The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol finally may have put to rest the debate about the usefulness and efficacy of the “defund the police” slogan. After watching how close a mob came to destroying 245 years of democracy and endangering our elected officials because of an inadequately prepared and staffed police force, the idea of “defunding the police” is even less palatable to most of the American public than it was before the riot.

On the other hand, the assault confirmed many of the critiques that lay beneath the slogan. We saw the gaping chasm between the police’s kid-glove treatment of armed white insurrectionists and the ferocious response of law enforcement to mostly peaceful Black protesters this summer. Subsequent reports of the presence of off-duty police officers among the rioters, and the possibility of “insiders” abetting the rampage, further confirmed how deeply racism and white supremacy are baked into the very structures of policing.

In sum: Police are essential to maintaining a civil and orderly democratic society but the system as a whole is — and historically has been — rife with racism and corruption. It urgently needs a comprehensive overhaul.

How can those who support the essential themes and ideas behind the “defund the police” hashtag retool their message to build public support? As a first step, we reviewed key movement leaders’ interpretations of the phrase and identified two underlying themes.

Theme One: Police are expected to play a wide range of human-service roles for which they’re ill-equipped. They are called upon to serve as first responders to a host of non-criminal matters. Communities of color suffer disproportionately from officers’ use of excessive force and coercion in situations that warrant a much lighter touch and/or a public health orientation. We need to transform the culture and mission of policing to make it more responsive to the communities police serve, while simultaneously diminishing law enforcement’s overall footprint in those communities.

Theme Two: America historically has under-invested in communities of color, denying them the resources required to address needs such as housing, education, recreation, transportation, jobs and access to health and mental health services. A “reimagined public safety” system is more fundamental and far-reaching than reallocating resources from policing to other services; it is about investing in communities of color in ways that reflect their priorities and promote wellbeing. 

The good news is that polling data tell us that support for these ideas is significant, and has the potential to grow. The following recommendations, derived from decades of communications research, may be helpful in guiding the next iteration of public messaging on their behalf:

Relay a positive vision. While urgency is critical to move people, a message for change should highlight a vision for the future we want, rather than a focus on current obstacles and disparities. Any hashtag or shortcut should focus on this vision, rather than the mechanics — in this case, “defunding.” 

Elevate values. Shared values speak to deeply held ideas about what matters. Justice, for one, resonates across demographics on social issues where equity is at stake — from education to aging — and can motivate the public to shift perspective and engage in change. Evoking pragmatism on the need to find “solutions that work” also proves effective when it comes to public safety.

Use metaphors. Comparisons to everyday life provide clear and common ground, building support for new ideas. To help people appreciate the need for systemic, structural reforms to our justice system, we tested the following metaphor in online experiments in order to demonstrate possible alternatives to incarceration. Results showed that it helped shift thinking from individual blame to the need for systemic reform:

Just as a bike or a car needs to have multiple gears and use the right one for the terrain, our justice system needs different resources for different situations, instead of always relying on the “prison gear.” 

The challenge for communicators and advocates is to nudge the collective consciousness toward urgently needed police reform, while simultaneously activating a more holistic understanding of our obligations to all who live here. Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors’ recent mention of an “economy of care” begins to get at this notion. By evoking the “benign community” — or vision of government’s primary role as one of improving lives — this framing appeals to our shared, rather than separate, fates.   

Historian George Packer once wrote that this impulse toward a more just, inclusive and cohesive society continues to beat “somewhere under our skin.” It is up to all of us to mount a collective effort to locate and resuscitate it.

Johanna Wald is a freelance writer/researcher and consultant. She is the former director of strategic planning for the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute, and currently consults for FrameWorks Institute and Strategies for Youth. 

 Nat Kendall-Taylor is a psychological anthropologist and the CEO of the nonprofit FrameWorks Institute. He is a senior fellow at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, a visiting professor at the Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine, and a fellow at the British-American Project.

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