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The online rallying cry ‘defund the police’ runs into red tape at city hall

Real change takes time, willpower, and sustained resistance — and the technology to make police brutality visible to policymakers

Thousands of protesters gathered at McCarren Park in Brooklyn for a massive march around Williamsburg, making a loud call for the defunding of the police force. This comes after NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio promised ‘intense change’ with police reform proposals amid calls to defund law enforcement, including shifting resources from NYPD and publicizing officers’ disciplinary records. Brooklyn, NY on June 7th, 2020.
Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
Andrew J. Hawkins transportation editor with 10+ years of experience who covers EVs, public transportation, and aviation. His work has appeared in The New York Daily News and City & State.

Like many in Minneapolis, City Council member Steve Fletcher watched the video of George Floyd’s death with a feeling of imminent dread. Floyd’s death in late May was “shocking and indefensible,” says Fletcher, who represents areas of downtown, the North Loop, and Northeast Minneapolis, and the video “shook a lot of people out of some complacency.”

In the week that followed, Fletcher says his television and social feeds were bombarded with images of pain, anger, destruction, and violence. One day, just six days after Floyd’s death, he watched as a fuel truck sped dangerously through a crowd of protesters who were marching on a freeway and then realized in horror that what he was seeing on TV was actually happening right outside his apartment. “When you’re watching it on TV, it almost looks surreal,” Fletcher says. “You know it might as well be in another city or something, but it’s right outside your door.”

This is how public policy is made in the year 2020. A truck careens through a crowd of protesters, and the resulting video spreads like wildfire through a variety of social feeds and platforms before it hits the mainstream — which is generally where elected officials see it. Ideas like defunding or abolishing the police have spread similarly: when the public outcry grew loud enough, the concepts eventually made their way into the ears of local politicians.

Since late May, tens of millions of people have poured onto the streets in cities across the country to demonstrate against systemic racism, white supremacy, and police brutality. Often they’ve been met with the very kind of violence they’re protesting.

A crowd marches to protest the death of George Floyd on the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River on May 31st, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The protest was disrupted after a man drove a tanker truck into the crowd.
Photo by Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

The vast majority of demonstrators are ordinary citizens, people who are tired of standing idly by while police officers injure or kill unarmed Black people. But some, like Fletcher, are local elected officials who have the power to respond with policy solutions to the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. They’d watched the footage of a white police officer squeezing the life out of Floyd and subsequent videos of police beating protesters with nightsticks, tear-gassing them, or running them over with their cars. And seeing that has made them want to do something about it.

Some voted to defund or overhaul their police departments, while others repealed laws that shielded police from public scrutiny. But most of their efforts fell short of the protesters’ demands, who are still marching in support of big, structural changes to policing itself. In a country like this, structural change tends to take time — along with local willpower and national persistence.

People sit on the street in front of a row of police officers during a rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 29, 2020 after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white policeman kneeled on his neck for several minutes
Photo by Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

As an elected official, Fletcher has had an insider’s view of the Minneapolis Police Department and the equipment that it regularly uses, which includes body armor, riot gear, tear gas, and pepper spray. He’s been on ride-alongs with police officers and sat in on training sessions when officers learn how to use tear gas against mass demonstrations. But seeing those weapons used against his own constituents helped convince him that the Minneapolis Police Department was beyond reforming. “There was a lot of evidence that many of our officers viewed themselves as being in a battle between the police and the people of our city,” Fletcher says. “And that footage was a gut punch to anybody who would imagine that we could reform the department.”

Fletcher and his fellow council members set the tone for the rest of the summer when they voted in June to disband the city’s police department and replace it with a department of community safety and violence prevention, an organization that would be responsible for public safety through a public health approach. The vote won national attention and served as a marker for other cities of what might be possible. “What would it look like to really rise to the occasion and do something really transformative,” Fletcher says of the vote. “But at the same time, that work is so hard.”

Third Ward City Council member Steve Fletcher, then candidate, knocks on doors on Sunday, August 13th, 2017, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo by Jerry Holt / Star Tribune via Getty Images

They found just how hard in August when the Minneapolis Charter Commission voted against the council’s plan to put the question of disbanding the police department on the November ballot. It’s unclear if the plan would have passed anyway: a recent poll of 800 city residents found that a plurality — 44 percent — say they don’t want the department cut or defunded. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who’s up for reelection next year, hasn’t warmed to the idea. (Through a spokesperson, Frey declined to be interviewed.)

Fletcher says he understands more work will be needed to follow through on the initiative to overhaul Minneapolis’ police department, and he says he feels heartened that other cities, like Austin, Texas, have gone even further than Minneapolis has by slashing their departments’ budgets. This month, Austin’s City Council voted unanimously to cut its police department budget by $150 million, a full third, which The Texas Tribune described as one of the largest percentage decreases in the nation.

“It has been almost considered like politically touching the third rail to reduce the police budget by one dollar in the past,” Fletcher says. “Seeing the police line items on the table in budget negotiations everywhere in the country is evidence of a real transformation.”

Other electeds took their experiences with police brutality during the protests into their respective chambers and used them to make an argument for systemic change. New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat who represents parts of Brooklyn, was marching with demonstrators in his home borough in June when he was pepper-sprayed by police.

Myrie says the experience helped reinforce the notion that “qualifications” and “accomplishments” as a Black person in America don’t really matter in the face of police discrimination and brutality. “In that moment, I was just another peaceful protester who was met, like so many others, with out-of-control force,” Myrie says. And it goes beyond his elected office, too, which is clear when he tells me his perspective on policing has been “shaped by a lifetime living as a Black man in New York City.” He attended elementary school in Crown Heights during the riots of 1991 and saw how a heavy police presence often translated into fatal encounters with Black people. The killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others are just the latest in a brutal, unending cycle.

Protests Against Police Brutality Over Death Of George Floyd Continue In NYC
New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie speaks at a press conference in Brooklyn calling for the passing of bills to increase police accountability.
Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images

It’s left a mark. “The images and videos that go viral after an incident are upsetting and triggering for me, and so many others,” Myrie says. “But they serve a purpose — they shock the conscience and hopefully inspire others to action.”

In the state legislature, Myrie helped pass the repeal of 50a, a section of New York’s civil rights code that prohibits access to a police officer’s misconduct and disciplinary records. On June 12th, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the repeal into law.

New York City Council member Brad Lander, who represents Park Slope in Brooklyn, witnessed police beating and arresting protesters marching through the city in early June. Along with New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Lander was filmed pleading with police to let protesters continue marching despite a citywide curfew.

“It was clear something powerful was brewing,” he says, “and it really felt important to show up.”

Lander says he has been working on “incremental police reform” in the council for over a decade. But the protests and the violent police reaction have convinced him that a more radical approach is necessary. “This period of time has shined a spotlight on the fact that our incremental reforms have not been meaningful,” Lander says. “Sometimes you feel like we made 25 percent progress — let’s keep going! And I don’t feel like that here. I feel like the reforms that we have won have not made meaningful progress, especially on the central issues of accountability.”

In July, the New York City Council voted on a budget that claimed to “cut” $1 billion from the police department. The vote was hailed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as “real reform,” but Lander says it really only eliminated around $81 million from the NYPD’s $6 billion total operating budget. He voted against it.

Protests Against Police Brutality Over Death Of George Floyd Continue In NYC
New York City Councilmember Brad Lander stands with a crowd of protesters during a march that violated a citywide curfew on June 4, 2020.
Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images

“Not only did we not meaningfully cut the NYPD, we protected the NYPD,” Lander says. “We had to cut other things more than 7 percent… so that we could hold the NYPD harmless and only cut it about 1 percent. So that’s the opposite of a reckoning.”

Lander says he’s optimistic that next year’s mayoral election will help kick off more meaningful change: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is term-limited, is not the person who will oversee a fundamental overhaul of policing in New York City, he says. (A spokesperson for de Blasio did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

The protests against policing have slowed down in recent weeks, though a recent uptick of federal officers in cities like Portland and Chicago has shifted the focus from police reform to authoritarianism and abuse by President Trump. But the debate over police funding is still raging in cities across the country as elected officials rethink the role that police departments serve in communities and how governments should allocate funds for police services — especially those tasks that are not directly related to law enforcement, like helping people who are homeless or mentally ill.

It will be a steep and treacherous climb for those elected officials intent on taking money and power away from police departments. A national poll on the Black Lives Matter movement found there was more opposition than support for efforts to “defund the police.” Jonathan Williams, an applied data scientist lead for Civis Analytics, says the lower popularity of these proposals “may be due to the relative newness of these ideas to many Americans — just as how body cameras were more controversial ten years ago but have been rapidly adopted by police forces since then.”

Local officials are not in this fight alone. There has also been some movement on the national stage to reform police departments. In June, House Democrats introduced a bill to overhaul policing in the country by doing away with “qualified immunity” for officers, making them personally responsible for constitutional violations like excessive force. It would also ban no-knock warrants and alter the federal standards for prosecuting criminal police behavior, among other measures.

House To Vote On George Floyd Justice In Policing Act
Rep. Karen Bass speaks during an event on police reform June 25, 2020.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The bill passed the House later that month, but so far, Republicans in the Senate have refused to take it up for political reasons. Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California and lead sponsor on the bill, has vowed to keep fighting for its passage. “This is something I’ve worked on for over four decades. I’m not hardly going to stop now,” Bass told Politico in June. “Especially when we have this moment where transformative change is possible. But we have to push, we have to keep pushing, and I’m ready to do that.”

It’s far more likely, however, that this will be a fight waged at the local level — a war fought in city council chambers, budget offices, and other modest rooms, led by city officials who feel emboldened by the emergence of the largest protest movement in American history.

Those fights rarely make national headlines, but their effects can be more important than the bigger ones. In June, Prince George’s County in Maryland redirected $20 million from a police training center to a mental health center; Baltimore’s city council approved a $22 million cut to its police department.

Lander, the New York City council member, says he hopes the debate can eventually shift from budget negotiations to elections, where voters can decide whether they want to elect mayors and other officials who can continue to carry the torch for police reform.

“Discriminatory policing is part of a 400-year-long tradition of systemic racism in this country,” says Lander. “Making progress to change it is not going to happen in one budget cycle.” Even if some wish it could.