After Weeks of Protest, a Look at Policy Changes in U.S. Policing

Almost two months have passed since Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Protests have swept the nation, and “defund the police” has become the rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement and others who are seeking systemic changes to policing in the United States.

Advocates and communities are calling for a range of actions to rethink public safety, including:

  • reducing the size and budget of police departments drastically;
  • re-engineering 911 and other dispatching systems so police aren’t the first responders to all of society’s problems;
  • creating alternatives to police response—such as medical and mental health first responders instead of armed officers—to de-escalate situations and provide social services;
  • investing money in community-based services and resources for education, housing, jobs, and more; and
  • limiting contact with police by legalizing and decriminalizing low-level offenses.

We are at an unprecedented moment in our nation’s history, when a majority of people believe American policing has a systemic problem. But have the protests galvanized transformative change?

Most cities have not significantly altered their approaches to police spending and oversight or taken steps to reduce their footprint. But a handful of jurisdictions have, suggesting a shift in the political winds and the potential for mobilizing reform. This brief captures some of the most notable budget and policy changes since the protests began in late May.

As important as these successes are, they are only the beginning of the seismic overhaul of policing needed to address a legacy of racism and over-enforcement, especially in Black communities. American policing, with approximately 18,000 unique departments, costs $115 billion annually. The size and power of police forces are formidable—240 million calls to 911 a year and more than 10 million arrests—and yet only about 5 percent of those encounters with the police involve a serious violent crime.

As police operations in public schools are widely criticized, at least 12 school boards or city councils have acted to discontinue the practice. The presence of police in public schools has exploded since the mid-1990and removing law enforcement from schools has been a core goal of advocates.

  • The Minneapolis school board voted unanimously to void its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. The board will present a new plan for school safety to the city superintendent in mid-August.
  • In Oregon, after the superintendent of Portland Public Schools ended its contract with the police, the Portland Police Bureau eliminated the Youth Services Division, reassigning its officers.
  • The Denver school board voted unanimously to discontinue its contract with the Denver Police Department and phase out school resource officers from middle and high schools by June 2021. The board’s resolution said the funds for those officers could be used to increase the presence of “social workers, psychologists, restorative justice practitioners, or other mental or behavioral health professionals” in the school district.
  • Milwaukee Public Schools terminated its contract with the city’s police, which issued a statement saying that the department supports the school board’s decision and that “funding should be reinvested into our public school system to support social services.”
  • The Oakland school board voted unanimously to adopt a resolution to eliminate the Oakland Schools Police Department. The resolution states that since 2015, “Black students have accounted for 73 percent of arrests in city schools but just 26 percent of enrollment.” The city superintendent has until August 20 to report to the board on a “community-driven” plan for district safety.
  • The city council in Rochester, New York, voted to withdraw funding for police officers in schools in the 2020–2021 budget and cut $3.6 million—about 3.7 percent—from the city’s police department.
  • In Charlottesville, Virginia, the city council, school board, and police department released a joint statement agreeing to remove school resource officers from city schools. Mayor Nikuyah Walker said, “Our students should be able to attend schools and not believe they will be policed for being children.” City agencies are soliciting community input as they begin a process of reallocating funds for alternative school safety measures.
  • In Wisconsin, the Madison Board of Education voted unanimously to cancel its contract with the city police department. The city council is expected to approve the measure later this month.
  • School boards in smaller jurisdictions have also terminated contracts with their police departments, including those in West Contra Costa, California; Winona, Minnesota; Eugene, Oregon; and Edmonds, Washington.

Some cities are exploring how 911 and other dispatching systems can provide public safety alternatives and help shrink the scope of policing.

  • San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that the city’s police department will no longer respond to noncriminal 911 calls and requests for service. Instead, trained unarmed service workers will respond to calls that do not involve violence, including mediating disputes between neighbors and handling issues involving homelessness and school discipline.
  • The Berkeley City Council declared that police will no longer respond to calls related to homelessness or mental health crises, but has yet to determine who will. And instead of police enforcing traffic laws, the city is creating a Department of Transportation to handle traffic enforcement and the issuing of citations. The council will also establish a community safety coalition of city residents and review police responses to service calls for evidence of racial bias in stops and arrests.
  • The city of Albuquerque created Albuquerque Community Safety, a “first-of-its-kind cabinet level department” that is being designed as an alternative to police response for 911 calls related to “homelessness, addiction, mental health, and other issues that do not present an immediate threat to public safety.” The “civilian response” department will feature unarmed personnel with backgrounds including social work, housing, homelessness, diversion, and violence prevention. In the weeks ahead, the city will develop a plan to divert funds from other public safety agencies and make investments to finance the department.
  • In St. Petersburg, Florida, city officials announced plans to fund a Community Assistance Liaison program, which will employ social workers to respond to nonviolent 911 calls related to issues including mental health crises, homelessness, and drug use. The unarmed first responders could begin operating as early as October. The program is funded through a $3.1 million federal grant and $3.8 million in city funding that was originally allocated to hire 25 new officers.

Some cities have decided to decrease funding for police in municipal budgets and invest in communities and social services. Other jurisdictions have committed to reducing their police budget, but given the squeeze of shortfalls because of COVID-19, it is unclear whether they will reinvest resources

  • Within two weeks of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the city council announced that it would disband the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). On June 26, the council voted unanimously to begin the legislative process of amending the city’s charter to replace the MPD with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. The amendment states that the new agency “will have responsibility for public safety services prioritizing a holistic, public health-oriented approach.” The amended charter could be on the ballot in November.
  • In Oregon, the Portland City Council voted to cut the police department budget by 6 percent. The council is reducing $15 million in funding by targeting several Portland Policing Bureau (PPB) programs, as well as eliminating school resource officers and the Gun Violence Reduction Team, which has focused on gang policing. The council is also cutting the PPB’s Transit Division, a unit that provides law enforcement for the regional transportation agency TriMet, and is removing eight positions from the Special Emergency Response Team. The city has committed to reinvesting $5 million from the department budget in Portland Street Response, a nonpolice pilot agency providing services to people experiencing homelessness.
  • The Philadelphia City Council agreed to a budget that shifts $14 million from the city’s police department to other agencies for crossing guards and public safety enforcement officers. (Mayor Jim Kenney’s initial budget plan called for a $19 million increase in police funding. The total cut is about 4 percent.)
  • The Los Angeles City Council voted on a $150 million reduction in the city’s police budget, an 8 percent decrease. The cuts are geared toward decreasing spending on police overtime and reducing the size of the force to its lowest numbers since 2008. In April, Mayor Eric Garcetti had recommended a $7 million increase in spending for the LAPD, but recently supported the idea of cutting as much as $150 million from the department’s budget. Councilman Curren Price said two-thirds of the cost savings would be reinvested in social services for communities.
  • In California’s Bay Area, the Berkeley City Council announced cuts of $9.2 million to its police department, a 12 percent reduction. Mayor Jesse Arreguín said, “The overwhelming message [from the public] is that we do need to defund the police and we need to reinvest money from our police department budget into other community priorities.” The city will freeze hiring for vacancies in the police department and will cut police overtime. Last week, the council passed a bill that will reduce the use of police responses for homelessness and behavioral health crises and for traffic stops. One council member proposed a measure to cut the police department’s “$72 million budget in half” and reallocate funds to community crisis responders and other city staff. The council will reconsider the budget on July 21.
  • The Oakland City Council announced cuts of $14.6 million to its police budget, a reduction of 4.6 percent. The city will also freeze hiring as well as transfer positions such as crossing guards to other city agencies. The new budget calls for spending at least $1.35 million on Mobile Assistance Crisis Responders of Oakland, a new pilot to divert 911 calls for mental health emergencies to nonpolice responses.
  • In nearby San Leandro, the city council cut $1.7 million in funding from the police department—a little over 4 percent—after a seven-hour meeting at which community members voiced concerns about law enforcement spending.
  • The Baltimore City Council voted to cut $22 million, about 4 percent, from the police department’s budget, including $6.7 million in officer overtime and $1.8 million from the marine and mounted units.
  • In Vermont, the Burlington City Council passed a resolution to slash the size of the police force by 30 percent. No new officers will be hired until the department is below its new cap of 74 officers, down from 105. The size of the department will be reduced “through attrition as officers leave or retire.”
  • The city council in Newark, New Jersey, voted to divert $11.4 million—about 5 percent of the police budget—to replace one of its precincts with a new Office of Violence Prevention, a center that will provide social services. It will employ social workers who will respond to calls related to mental health, homelessness, or drug use. Mayor Ras Baraka said, “a social worker probably can deal with those issues a lot better than a person with a gun.” The city’s public safety director supports the plan and said that it won’t entail layoffs.
  • In Connecticut, the New Haven City Council approved a $4 million cut to the police budget, reducing the size of the force by 11 percent.
  • Nearby in Hartford, the city council reduced police funding by $1 million (3.5 percent) and plans to reallocate spending to public services such as after-school activities, more public works staff, and additional housing and health inspectors.
  • In Massachusetts, the Northampton City Council decreased its police department’s budget by 10 percent. The mayor’s initial 2020–2021 fiscal budget had called for a 2.9 percent increase.
  • In Oklahoma, the Norman City Council agreed to cut $865,000—about 3.6 percent—of its police budget and reallocate spending on community development programs and the creation of a position to track police overtime and outlays.
  • The Seattle City Council voted to decriminalize two low-level misdemeanors. On June 22, the council repealed two criminal loitering statutes related to drug sales and sex work. The bill summary cited the laws’ “disproportionate impact on communities of color” without “improving public safety.” As of mid-July, Mayor Jenny Durkan had not signed the legislation.

Several states and localities have improved oversight and accountability by changing their practices regarding the collection and dissemination of policing data.

  • New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced that the state will create a database to track police use of force and will require officers to obtain a license to “meet a baseline level of professionalism.”
  • New York City is advancing a range of measures to increase transparency, including a public database tracking police disciplinary cases and administrative records; the required disclosure of all body camera footage related to the use of force; and the proposed POST Act, which would require the New York Police Department to report the details of all surveillance technology it uses, along with mandatory evaluations and audits by the city.
  • The New York state legislature repealed part of the Civil Rights Law; Section 50-a had prevented public access to police officers’ disciplinary records.
  • Michigan created the Law Enforcement Transparency Collaborative, which will annually release all use-of-force data the state reports to the FBI.
  • In Maryland, the Baltimore County Police Department is constructing a public dashboard of all complaints made against officers, use-of-force incidents, and traffic stops, and will include demographic data.
  • The New Orleans City Council passed Resolution R-20-175, which will task the city’s Independent Police Monitor with creating a public database to provide “comprehensive data on the use of force and disciplinary action for law enforcement officers.” This database will include officer disciplinary information including sustained use of force complaints, past policy violations by accused officers, and the dates of review board hearings.

The actions taken so far are first steps in a few communities. More is urgently needed. Where efforts to divest from policing and invest in communities have not gained traction or are unambitious, grassroots campaigns that change the terms of the conversation will continue to offer a path forward. For example, the #DefundNYPD campaign called for divesting at least $1 billion from the New York City Police Department’s $6 billion budget. Several prominent city council members, including the speaker, announced their support for this demand. On July 1, the New York City Council passed a budget that moved $1 billion from the police department’s budget and discontinued plans to hire 1,000 new officers through a small hiring freeze, although advocates and some council members argued that the cuts were mostly cosmetic.

Although this result fell far short of the #DefundNYPD campaign’s goals, it is remarkable that the largest police department budget in the country was temporarily in limbo because of a political struggle over the fundamental scope of law enforcement. A community outcry for meaningful police reform held up negotiations, an important action that could be a sign of changes to come.