Just over a month ago, the term “defund the police” was almost entirely the domain of activists and academics. Now it’s a household phrase, with a huge majority of Americans telling pollsters they recognize it.
But what exactly does it mean? And when Americans hear it, what do they think of? For proponents of police reform, is it a useful slogan — or dangerously alienating?
In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in late May at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, calls to sharply cut police funding appeared potentially radioactive. Beyond some high-profile progressive figures, including a number of young politicians of color, few leading Democrats embraced the term.
Joseph R. Biden Jr., the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, staked out his position early last month: “I do not support defunding police,” he wrote in a USA Today op-ed article, pushing a range of reforms instead.
But as people have learned more about the term and some city governments have even put it into action, Americans have shown some receptiveness to it. Recent polling suggests that many Americans have come to understand the phrase as a call not to simply eliminate the keepers of the peace, but to reinvest a portion of their funding in other programs and crime prevention techniques.
Running for Congress in New York, Mondaire Jones — a progressive political newcomer who appears poised to win his still-undecided election in a suburban district — articulated that vision last month, when he endorsed “defunding police and reinvesting this money in health, education, and alternatives to incarceration.”
Pollsters at PerryUndem, a public opinion research firm, have been studying the public’s response to the protests, and they said they had found voters — particularly Democrats — more curious about than dismissive of the term.
“It had such an initial backlash that people had to explain: ‘Well, no, here’s what it means,’” Tresa Undem, a partner with the firm, said in an interview. “It was a small window when a lot of learning happened, and it’s these windows when things change.”
Americans see racism as a problem, and broadly support the protests.
Polls have consistently shown that an overwhelming share of Americans see racism as a big problem in the country, and that a slimmer but still-strong majority view Mr. Floyd’s death as part of a systemic problem with policing in America. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll last month, 74 percent of Americans said “police violence against the public” was a problem, with 42 percent calling it a major one.
Over all, support for the protests against racial injustice continues to run high. In various recent national surveys, roughly six in 10 respondents have expressed favorable views of the protesters. And Americans generally express support for overhauling police practices. The Kaiser poll found that two-thirds supported banning chokeholds, while roughly three-quarters supported increasing transparency around police misconduct and making it easier for victims of excessive force to sue departments.
But protesters’ central demand has to do with more than reform. They are arguing for undoing and rethinking the way crime is approached in America. And their demands show little sign of going away.
‘Defund’ calls have forced legislative movement.
Councils in cities across the country have committed over the past month to reducing funding for police departments, or even restructuring them entirely. In New York, the City Council passed a budget this week that shifts $1 billion away from the Police Department. Activists criticized it for using a budgetary maneuver to shift around — rather than eliminate — some funding, but it does require the city to abandon plans to hire over 1,000 new officers.
And the very fact that city leaders felt compelled to say they were removing funding from the department marked a huge political shift, grounded in public opinion.
Jawanza James Williams, the director of organizing for Vocal-NY, which has been instrumental in the push to defund the New York Police Department, said organizers were seeking to ensure that calls to defund the police were always understood in tandem with calls to reinvest in other aspects of city government.
“I’m sure ‘abolishing slavery’ was toxic at the time, for most people in the country,” Mr. Williams said. “The work is to help people understand the depth of the ‘defund’ framework, and to inform that with other factors.”
When it comes to public opinion, wording matters.
People of varying racial backgrounds tend to express a positive view of their local law enforcement agencies, according to many polls. And Americans usually balk at proposals to cut basic funding from the police. In an Associated Press/NORC poll last month, when asked simply whether they supported reducing funding for police departments, just 25 percent of Americans said yes, 53 percent said no, and 21 percent said neither, suggesting they hadn’t made their minds up yet.
A Fox News poll taken around the same time asked the question a little differently: Would people support taking money away from police departments and putting it toward “mental health, housing, and other social services?” In that case, 41 percent of voters expressed support, while 46 percent opposed it. Significantly, even though “neither” wasn’t an option, 12 percent of respondents refused to say either way.
With such a large share of the country still figuring out where it stands on the issue, there is the potential for either side to seize control of the narrative. President Trump has demonstrated that he sees an opportunity to win some ground here, tweeting frequently of his opposition to “defund the police.”
In mid-June, sounding assured that he had the political upper hand, he wrote on Twitter: “Many Democrats want to Defund and Abolish Police Departments. HOW CRAZY!”
Still, as protests have led to legislative results in some cities, they have also helped shift attitudes. A Siena College poll of New York late last month found that a slim majority of the city’s residents would support a reduction in funding for the police. (The question did not mention anything about redirecting funding toward social services.) When asked directly about “defund the police,” New Yorkers were more split: Forty-one percent supportive, 47 percent opposed.
But when asked if mental health professionals should come along when police officers respond to calls dealing with homelessness, drug addiction or mental illness, almost nine in 10 New York City residents said yes.
In its recent research, the PerryUndem team was struck by how relatively unformed — and therefore influenceable — opinions remained on the meaning, as well as the validity, of calls to “defund the police.”
PerryUndem’s survey was conducted with the online polling firm YouGov, using what is known as a non-probability panel of respondents, whose composition may not perfectly reflect the makeup of the country. Therefore, the survey’s exact numbers must be taken with a grain of salt. But its findings were striking. Americans were more likely to say that they interpreted “defund the police” to mean taking some funding away from departments and deploying it in “other ways to make communities safer,” rather than simply removing money that the police need.
But neither position was identified by a majority of respondents, and a significant share said they still weren’t sure how to interpret the term.
“When you see that, you see an issue that’s very fluid, and I think it can go different directions as this issue and debate continues,” said Mike Perry, also a partner at the firm. “How the debate continues to take shape — it could move people in either direction.”