are doomed to fail after years of attempting to reform the police. Abolitionists emphasize that the police are a surveillance and control apparatus for marginalized populations, particularly black people. As a result, to reimagine public safety, the goal should be to abolish the police and other arms of the prison industrial complex. The abolitionist project is both pragmatic (reducing police presence, for example, should reduce police killings) and existential (reflecting a long-term goal of replacing police with alternative means of ensuring safety).  When abolitionists discuss how to respond to police violence, they frequently refer to the Illinois Reparations for Police Torture Victims Act, which was drafted by survivors and activists in response to the heinous acts of torture committed by the Chicago Police Department under the late Jon Burge. This legislation passed in May 2015, provides non-monetary reparations for survivors and their families, including an official apology, free psychological counseling, free education at City Colleges, and job training; it requires public schools to teach about the torture in eighth and tenth-grade curriculums; and it authorizes the establishment of a permanent memorial in the city. Furthermore, the City of Chicago set aside $5.5 million to compensate living torture survivors.

The ordinance did not directly defund the police, but neither did the funding for the reparations ordinance come from the city’s fund set aside to cover police liability cases. In Chicago, that fund is set aside in the police budget to fund civil lawsuits resulting from police misconduct that the city anticipates will occur each year. The funding for the ordinance, on the other hand, requires the city to compensate torture victims with general taxpayer funds. Whether or not the reparation ordinance deters police from engaging in wrongful behavior in the future, the City of Chicago must invest in the futures of the marginalized communities most impacted by police violence, in both financial and non-financial terms. In effect, the reparation legislation requires the city to redirect taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent on policing to alternative means of connecting and understanding one another. Defunding the police, according to abolitionists, is the first step towards abolishing the police. It is a demand for non-reformist reforms of the police, beginning with divestment from the police and the expanding carceral state. Importantly, abolitionists do not seek to eliminate police tomorrow or to live in a world without substitutes. Rather, they seek to forge connections that are sensitive to the needs of society’s most marginalized citizens, particularly intersectionally vulnerable black people. In the long run, such a world would not have police, in any form or function. Police defunding moves society in that direction.

Police Re-Evaluation

Defunding the police can also entail agreeing with the notion that existing public resources should be reprioritized to promote healthier communities. Significant amounts of public money are spent on policing, but more enforcement does not always make a neighborhood safer, especially in economically poor black and brown communities. Other types of government expenditure could improve safety while simultaneously producing a more egalitarian society. Recalibrationists want to transform society by changing police responsibilities, whereas abolitionists attempt to transform society by abolishing policing. These changes could be brought about by cuts in police funding. Consider Chicago Alderperson Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez’s newly proposed legislation to improve the city’s public mental health infrastructure using cash from the Chicago Police Department budget. Due to state and city financial shortfalls, Chicago has shuttered or privatized more than half of its city-run health facilities since 2011. Instead, the Cook County jail has emerged as a significant mental health resource for Chicago’s marginalized residents. Sanchez’s proposed legislation would establish a publicly funded and operated Chicago Crisis Response and Care System within the Chicago Department of Public Health. Chicago would also have emergency response teams available around the clock. It would also designate non-police social welfare actors to respond to calls for help linked to mental health. By reducing the number of times police react to persons suffering mental health crises, the Act may minimise police violence. Under this plan, funding for law enforcement would be reduced publicly. The budget, including overtime, of the Chicago Police Department would be used to fund this system of mental health services. So, funds from the police budget would be made available to the city to enhance the Cook County jail’s existing mental health programmes. The strategy’s effects on policing would be immediate. The measure would, in effect, restrict the duties of Chicago police officers. Politicians who favour defunding measures with a focus on recalibration share the abolitionists’ deep concern for structural marginalisation. People of colour and the economically disadvantaged have been hit hardest by Chicago’s mental health care crisis. The Chicago Police Department may benefit greatly from Rodriguez Sanchez’s idea since it would lead to the creation of new public infrastructure that would assume the responsibilities of certain policemen. This would free up resources now being used for other purposes, allowing police to fulfil some of the duties that recalibrations depend on officers to maintain. In that regard, the law is complementary to the efforts of legal scholars who recognise the value of law enforcement. Recalibrations argue that cutting police budgets is not intended to lead to the eventual elimination of all police forces but rather to a transformation in the function of such forces within society. As a result, the distinction between the first and second definitions of police defunding is complex. Recalibrationists would not view the reparations ordinance that is directed towards abolitionist goals as being part of their agenda, although abolitionists may. Rodriguez Sanchez’s proposed legislation may be considered part of their agenda. Both strive to create alternate means of ensuring community safety, but recalibrationists also seek to explicitly reform police organizations. Such developments are, at most, a byproduct of abolitionists’ long-term goal of ending policing. The influence of the police is important to recalibrations. Defunding the police, from a recalibration standpoint, can be a first step towards fundamentally changing the police, which in turn can reform society as well.

Part B:- Defund the Police as a Discourse

In the context of policing, defund is a flexible and elastic term. Each of the measures listed above could technically defund the police, but only a few of them fit within the framework of grassroots activists’ current demand to defund the police. The fact that many people do not see some of these reforms as defunding the police highlights the simple fact that the meaning of defund the police is socially and historically situated. Thus, before analyzing whether and what kind of legislative reforms can meet the need at this time, we must first grasp what the demand implies in the social context, as well as why the demand is politically and historically significant. 

As this Part explains, the demand to defund the police arose as part of a critique of the structural marginalization of people of color and people of lower socioeconomic status, as well as its implementation through criminal law. The entire discourse challenges conventional worldviews because activists employ terminology important to the historical shift in government practices to criticize that marginalization. The confluence of this discursive critique with arguments about police reform causes genuine consternation. At the close of the twentieth century, Americans altered the function of government. We transitioned from a welfare state to something else.  Neoliberalism is a phrase that is frequently used. Though the term can refer to a variety of topics, it often refers to a shift towards market logic in government activities, the privatization of public functions, the reduction of the social safety net, and the expansion of the state’s carceral arm. This transition has been expressly pushed by anti-black racism at times. However, regardless of aim, its impacts have disproportionately impacted the most marginalized people in the United States. However, neoliberal logic makes marginalization appear inevitable, whereas in fact it is heavily influenced by changes in legal regulations and variations in government presence.

As a result, the social significance of police defunding embeds a critique of historical transformation in official logic. The urge to divest and invest reflects a desire to alleviate systemic disadvantage, which highlights the disproportionate concentration of black people. Seeing police violence as a symptom highlights the racialized basis of institutional marginalization. Hence, to the extent that public discourse is upon what to do about policing, it is overly focused. The systemic marginalization of black people, which we have all been taught not to question, is a good place to start. Disagreements between abolitionists and recalibrations, while important in intellectual circles, are less important in policy terms at the moment. However, even this insight does not answer the dispute surrounding the phrase defund the police, because the fact that the demand is so contentious necessitates a more in-depth examination. The fact that defunding the police is jarringly confusing as a discourse reveals the epistemic consequences of neoliberalism. We transformed government by thinking differently and adopting different beliefs as rational and unquestionable. Policing and defunding are two key notions that have evolved, acting not only as things or deeds but also as sub-worldviews that support neoliberalism. The urge to “defund the police” destabilizes these conceptions as a discourse. It requires us to engage with worldviews that we have all been taught not to see, let alone challenge. 

Begin with policing. The fact that the demand to defund the police contradicts our perspective about policing is self-evident, but it deserves elaboration. Police officers provide “an interpretive lens through which people make sense of and order their world.” This ontological commitment stems from a mode of thought that claims the primary purpose of government—what it is good for—is criminal law enforcement. This viewpoint has influenced politics and social policy in a variety of ways, including politicians and policymakers framing social challenges as criminal ones. That is, we came to view the world through the lens of the police. It was discovered to be the last location to criticize and the first place to invest local funds. The actual issue surrounding police defunding stems not just from the demand that we address structural marginalization; it also stems from the demand that we suspend the supposed meaning of these categories in order to question policies without preconceived notions about their meaning. Defunding the police offers political and normative space to question the status quo. These words confront authority where it ends: in our brains. Without a question, we should expect strong opposition, which the public is demonstrating in droves. For example, mainstream media outlets strongly oppose the request to defund the police. According to public polls, there is great hesitation towards “defunding the police,” yet there is openness to investing some money in programs other than policing. These findings indicate that the substance of deeper structural critiques has received some public favor at this time. However, the urge for control over the words that construct dominant worldviews has not diminished.

Pros & Cons of Police Defunding

Calls to defund the police began to flood protest banners and social media posts following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While the term “defund the police” can be used in a variety of ways, the basic concept is to shift funding away from police agencies and towards community resources such as mental health experts, housing, and social workers. Some advocates would reallocate some police funding while keeping police departments, others would combine defunding with other police reforms such as body cameras and bias training, and still, others see defunding as a small step towards eventually abolishing police departments and the prison system entirely. According to the most recent data available, police agencies earned around $114.5 billion in state and local government funding in 2017, an increase from $42.3 billion in 1977. Since 1977, police spending has accounted for approximately 4% of overall state and local budgets. Approximately 97% of police expenditures are spent on operational costs such as salaries and perks. Individual towns or counties, on the other hand, may allocate greater cash to police departments. For example, police received 23% of the budget in Los Angeles City in 2017, while 9% of the budget was in Los Angeles County.” 

The abstract idea of defunding the police is opposed by 64% of Americans, while 34% support the initiative. 60% oppose diverting police budget cash to other public health and social projects, while 39% support it. In October 2021, 21% of American adults wanted police budgets “increased a lot,” 26% wanted budgets “increased a little,” 9% wanted budgets “decreased a little,” and 6% wanted budgets “decreased a lot.” Budgets should “stay about the same,” according to 37% of respondents.


  • Police departments are historically oppressive and violent. Defunding them could reduce violence against people of color and overall crime.
  • Police officer and police department reforms have not worked.
  • Police are not trained and were not intended to do many of the jobs they perform. Defunding the police allows experts to step in.


  • When police departments’ finances are cut, violence and civilian injuries rise, and departments resort to “taxation by citation” to make up the difference.
  • Police wrongdoing is exaggerated, more (not fewer) cops are needed in high-crime regions, and reforms are both doable and supported by a majority of Americans. 
  • Instead of disbanding police departments, they should be held to standardized national norms that comply with international human rights laws.


Defunding the police might mean a variety of things. As a substantive policy, it offers some a road to abolition and others a path to police transformation. Others see it as a chance to continue transforming governance by making police more effective or, at the very least, saving scarce public resources. This Essay explores how the substantive meanings of defunding policies can either challenge or deepen structural marginalization. It begs us to recognize that the place to start when thinking about reforms right now is structural marginalization, not policing or defunding. However, the expression “defund the police” might also refer to something altogether else. This Essay explains how and why the demand for police defunding undermines current worldviews. The fact that public discourse is debating “Why ‘defund the police’?” demonstrates the possibilities presented by this challenge. Thank you to those activists on the ground who are asking that the public critically thinks about the assumptions that shape the present. Thank you to the protestors who took to the streets during the summer of 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, to demand that these questions not be disregarded.


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