The outburst of rage and turmoil from last year’s wave of protests and uprisings created hope that the American public was finally ready to reckon with mass incarceration and over-policing. In cities across the country, tumult manifested most clearly into efforts to “defund” the police. Though the movement has been mischaracterized as dangerous and antagonistic, the actual demands vocalized by movement agents have always been quite reasonable: reduce police budgets to demilitarize police departments and reallocate spending towards social services and community reinvestment.
Recently, there’s been both local and national reflection on whether the movement's focus has produced results. Over the last year, many localities quietly reversed or watered down cuts and reforms. Meanwhile, cynical politicos and media talking heads have worked to spread rumors about a supposed American crime wave in a not-so-subtle attempt to revive a “law-and-order” response to urban violence.
In DC, the movement has been more resilient, bulwarked by the local Defund MPD Coalition — an alliance of 30+ local civil society, advocacy, political and labor organizations. Well benched and broadly popular across the District, the coalition may act as a good model for how to structure and embark on a successful and sustainable effort that lives up to the demands and aspirations of 2020's unrest.
In 2021, the DC Council voted on a budget that reduced the Metropolitan Police Department’s budget for 2022 by nearly 7% ($43.4 million), bringing that cost down to $516.8 million. The biggest chunk of these cuts came through redirection of a $23 million security contract away from MPD; the funding was turned over directly to DC Public Schools (which enabled them to hire a range of unarmed resource officers and other support services for students). The remaining $20 million were mostly cuts to MPD’s administrative and support programming. Although the budget for sworn officers increased, MPD is already struggling to fill their current ranks, so we'll see if the city can really fill these slots.
The District also made notable investments into a range of non-violence intervention and community support programming. The budget for the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement — which oversees public safety initiatives such as a victim support fund and restorative justice programing — was tripled to $28.7 million. The budget for DC’s new violence interruption program Cure the Streets was increased by $4.1 million. The budget for Building Blocks DC, which runs many of the District’s gun violence prevention programs, was increased by nearly $59 million.
These programs were not financed through decreases in funding to MPD but through the heavy influx of federal funding provided to the city by the American Rescue Plan, which passed in 2021. Though this isn't the exact deal activists have demanded, it’s promising to see officials in DC follow up on the findings produced by the Council's own review of policing and public safety, which was released in April 2021 just as budget negotiations were kicking off in the city. The report echoed many of the ancillary demands activists had been calling for — most notably in calling for a reduction in the number of sworn MPD officers by at least the rate of attrition over five years.
If these budgetary wins seem limited, political events over the last year suggest that the broader philosophy powering the movement is shared by a growing majority of the public:
These developments are good evidence of the Defund MPD Coalition’s success in reshaping local conversations around policing and public safety.
From the start, the coalition has focused on building a broad, city-wide and grassroots political network focused on applying pressure to elected officials and nurturing social change among the broader public. Over the last year, the Coalition initiated a wide range of activity designed to build trust and support for the Coalition’s platform:
It’s difficult to assess the clear influence these efforts have had in changing and influencing public policy and popular opinion. But without these efforts, one suspects that DC would likely have succumbed to the same conservative pressures that stymied police reform and defund efforts in cities across the country. However limited small political and policy victories may seem, they are subtle signs of a successful strategy.
Revolutions — in both politics and culture — take years to nurture and negotiate. To the extent that ending systems of force and violence is possible in our flawed democracy, the dedication and commitment of average people will be the essential ingredients for change.