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What is the ‘defund the police’ movement? 5 questions answered

As protests over police brutality and systemic racism continue in the wake of George Floyd’s death, there have been growing calls to defund the police. But what exactly does that mean?

Watch the conversation in the video player above.

Philip V. McHarris of Yale’s sociology and African American studies departments and the PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz took your questions about the ideas behind the movement and what realities and challenges they will face.

McHarris said growing up as a young black man, he grew wary of the narrative that “the police keep us safe,” having been assaulted himself by officers and witnessing the same thing happen to family and friends. He told Nawaz that was part of the reason he never once had the impulse to call the police, even when experiencing “real discernable threats.”

Following the death of George Floyd last month, McHarris co-wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times in which he said that the only way to “stop these endless cycles of police violence” is to create “alternatives to policing.”

Here are a few ways McHarris said communities can think about alternatives to policing in the coming months and what the “defund the police” movement seeks to do.

What do people mean by “defund the police”?

McHarris said the “defund the police” movement has been part of discussions about reforming public safety for years, but has only come to the forefront of the national conversation recently.

In the weeks following Floyd’s death, McHarris said, it’s rapidly transitioned from a niche topic to a trending phrase across social media.

He explained that in practice, the framework seeks to divest funds from policing departments and reinvest them in other community resources and institutions such as education and health care. McHarris said the concept is also about exploring alternatives to emergency response that don’t center around policing.

With the current U.S. policing systems in place, McHarris said, violence often goes underreported because people are too scared to call the police and risk arrest or prison.

He said the current system doesn’t lead to “accountability, and safety and transformative justice” that would give people what they need to be “repaired, restored and healed from harm.” Defunding the police is an approach to changing that, he argues.

How will people stay safe if police are defunded?

When asked how people will stay safe if police departments’ funds are redirected, McHarris said the mission of this movement is about creating alternative emergency response systems “that actually bring about and foster public safety.”

He said a reimagined policing model might draw on a “small class of public servants” to respond to imminent violence rapidly, with a focus on de-escalation and mitigation of harm.

Stops that police make are often routine, but may target people of color as suspects. He experienced this himself when he was pulled over by a police officer while driving to Boston earlier this year. He was driving from Yale, but the officer suspected he was trafficking drugs because of the area he was driving through, he said.

“Those kinds of activities are what continually police do, in addition to everyday things that don’t involve violence,” McHarris said.

Do police unions serve as a barrier to reform?

McHarris said police unions can sometimes impede reform of a department. This had been the case in Minnesota, McHarris said, where union arbitrators side with fired police officers just under 50 percent of the time.

“I think for a long time, the amount of political power that unions and police departments have held has played a major part in preventing anything from really happening,” McHarris said, noting that the money and influence elected officials stand to gain from unions is significant.

But he said that “the tides are turning” as more citizens begin to put pressure on their elected officials to implement reforms to their policing systems, and there is potential for these reform groups to outweigh “the political influence of police unions.”

He also said that other labor unions are pushing for police unions to be released from broader union collectives in order to mitigate some of that power.

Will diversifying the police force help?

While there has been a groundswell of support for “community policing” and efforts to diversify police forces for decades, McHarris argued that simply hiring officers of color will not solve the systemic issue of police brutality in the U.S.

“Sometimes, police officers from the same community can be as violent or even more violent,” McHarris said. “If you have a system that is fundamentally unjust, no matter who you put as an officer they’re going to reproduce the system in various ways,” he added, noting that failing to prop up that kind of culture could get them fired.

McHarris noted that although Minneapolis had implemented progressive reforms such as community policing and implicit bias training before George Floyd’s death, he was still killed by a police officer, as three other police officers looked on.

Communities should not focus on diversity in order to solve the issue of police violence, McHarris said, but rather on the flaws of the broader structure of the system itself: “The structure is actually more important here than the focus on individual officers.”

Are there examples of successful movements to reform police systems?

While Camden, New Jersey, is an oft-cited example of a city that reformed its police force, McHarris challenged this thinking. He said that the high-tech surveillance model that replaced Camden’s previous policing model does not “create safety in a fully transformed way.”

Indeed, Camden has been called the “surveillance city” for the intrusive technology it adopted in an effort to bring down crime rates.

“We have to conceive of safety in a way that does not get … reduced down to crime statistics,” McHarris said, noting that relying too heavily on crime rates to gauge safety can shift focus away from other important factors such as economic security or access to a quality education within a community.

McHarris did point to other effective reform efforts.

Dallas, for example, has been dispatching social workers to some 911 calls that appear to be related to mental health.

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