ADVOCACY MEMO – What Does it Mean to Defund the Police?

Creating alternatives to the police, and how such concepts relate to our community in the Tenderloin and San Francisco broadly.

Since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department and the ensuing uprisings across the U.S. and around the world demanding racial justice and antiracism, calls for defunding the police have become far more salient. So what does that mean?

At a fundamental level, metropolitan police departments receive a massive amount of funding in city budgets. A few examples:

The San Francisco Police Department receives over $700 million a year, compared to, for example, the $367 million allocated to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Our city spends more on the SFPD than on the Department of Children, Youth and Families, the Environment, Homelessness Services, the Human Rights Commission, and the Public Defender’s office combined.

  • The SFPD’s budget has grown 56% over the last decade, adjusted from inflation, from $445 million in 2010 to $703 million in 2020.
  • The Oakland PD receives $318 million a year which is 20% of the city’s budget.
  • The LAPD receives $3 billion a year, which is approximately 30% of the city’s overall budget. 
  • The NYPD receives $10.9 billion a year which is 11% of the city’s budget.

To put that number in perspective, that is 2.5x the amount that the U.S federal government as a whole spends on public housing, which is approximately $4.6 billion per year.

Why does this matter? Well, for a couple of reasons:

These are resources allocated to a specific system that are subsequently unavailable to other programs, especially social programs like homelessness services, mental services, housing, transportation, and education. Moreover, the resources allocated to police departments are part of the reason, in addition to state and federal policy, that our police have military-grade equipment that is utilized during protests against police violence.

Police accountability has always been a rather absent feature of American policing, and reforms to impose greater democratic oversight and control over police departments have taken decades of advocacy. Many reforms have also entailed a greater commitment of resources devoted to police departments, which again, pulls resources from other critical services.

As many Black, indigenous, and many other activists have been highlighting for decades, if not centuries, American policing has served a very specific function in controlling and violently repressing poor, black, brown, and other communities of color across the United States. Many of the iterations of policing we now see are the result of the War on Drugs which not only criminalized people with substance use disorders, but disproportionately focused on poor, Black and communities of color. Instead of questioning the underlying causes of drug-use and the economic incentives of the drug-trade, especially in communities that have been structurally denied economic opportunity, the War on Drugs solidified the antagonist relationship between police and marginalized communities.

The police have been tasked with greater and greater roles in responding to social problems while social programs and policies that would seek to address the root causes of issues like mental health, homelessness, and substance use disorder have been gutted.

  • Austerity and cuts for social programs in the U.S over the last 40 years have been paralleled with massive expansions in federal, state, and local funding for police, jails, and prisons.
  • The vast majority of calls that police respond to are not violent incidents as is commonly believed, but rather non-criminal issues and property crimes. Police are often the first called to respond to people in crisis, and oftentimes, interactions with the police and the subsequent cycle in and out of jails and prisons deepens trauma and the root causes of crisis.
  • Responding with criminalization, incarceration, and police does not address the root causes of substance use, poverty, racial inequalities, or homelessness, but rather hides them from public view. In the end, we are not made safer or healthier as a result of over policing and mass incarceration. We cannot incarcerate and police our way out of poverty, inequality, substance use disorders, mental health disorders, domestic violence, or homelessness.

Addressing these issues requires approaching them from trauma-informed, compassionate, public-health frameworks.

So, Defund and What? What are the alternatives Communities are Talking About?

The conversation around defunding the police has also entailed a conversation around what would replace the police, at least in certain circumstances? And in this respect, there are a lot of potential examples.

  • Minneapolis, the city whose police department sparked the global protests we have witnessed, has committed itself to transforming what public and community safety looks like. Over the course of the next year, the City will undertake a comprehensive process of community engagement, research, and structural change to reimagine its systems of public safety and their impact specifically on historically marginalized and under-served populations. At its core, the city is looking to approach public safety with alternatives to policing and from a public health perspective.
  • One such public health alternative to police has shown remarkable success in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon. Known as CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, the program is a mobile crisis intervention service integrated into the public safety systems of Eugene and Springfield. A 24/7 free response is available for non-emergency medical care and for a broad range of non-criminal crises, including homelessness, intoxication, substance use, and mental health problems, as well as dispute resolution and conflict mediation.
  • Each team consists of a trained mental health crisis worker and a certified EMT. CAHOOTS was formed in 1989 as a collaborative project with the city of Eugene to address the needs of marginalized and alienated populations such as people experiencing homelessness, people experiencing severe and persistent mental illness, or people suffering from substance use disorders.
  • L.A. is moving forward with its stated plan to cut $133-150 million from the LAPD budget and reinvest that money in housing, jobs programs, mental health counselors, and other social services.
  • Both Berkeley and Oakland have begun the process of shifting funds away from their police departments and towards pre-existing social programs and programs to be created with input and research. Berkeley has committed to removing police officers from traffic duties as well as from calls relating to people experiencing homelessness or mental health crises and to replacing them with social workers and clinical outreach teams.
  • Lastly, Mayor Breed and Supervisor Shamann Walton have put forward a plan to redirect a portion of the SFPD’s budget towards investments that support the Black community. While the amount redirected will become clearer as the budget is finalized, this reinvestment is in addition to Breed’s stated goal to end police responses to mental health crises and people experiencing homelessness and replace them with unarmed, trained social workers. Read more about Breed and Walton’s plan here, as well as the Mayor’s police reform plan to end police responses to homelessness here.

Homelessness Recovery Plan

On June 21, 2020, SF Mayor London Breed announced a new “Homelessness Recovery Plan” to support investments in housing and shelter that will help The City create more housing and shelter for people experiencing homelessness during and following Covid-19.

The City plans to make 6,000 additional placements available for people experiencing homelessness over the next two years—including an expansion of 1,500 new Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) units.

Read the Mayor’s press release and a SF Chronicle article about it here.