In the weeks after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, calls to defund the police could be seen on protesters’ signs, read in etchings on sidewalks, and heard in chants in America’s streets. The demand, generally, was to move money from massive police budgets to social services and other local agencies, diminishing the role of police. The goal was to end the racist and violent policing of Black people.
The Minneapolis City Council, seeing how Floyd’s death had moved the country, took this to heart, immediately pledging to defund their department. Meanwhile, the mounting pressure pushed elected officials in states like New York, Massachusetts, and Colorado not to slash police budgets but to pass reform legislation, including chokehold bans, training commissions, and body camera requirements.
But many of those initial moves in cities and states across the country eventually stalled. For example, five months later, the battle over funding continues in Minneapolis.
And while media coverage of protests also dwindled as summer turned to fall, local activists kept pushing — much like they had before the protests erupted — to get police reform and defunding initiatives on the ballot. Their efforts, coupled with the momentum of the protests, seem to have paid off.
Despite being a contentious issue across party lines, voters last week in cities in six states overwhelmingly approved 18 of these ballot measures, including creating and improving police oversight boards, changing police department staffing and funding, and requiring public access to police body and dashboard camera recordings. While most of these measures are a step toward reform, almost none are radical in terms of reimagining policing. Many are standards already implemented in other cities — and a bare minimum for police accountability, activists say.
On one hand, these wins prompt questions of what’s next, stirring the debate on what to do about the broken institution of policing — whether to fight for the incremental change of reform or to dismantle the entire system through defunding or even abolishment. On the other, that voters got behind so many measures at all shows a possible tide shift; Americans are recognizing something needs to be done about police violence and accountability.
Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, the co-director of Power Live Free, an interfaith activism group that focuses on criminal justice issues in Philadelphia, said the ballot approvals, including a citizens oversight committee in his city, are just the first step in the fight for how policing should be in America.
“For me, it’s about the kind of world we want to leave behind and how policing would look 10 to 20 years from now,” he said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
What the approved police reform ballot measures entail
While some cities and states started passing police accountability legislation this summer, others followed suit through citizen votes. In California, seven local ballot initiatives passed as a result of last week’s elections. The most progressive ballot initiative was Los Angeles County’s Measure J, also known as “Reimagine LA County,” which would amend the county’s charter and require 10 percent of the city’s unrestricted general funds to be invested in housing, mental health programs and services, and other alternatives to incarceration instead of prisons and policing.
Although Measure J is effectively a move to defund the police (county chief executive Fesia Davenport said the $2 billion Sheriff’s Department budget would likely be impacted), the initiative didn’t use “defund” language. As Roge Karma reported for Vox, the campaign’s messaging has focused almost entirely on the benefits of increased investment in underserved Black and brown communities. This may be a response to polling that suggests people are turned off by the term “defunding” even if they are into the core idea behind it — shifting police funds to social services.
“The passage of Measure J sets a new precedent for the nation on how to invest in care and opportunity as a means of solving social problems, instead of continuing to grow our carceral system, which has only exacerbated the root causes of inequity,” Isaac Bryan, co-chair of the Reimagine LA Coalition, told Vox.
But the police accountability measures that passed in other cities don’t exactly have anything to do with defunding. One of the most popular measures voters approved in cities around the country was creating civilian oversight committees, which would essentially investigate citizen complaints of police and police misconduct.
For decades, Portland activists have been pushing for sweeping legislation on police reform due to the police bureau’s history of abusing and killing the city’s Black residents. (In 2019, criminal justice activists advocated and passed a bill that would protect Black youth. Also that year, activists fought to increase police accountability, which stalled.) So when Measure 26-217 — which would overhaul Portland’s police oversight system and create a new commission of civilian volunteers who could investigate misconduct and allegations against the police — got on the ballot after a long summer of protests and clashes with police in the city, activists fought to pass it. They rallied outside city hall and the police bureau. They gave presentations to elected officials. And it worked. The ballot measure passed with more than 80 percent of votes.
“I will say I’m not surprised,” Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the key architect of Portland’s recent police reform initiatives including Measure 26-217, said during a press conference on election night. “I expected that we would have overwhelming support, but 80 percent sends a very strong message that the community is ready for a transformation when it comes to policing.”
Voters passed similar oversight board measures in the California cities of San Diego and San Jose, as well as Sonoma County. So did voters in King County, Washington, home to Seattle — where Black Lives Matter protesters created an “autonomous zone” free from the police — as well as those in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, which had seen protests leading up to the election over the police shooting death of Walter Wallace Jr. Even cities in red states like Columbus, Ohio, and Kyle, Texas (roughly 20 miles south of Austin), voted in favor of oversight boards.
All this support marks a shift in how Americans are thinking about policing after Floyd’s death sparked a national conversation on police violence and systemic racism. For many organizers, though, it’s been a work long in progress.
Since last year, Rev. Tyler’s organization had been developing a list of demands for the Philadelphia City Council to put an end to police brutality, gun violence, and mass incarceration. It wasn’t until after Floyd’s death, when the city was looking for a quick win to address the national upheaval, that city officials started to take them seriously.
In July, Tyler began hosting a series of virtual town halls with police oversight experts to brainstorm ideas on how a civilian oversight board should work. Tyler said that members of the oversight commission should be elected by the people, much like a school board, instead of appointed by the city council. He also wants to see the oversight commission have full power over police policy and strategies, including where budgets should be allocated.
”We think the commission should have full power over police policy and police directives, along with having control of the budgets for the police department,” he said. “We need to take the politics out of it. This body should oversee how that budget is allocated and spent.”
Tyler also praised cities like Oakland and San Francisco, which are already expanding the power of their civilian oversight boards. Oakland, for instance, already established an oversight commission four years ago. But the city just voted to not only strengthen the commission’s powers but also make the commission independent — meaning it would sever ties from the city and police department’s chain of command. Activists say the move would increase police accountability and public trust.
Other policing measures that voters approved in the recent election: slashing mandatory police staffing levels in San Francisco; using body and dashboard camera recordings to document police use of force in Akron Ohio; and symbolically codifying “stop and frisk” policing in Philadelphia — though its passage doesn’t entirely eradicate the practice. In other words, these are all small steps in shifting police accountability.
Oluchi Omeoga — co-founder and core team member of Black Visions Collective in Minneapolis, one of the groups behind the push to defund the city’s police — said that some of these police reform ballot initiatives don’t exactly limit or lessen the power of the police and that defunding is the way forward.
“The system of policing, if you look at our country’s history, is working the way it’s supposed to, since it was created at a time when we abolished slavery,” said Omeoga. “When we think about reform, there’s no reform because the system is working exactly the way it’s supposed to. So the two strategies that I see is either the reformation of existing structures that we have or the complete abolition and restructure of a new community safety.”
“We have a long way to go”
Even among these recent wins, pushback has already begun. The Portland Police Association filed a grievance against the city arguing that Measure 26-217 should have been negotiated with the union before the ballot measure went to voters. In Minneapolis, where legislation has stalled, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo is asking other law enforcement agencies and city council for more funding to expand staffing, since many police officers went on leave.
Bryan said that Reimagine LA, along with other grassroots organizations, will make sure election officials keep their pledge by tracking where the money will be spent in terms of improving communities.
“As long as we continue to see lethal encounters with law enforcement on our phones and TVs, I believe voters will continue to call for more direct measures to address the root causes of injustice,” said Bryan. “Measure J is a powerful example, but I don’t believe it will be the last. There’s still a lot of work to do.”
Abdirahim Mohamoud, a 17-year-old Black student activist who lives in a predominantly white neighborhood about 10 miles southwest of Portland, said people should pay attention to the same challenges of racism and police violence — as well as grassroots actions — that are also occurring in suburban areas. He also worries the fight for police reform will wind down now that the election is over and a Democrat will take the highest seat in the nation.
“I have a really big fear that because these ballots passed, people are going to stop caring, stop being active with their voices,” said Mohamoud. “The lack of momentum from other people is probably going to be the downfall of it, because this is not something that only a few [people] can do or I, by myself can do, it’s a group effort.”
Mohamoud also said he no longer uses the word “defunding” out loud, since the term has been “so politicized” — as a means to rile up their base, Republicans have often made false claims that Democratic leaders like President-elect Joe Biden are in favor of defunding the police. One of the only ballot measures that was a loss for police accountability this election cycle was about budgeting: In DuPage County, Illinois, voters overwhelmingly voted to continue financial support of law enforcement and public safety as its “top budgeting priority.”
Omeoga, meanwhile, argues that defunding isn’t a view, but rather a tactic in reenvisioning policing in communities. That includes diverting money from the police and reinvesting it in communities, changing the way people use 911 calls when addressing car accidents or mental health crises, and implementing a robust policing education that would improve relationships across communities.
“Believe it or not, we have tried to reform policing for the last at least 200 years, and nothing has actually been fixed because it’s not exactly broken,” Omeoga said. “Abolitionists will say we understand that this system of policing is in the interest of capitalism and white supremacy, so the tactic is defunding the police to take our reliance away from the police and turning it into new systems of community accountability and safety that isn’t relying on the state.”
For Tyler, reforming the police creates an avenue toward defunding. He expects more police reform initiatives to emerge in upcoming ballots as city leaders learn from each other. Some of the measures he expects to see are changes that would build on previous measures such as the oversight commission having the ability to hire and fire the police chief.
“This is a long haul and an ongoing national conversation,” said Tyler. “It’s really about the citizens taking control over police departments because the police have proven themselves incapable of policing themselves. I’m happy that the first step is done, but this is a multi-year fight, not a one-campaign fight. We have a long way to go.”