Calls to defund and dismantle police forces are growing, but what exactly does that mean?

Calls to defund and dismantle police forces are growing, but what exactly does that mean?
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For years, Camden, a city in New Jersey, was known as the murder capital of the United States. The city of 74,000 people would record murder rates six times the national average and was plagued by open-air drug markets, robberies, looting and violence. 

In November 2012, Scott Thomson, Camden’s then-chief of police, decided to conduct a radical overhaul of policing — disbanding the city’s 141-year-old local force and handing law enforcement of the city over to the county police department. 

Many of the laid-off officers were rehired by the county at lower salaries and fewer benefits, which ultimately doubled the size of the county police department. More officers were assigned to patrol the streets — a “trust-building tactic,” Thomson told Bloomberg last week, to increase non-crisis interactions between officers and residents. Police were also required  to undergo de-escalation training, wear body cameras and adhere to stricter rules on the use of force in the line of duty. 

Seven years later, the homicide rate in Camden has more than halved, from 69 in 2012 to 25 in 2019. 

Officer Troy Redd, of the Camden County Police Department (CCPD), plays with children on August 20, 2013 in the Fairview neighborhood of Camden, New Jersey. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Forward to 2020, and Camden is hailed as one of the few U.S cities that saw a completely peaceful Black Lives Matter protest on May 30, a march led by organizer Yolanda Deaver and Police Chief Joseph Wysocki. 

Camden isn’t the only city to operate without local police. Compton, California also took the same step in 2000, handing over policing to Los Angeles County. 

In 2015, the U.S. attorney general at the time, Eric Holder, stated that the Justice Department was considering a similar solution for the police in Ferguson, Missouri, after the murder of Michael Brown. Ultimately the city and its lawmakers struck a less-drastic agreement, but one that still included many reforms. 

This idea of police reform isn’t new, says Dexter Voisin, dean of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto. However, he said it’s gaining more traction now as authorities across the U.S. and Canada re-examine public safety amid weeks of global protests against police brutality and anti-black racism. For example, on Monday, two Toronto councillors said they will put forward a motion to defund the city’s police force by 10 per cent and use that money for additional community resources.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (C) comes out of his home to speak during a demonstration calling for the Minneapolis Police Department to be defunded on June 6, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Mayor Frey declined when he was asked if he would fully defund the police and was then asked to leave the protest. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In the U.S., the mayors of Los Angeles and New York City have both pledged to divert funding from their local police forces toward social services and communities in need. 

Nine Minneapolis council members — a veto-proof majority — have opted for the more radical measure of “dismantling” the local police and replacing it with a new model of public security. Mayor Jacob Frey, however, said he “does not support the full abolition of the police department.”

It’s unclear which option Minneapolis will choose in the long-term. However, Council President Lisa Bender told CNN that the council is against “the idea of having no police department” in the short term. Rather, she said it is looking to shift police funding toward community-based strategies.

Akwasi Owusu-Bemphah, a University of Toronto expert on policing and racialized law enforcement, says it’s important to distinguish between the different terms used when it comes to police reform.

“I think there’s some confusion between defunding the police, disbanding police and police abolition,” he said. 

The concept of police reform exists on a continuum, according to Voisin, and depends on each community’s notion of public safety. For some, it could mean redirecting funds away from the police into community organizations that can respond to the needs of the communities. For others, it could mean redirecting funds with the “aim of dismantling over time and replacing it ( the force) with other types of community policing,” he says. 


“Defunding the police recognizes that we’re giving funding to the police to perform functions that they’re not necessarily well-positioned or well-equipped to perform,” Owusu-Bemphah said.

“We’ve been asking them to do more and more over time and there are organizations and agencies that are better equipped to do some of the tasks that police are doing,” he said, referring to issues arising from mental illness, poverty and substance abuse. 

Voisin believes that defunding police helps to keep the force accountable.

“When their budget continues to grow and becomes unchecked, it leads to the development of what we call the super cop, the militarization of police, which is arming the police to deal with social issues,” he said. “You can’t really deal with these social problems through increased policing.” 


The idea of disbanding or abolishing police forces falls on the more radical end of the spectrum when it comes to police defunding. 

“The words are synonymous in some way,” says Owusu-Bemphah, in that they both advocate for the closure of certain police departments. “The difference lies with what comes after.”

A protester holds a sing that reads “defund the police” after Seattle Police vacated the department’s East Precinct and people continue to rally against racial inequality and the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Seattle, Washington, U.S. June 8, 2020. Jason Redmond / Reuters

Camden, for example, chose to close its local police force “due to serious institutional problems within the existing police agency at the time,” he says. However, they did not eliminate policing altogether. Rather, with the help of the county police force, the city changed the way policing was conducted, via retraining and a raft of new policies. 

“It was acknowledged that, essentially, they just need to disband police and start again,” he says, whereas the term “abolish” would mean the permanent removal of police altogether.

“Closing down a police station is feasible in different contexts,” Owusu-Bemphah says.

In Toronto, he says, smaller communities could replace policing with a more “civilianized and non-weapon-carrying force that might try and maintain order in a more informal way.”

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