The Left Shouldn't Scrap 'Defund the Police.' We Should Brand It Better | Opinion

It looks like the end for Defund the Police. Over the course of last year and into this one, voters in municipal elections across the country have rejected referenda on policing. From the New York City mayoral race that handed a victory to a law and order candidate, Eric Adams, to the actual referendum that proposed replacing Minneapolis police with a department of public safety, voters rejected candidates and policies identified with the post-George Floyd Defund movement.

And yet, while the slogan "Defund the Police" was rejected, polling that phrases the proposal to redirect public funding to support investing in communities with the same money currently being spent on policing are popular. Which means that the Left doesn't need a new platform on policing; we need a new communications strategy. A stronger communications strategy could prove to make reallocation of funding for public safety a viable platform in 2022.

There are many reasons why "Defund the Police" was a political disaster. Whether it be as a result of personal experiences with violent incidents in their communities or due to fear-mongering from the media, Americans feel vulnerable to crime. Talk of removing police often makes many people, Black people included, feel even more vulnerable to violence in their communities. This is partly because public safety is equated with policing. Since increasing the budgets of police departments has long been the response of both parties to rises in crime, removing the police feels like removing the only available institution of public safety.

De'Jon Hall was the Policy Director for India Walton, a Democratic Socialist and well-known activist who embraced "Defund the Police" and ran an unsuccessful mayoral bid in 2021 Buffalo, NY. Hall believes that the problem with Defund is the branding, not the proposal itself. "Many would interpret the term 'Defund' to mean less police and thus less safety," Hall told me.

defund the police

"Defund the Police" focuses too closely on where public safety funds will be divested from, not where they will be invested into. Introducing Americans to new institutions of public safety requires careful, specific explanations of what those new institutions can and should be responsible for when police no longer have those responsibilities.

If, for example, a city's rise in crime is a result of increased levels of poverty, progressives need to make clear the connection between poverty and public safety and describe how that poverty will be addressed through stronger employment programs for young residents, or better welfare services for struggling families.

There are already existing models for such strategies. Take, for example, the case of Richmond, Ca., whose city council voted to divert $3 million from the police department to social services aimed at preventing crime. Instead of utilizing slogans that are catchy but vague, organizers in Richmond were successful because they held more deliberate conversation about what a reallocation of public funds looks like for their community.

Deborah Smalls, a community leader and organizer with Reimagine Richmond, one of the groups leading the fight to re-invest public funds in social services in Richmond, came to this conclusion working to reallocate funding in Richmond last year. "It became clear early on in our campaign that the phrase [Defund the Police] would not be useful in public messaging as it did not accurately convey our goals and priorities, which is to redirect more public resources towards much needed human services," Smalls explained.

From extensive listening sessions, Reimagine Richmond determined that successful programming had to include services for the city's substantial unhoused community, jobs for unemployed young people, and mental health response teams, among other things. Reimagine Richmond centered their proposals around addressing these concerns and created solid messaging in their campaign around it.

"We explained our goal is to restore more balance to the way resources are allocated that better reflect our values and commitments," Smalls explained.

Shiva Mishek, who works to elect progressives in Richmond as part of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, similarly underscored the importance of understanding the community's concerns and emphasizing solutions. "What is helpful is to hear what people's fears are and to try to address them," Mishek explained. "If we really believe in the programs that we've constructed to create public safety, it's important to tell people about them. It's important to explain what component of public safety it's addressing, it's important to do some education, it's important to provide data, it's important to think about these things deeply. I think part of the communications work around this is really listening to the community, and part of the communications work is being prepared to address the concerns that come up in a nimble way."

There is no catchy phrase that can—or should—replace "Defund the Police." Progressive activists and campaigns need to listen deeply and engage in the nuances of addressing community-specific safety concerns without the police.

Listening deeply means collecting community-specific data through polls, surveys, and listening sessions so that policies and communications campaigns can be as specific as possible in addressing the concerns of the community. As Mishek explained, "The communications work is a long, multi-pronged process if one really wants to actually address people's concerns."

While the road to reimagining public safety is long, it is important and necessary to traverse.

Toella Pliakas is a writer based in Brooklyn and has written extensively on policing with articles published in The Washington Post and Teen Vogue, among other publications. You can find her on Twitter @ToellaPliakas.

The views in this article are the writer's own.