What Would “Defunding the Police” Mean for Mental Health Services?

Protesters are calling for the reallocation of police resources. But figuring out where to spend that extra funding is a lot tougher than it sounds.

Currently, police departments around the country spend millions of dollars on overtime and equipment, some of which have been used against protesters over the past few weeks.

Reformers want to see a reallocation of those resources to programs for housing, education, and mental illness – areas that the activists say could bring about systemic societal change and cut down on crime and violence, according to the New York Times.

But in speaking with advocates for people with mental illness, there are very different perspectives about how such hypothetical funding would be spent.

“I think we need to reassess ongoing deinstitutionalization. I think that many people just need inpatient care who are not getting access to inpatient care that they need,” said Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “We need to be talking about expanding other forms of commitment like Kendra’s law, or outpatient commitment in NYC. This is a very effective program. NY uses it more than any other state.”

Kendra’s Law refers to “Assisted Outpatient Treatment” and is named for Kendra Webdale, a woman who was shoved in front of a New York City subway car by a man with serious mental illness. But Glenn Liebman of the Mental Health Association of New York State disagrees with Eide.

“Given that police are on the front lines every day, we need to have them recognize the serious mental health issues that many people have and learn how to best respond to that.”

Where would those funds go?

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, said defunding the police means reallocating those funds to support people and services in marginalized communities.

Defunding law enforcement "means that we are reducing the ability for law enforcement to have resources that harm our communities," Cullors said in an interview with WBUR, Boston's public radio station. "It's about reinvesting those dollars into black communities, communities that have been deeply divested from."
Those dollars can be put back into social services for mental health, domestic violence and homelessness, among others. Police are often the first responders to all three, she said.
Those dollars can be used to fund schools, hospitals, housing and food in those communities, too -- all of the things we know increase safety."

Does defunding the police mean disbanding the police?

Some supporters of divestment want to reallocate some, but not all, funds away from police departments to social services and reduce their contact with the public to reduce the likelihood of police violence.

Those seeking to disband police consider defunding an initial step toward creating an entirely different model of community-led public safety.

The concept exists on a spectrum, and the two aren't dichotomous but interconnected. But both interpretations center on reimagining what public safety looks like -- shifting resources away from law enforcement toward community resources.
It also means dismantling the idea that police are "public stewards" meant to protect communities. Many Black Americans and other people of color don't feel protected by police.

Would defunding police lead to an uptick in violent crimes?

Defunding police on a large scale hasn't been done before, so it's tough to say.

But there's evidence that less policing can lead to less crime. A 2017 report, which focused on several weeks in 2014 through 2015 when the New York Police Department purposely pulled back on "proactive policing," found that there were 2,100 fewer crime complaints during that time.

The study defines proactive policing as the "systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations" and heightened police presence in areas where "crime is anticipated."
That's exactly the kind of activity that police divestment supporters want to end.

Public opinion

A YouGov opinion poll with fieldwork on May 29–30, 2020 found that fewer than 20% of American adults supported funding cuts for policing, with little difference between supporters of the Republicans and Democrats.

In a poll conducted by ABC News/Ipsos of 686 participants on June 10–11, 34% of US adults supported "the movement to 'defund the police'" and 64% opposed it. Support was higher among black Americans (57%) than among whites (26%) and Hispanics (42%).

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