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All fires, even the largest conflagrations, start with a spark and dry tinder. What was the spark, and what the tinder that set first Minneapolis, America, and now cities across the world aflame?  Aflame with shared slogans, “Black lives matter”, “Defund the police”!

The ‘spark’ was the killing of George Floyd on May 25th, in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer while others, apparently acquiescing, stood by.

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Floyd’s final cries of “I can’t breathe” instantly resonated with a worldwide audience and the campaign, BLACK LIVES MATTER came spontaneously to life.

The tinder was the significant shift in the American public’s attitude to police treatment of black Americans.  This is illustrated in poll results which suggest that 69% of Americans say that the Floyd killing represents a wider problem within law enforcement.  Far fewer (29%) regard the incident as an isolated event. (Washington Post-Schar School poll).

In 2014 a similar poll, the responses to the same questions were 43% and 51% respectively.

A dramatic change in just 6 years!

There is little doubt there is a growing concern for the difference in outcomes for minority groups from situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic.  These voices amplify the ‘black lives matter’ message of the campaigners but it is by definition the police who bear the brunt of protecting both human life and property.

Recent demonstrations are supported by 74% of Americans (Washington Post) and, despite some obvious violence, the American public is unwilling to blame either the mainstream protesters or the police.

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Even so, the emphasis of the campaign has shifted from the specific event of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis to a nationwide call to reform the police, symbolized in the slogan ‘defund the police’.

What does Defund the police mean? 

There is no single uniform definition. At one extreme it means simply ‘abolishing policing’ as a means of law enforcement, tempered by redirecting some (or all) police funding into alternative programs to maintain public safety and property protection.

“…and to rebuild with our community a new model of public safety that actually keeps our community safe,” Council President Lisa Bender (Minneapolis).

A second approach is to enforce a program of major reforms. These would include placing limits on the power of the Police Federation and on the authority of individual officers to act independently without approval.

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After Californians criticized a proposal to increase the police budget, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti agreed to slash between $100 million to $150 million from the proposed funding ($1.8 billion).

It is not a major element of the budget: but it is evidence that politicians are listening to their constituents.

The third definition of ‘defunding’ is that the ‘threat’ will be enough to ensure reforms such as performance reviews, certification, and individual development.

Potential benefits of ‘Defunding’

  1. The least that could be expected is that ‘rogue’ events such as occurred in Minneapolis, and systemic police procedures will be eliminated
  2. Increased budgetary control will result in the diversion of funds into community-based strategies more appropriate to circumstances.  The majority of 911 calls are for mental health services, health, and EMT and fire
  3. In the longer term, we should hope that the critical factors affecting crime rates, poverty, health, education, and social discrimination will be reduced. 

Risks of ‘Defunding”

  1. Reduced budgets may result in less effective policing, increased crime rates, and a loss of public support
  2. The diversion of funds into ‘social’ programs, especially those which favor minority communities, may be seen as ‘discriminatory’
  3. Extreme approaches to ‘defunding’ could result in the entrenchment of police attitudes and at worst a ‘withdrawal’ of labor.

We can be sure that the spark has illuminated a fresh perspective of the injustices within our society. The issues will not disappear nor can they be ignored.  While the general public is broadly in favor of reform, politicians, faced with the forthcoming elections, will be adopting distinctive positions – forcing us to decide.