In 2017, when a shortage of inpatient psychiatric beds in Dallas was driving up the number of 911 calls, overwhelming emergency rooms and crowding jails with mentally ill people, the city decided to try something different.

It put an officer, a paramedic and a social worker in every car responding to mental health calls in the city’s troubled south-central region, an attempt to get people the help they needed without an arrest or violent confrontation. The pilot program, RIGHT Care, led to a drop in arrests in the area.

RIGHT Care is one of several programs across the country drawing the attention of activists seeking to end law enforcement’s systemic abuse of black Americans. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police last month, protesters in many cities have said they are fed up with trying to change police behavior and are instead advancing a more radical idea: to “defund the police” by cutting their budgets and offloading police functions to other municipal departments or community groups.

Taken literally, calls to defund police departments conjure images of empty precinct stations and the proliferation of citizen patrols. But if the ideas behind the movement take hold, their implementation may look less like the Minneapolis City Council’s vote to disband its police department and instead resemble more moderate experiments already underway in cities and towns around the country. That includes projects like RIGHT Care that don’t reject police or seek to take away their entire budget but rather aim to decrease their role in situations that are not dangerous, while allowing medical and social services workers to take the lead.

“There is no magic switch to turn off and boom there’s no police department,” said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, whose 2017 book “The End of Policing” has become a manifesto for protesters and police-reform advocates.

“People are trying to figure out what kind of society would be possible that doesn’t rely on police and prisons to solve its problems, and that’s a long-term political vision that is important to this movement. But if you look at what people are doing on the ground, it’s taking money for gang enforcement and spending it on after-school programs and youth counselors. It’s about going to budget hearings and lobbying city council members and holding town hall meetings in neighborhood centers.”

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Driving this effort is a realization that police use of deadly force against black people has not abated in the six years since a string of killings of black men by police ignited a national call for more police training and accountability.

Instead of trying to change things from within — a process that funneled more resources to police departments — the defund movement calls for reducing communities’ reliance on police for a number of services: monitoring the homeless, resolving domestic quarrels, disciplining students, responding to outbursts by people with mental illness, swarming neighborhoods to tamp down violence and responding to minor complaints like someone trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, the accusation that triggered the police call that ended in Floyd’s death.

Image: Demonstrators call to defund the Minneapolis Police Department on June 6, 2020. (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)
Image: Demonstrators call to defund the Minneapolis Police Department on June 6, 2020. (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

That work, advocates say, could be better done by outreach workers, social workers and community workers trained to de-escalate street feuds. That could be paid for by diverting money from police budgets to municipal programs that deal with underlying causes of crime, including poverty, inadequate housing and poor education.

“When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is invest in the resources that our communities need,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told NBC News’ “Meet the Press.” “So much of policing right now is generated and directed towards quality-of-life issues, homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence. … But what we do need is increased funding for housing, we need increased funding for education, we need increased funding for quality of life of communities who are over-policed and over-surveilled.”

Some cities have responded with gestures of support. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to shift money from the NYPD budget to youth and social-services programs. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has vowed to pull $150 million from the LAPD to boost funding for health care, jobs and “peace centers” — which critics noted was a small drop in the department’s $1.8 billion budget. Portland, Oregon, has agreed to pull police from public schools. Several Minneapolis institutions, including the public school district, the University of Minnesota and the Park and Recreation Board, have moved to curtail or end their contracts with city police.

Law enforcement officials have said cutting police budgets could cause a dangerous uptick in crime and police abuses. Attorney General William Barr has warned of “vigilantism” and “more killings.” President Donald Trump has threatened to use the movement against Democrats. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running against Trump, also came out against defunding police.

And so the movement will likely remain a local issue, playing out in municipal budget battles and emulating programs like RIGHT Care in Dallas.

RIGHT Care was funded by a $3 million grant from a local foundation in response to the overwhelming demand of emergency mental health calls, not only on hospitals but also police. As in many departments around the country, officers in Dallas had come under scrutiny for using deadly force on black residents, including those suffering emotional breakdowns. David Brown, who served as police chief from 2010 to 2016, was criticized for saying the officers who shot a schizophrenic man holding a screwdriver in 2014 followed department rules. Brown later said publicly that police should not be responding to most mental health calls, which is part of the reason Dallas police agreed to become part of RIGHT Care.

Since the program began in early 2018, arrests and ambulance calls for people experiencing mental health troubles have declined in the south-central region of Dallas where the program operates, which has freed up officers to deal with other calls, officials said.

“Police involvement is still very important to this program,” said Kurtis Young, director of social work at Parkland Health and Hospital System, which provides social workers to the program. “It’s not taking away something or defunding police. It’s adding a service to the community.”

Another example cited by advocates is Building Healthy Communities, a project in Salinas, California, where fatal shootings by police — including four in 2014 — frayed public trust and led to an array of internal reform efforts aimed at correcting deficiencies identified in a 2015 Justice Department review of the department. The police killing of a young mother in 2019 raised new protests.

With that backdrop, Building Healthy Communities has successfully fought an increase in school police officers in elementary schools and lobbies city leaders to prioritize social services and economic development over expanded police budgets. Lead organizer Jesus Valenzuela said their work is similar in spirit to the “defund the police” movement, but they are careful not to use those words because they want to work with police and avoid being demonized by people who support law enforcement.

“Our message is not explicitly ‘defund the police,’ but we do want money to come from the budget,” Valenzuela said. “The moment we say ‘defund the police,’ the reaction is to make us look like we are anti-police. We become part of the pro- and anti-police narrative.”

Image: NYPD protest (Wong Maye-E / AP)
Image: NYPD protest (Wong Maye-E / AP)

In Milwaukee, where neighborhoods erupted in unrest following the fatal police shooting of a black man in 2016, police have also enacted a series of reforms regarding use of force. In addition, the city created an Office of Violence Prevention in 2008 and expanded it in 2016. The office is under the health department, where it uses public health strategies, rather than just police enforcement, to reduce shootings and other serious crimes. The office helped residents develop a “Blueprint for Peace” that outlines “community-driven solutions” to violence, including methods to interrupt conflicts and retaliatory gun attacks, increase investment in youth programs and improve health care, family resources and employment opportunities in vulnerable neighborhoods.

That approach tries to correct imbalances in funding between those services and police operations, and is similar in spirit to the strategy advocated by defund the police proponents. But the Milwaukee plan is envisioned as complementing police work, not cutting it out.

“We don’t look at this as an either/or proposition,” Reggie Moore, the office’s director, said.

Advocates have also pointed to a Eugene, Oregon, program that dispatches medics and crisis workers on calls for help that don’t necessarily require police, and the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, a network of hospital-based programs that try to break cycles of violence by helping victims get better health care and social services.

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Even in Minneapolis, City Council members who voted to dismantle the police department said they will take an incremental approach. That will start with an effort to redirect funds from the police to other programs — including the city’s own violence-prevention office — that might become part of whatever the city’s new public safety system looks like, several council members said in an online panel hosted by The Appeal, a journalism website that focuses on criminal justice reform.

“We’re talking about abolishing a failed police structure that doesn’t keep us safe,” Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said.

He also said that the replacement would include a system that responds to violent crime.

David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, which works with police and community leaders to disrupt gun violence, said he’s watched the defund movement evolve from an “advocacy aspiration to political reality almost overnight.”

The challenge, he added, was that “almost all of the details still need to be worked out.”

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