What Does It Mean to Defund the Police? How to Respond With Reason Rather Than Fear

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Minneapolis is back in the news after nine of the city’s twelve city council members voted to defund their police department. Calls to disband or defund the police have become a common occurrence throughout many of the protests around the country, but they have grown in intensity over the last week. But just what do people mean when they speak of defunding police departments? 

It turns out, no one is really quite sure. 

In Minneapolis, for example, the city council admitted that while they have some early thoughts, there is not a clear plan in place. They hope to work with representatives from the community over the coming months to develop a system of public safety that places a greater emphasis on community policing efforts and programs aimed at more specific problems. At this point, however, it’s still not clear if the city council even has the legal authority to take this step

Regardless of the ultimate legality, though, the city’s decision has made national headlines and brought the conversation closer to reality than it has been before. As such, let’s take a closer look at the subject and, ultimately, what we can learn from it to better advance God’s kingdom in our culture.

Reform vs. replace

First, calls to defund or disband police have been around for many years, but they’ve always stayed on the periphery of the conversation because they were seen as both extreme and unnecessary. The argument was that greater accountability and better training would be enough to curb, though not eliminate, the tendencies at the heart of the problem. 

Minneapolis city council member Jeremiah Ellison spoke for many, though, when he expressed the need “to dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response. It’s really past due.” For those who agree with Ellison, the police have been given enough chances at reform, and substantive change is needed. 

There are many reasons to think Ellison and those who agree with him are wrong in that assumption, but it points to the basic reality that we only get so many chances to do better before people assume that what’s broken simply can’t be fixed.

Defund doesn’t always mean the same thing

The second point is that not all calls to defund the police have the same goal. While the Minneapolis example paints a fairly clear picture of one extreme, most advocates for change seem wary to go that far. 

A more common proposal centers on removing some funding from police departments, as well as certain responsibilities, and reallocating both to other groups. Issues involving mental illness, homelessness, and social services are often cited as examples of jobs that currently fall to the police in many cities but could perhaps be better handled by nonprofits or other groups focused on a single task.

Advocates for these policies also frequently argue that by refining the responsibilities of the police, it could help them better focus on the issues they are best equipped to handle without adding the undue pressure of tasks that might fall outside of their true calling.

Can more police equal better police?

Lastly, a common argument among those who disagree with efforts to defund the police is that the best way to avoid the kinds of abuses and harassment at the heart of recent protests is to hire more police rather than less. 

Studies have shown that not only does a larger police presence reduce crime, but it can also mitigate the need for overtime and added responsibilities among those who serve on the force. Research in 2017, moreover, demonstrated that “a single hour of overtime led to a 2.7 percent increase in the odds that the officer would be involved in a use-of-force incident the following week.” 

As Matthew Yglesias concluded, “What’s helpful is more officers, not more harassment.” However, those who have been on the receiving end of such harassment counter that it’s hard to have one without the other.

Choosing reason instead of fear

Regardless of what comes from the current conversation about police reform, the manner in which people engage in the discussion is likely to have as great an impact on the outcome as the decisions that are ultimately reached. Fear, rather than reason, is often the motivating factor for people as they think about the future of law enforcement. 

For some, that fear is based on negative experiences with the police. For others, the prospect of a future without cops leads to visions of unchecked violence and disorder. As a result, it’s incredibly easy to leave God out of the ensuing discussion.

As Paul taught the Philippians, fear and logic can seldom coexist. Rather, he instructed them, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5–7). 

Our culture could really use the protection of Christ Jesus for our hearts and minds at this point. Decisions will likely be made across the coming weeks and months with regards to a number of issues—the future of law enforcement among them—that will greatly impact the future of our society for years to come. 

As we seek the Lord’s wisdom and discernment in knowing how to engage in those discussions, it’s vital that we follow Paul’s advice and be reasonable voices guided by the peace of God. That won’t happen, though, if we allow ourselves to be driven by fear instead. 

Which will guide your response today?

Ryan Denison is a graduate of Baylor University and Truett Seminary and is completing his doctoral dissertation in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute.

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