‘Defund the Police’ Is Dead But Other Reform Efforts Thrive In U.S. Cities


by Steve Friess on 5/24/22 at 5:30 AM EDT

Two years after George Floyd was killed, a surge in violent crime in major cities across the country has effectively ended the “defund the police” movement that sprung up in the wake of his death. A new national poll by the University of Massachusetts Amherst finds that just 31 percent of Americans now support transferring funds from state and local police departments to community social services, a seven-point drop from a year ago. Meanwhile, with crime a hot-button issue in the upcoming midterm elections, moderate Democrats are more likely to call for additional money for law enforcement than for diverting it—among them, President Joe Biden, who called for a $30 billion increase in law enforcement spending in his State of the Union address in March to “fund our police and give them all the tools they need.”

While the politically disastrous rallying cry to “defund the police” may be dead, though, that doesn’t mean reform efforts have been abandoned. Far from it, in fact. Over the past two years, legislators and activists across the nation have been testing out a bevy of new approaches to law enforcement aimed at enhancing public safety and making policing more effective, efficient and transparent. The result: Dozens of cities and towns in both red and blue states have become active laboratories for intriguing experiments that shift some non-emergency 911 calls away from armed police responses; supplement police work with ongoing social work and mental health outreach; and focus efforts on preventing violence before police intervention is necessary.

“There’s now a broad conviction that creating public safety and addressing violence should no longer be considered purely or even primarily a police and criminal justice matter,” says criminologist David Kennedy, founder of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College in New York. “People don’t know how to make that happen, especially in the near term, but there’s been a real shift in the center of gravity on that issue.”

The success of these initiatives varies, or can be hard to discern. But even in places where clear problems resulted—like in Burlington, Vermont, where big cuts in police funding prompted a large number of cops to quit the force—the desire for new approaches remains strong.

“To the degree that ‘defund the police’ meant what it said, that we should be taking funds away from the police, I believe it was a wrong turn in our longstanding efforts to do the critical work of reforming policing,” says Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who has had to offer bonuses to retain and attract officers to the force. “That doesn’t mean we stop trying to do better. Everyone knows police have to do better.”

Police Chief Paul Pazen of Denver, where an acclaimed program that provides alternatives to police response for certain 911 calls recently received funding to expand, agrees. “The term defund is polarizing. There are people that are adamantly for it and adamantly against it. It shuts down any conversation,” he says. But, he adds, “That doesn’t mean other conversations aren’t happening. They are.”

Here’s a look at some of the important law enforcement innovations and experiments currently sparking discussion across the country and what they may mean for the future of policing.

Denver’s Shining STAR
Three days after the Floyd murder sparked demonstrations and demands for change in cities across the country, the first of the Mile High City’s STAR vans hit the streets. The program had been in the works for a while but the the timing of the launch was fortuitous, Police Chief Pazen tells Newsweek, because it gave local leaders an answer to rising anger in the streets over police handling of non-violent disturbances.

STAR stands for Support Team Assisted Response, and the conceit is almost precisely what many reform activists proposed as the centerpiece of the defund the police movement: Non-emergency personnel trained in mental health and social work are sent out as first responders on low-level trespassing, vagrancy or public disturbance calls instead of armed officers. For the most part, 911 operators decide whether to send a STAR van or armed law enforcement to a scene.

Since its inception, some 3,000 calls to 911 have been offloaded from the police, and none of those resulted in the need to call a cop to make an arrest. The STAR team engages the troubled subject not with threat of arrest but with the expertise necessary to de-escalate the situation and the community connections to get the person needed help.

Such incidents can often needlessly get out of hand when armed officers show up. A Washington Post database of fatal police shootings shows that about 22 percent of the nearly 7,400 cases listed since 2015 involved someone with mental illness. What’s more, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in interactions with law enforcement, according to the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center.

By contrast, on a Friday this spring, Denver’s 911 received a call that an unarmed man was causing a disturbance. Dispatchers sent a STAR team that determined the subject was a long-time homeless Iraq War veteran suffering a panic attack. STAR called contacts at the regional Veterans Administration. “They called us back and said, ‘Hey, we’ve been looking for this person for the past six months because we have housing for him but haven’t been able to locate him to tell him,’” says STAR program coordinator Chris Richardson, a social worker at the Mental Health Center of Denver. “We got to tell him. Before us, police would’ve responded but they wouldn’t have the connections to the VA to be able to give him this good news in the moment. Usually, it was take him to the hospital or to jail or just walk away for other calls.”