What We Can Learn from the Movement to Defund Police

The recent grassroots “Defund the Police” movement is a matter of policing and public safety, with lessons that are transferable to many community issues.

By Kel Wang, corporate performance lead, Edmonton, Canada | Sep 16, 2020 | BLOG POST

Recurring lessons of decisions based on community needs, prioritization, and hard evidence


How much funding does your community earmark for policing? Can you take some of the money away and reinvest elsewhere? This is the core of the recent grassroots “Defund the Police” movement. It is a matter of policing and public safety. But when we take a closer look at what is being asked of us, we can see a few lessons that are transferable and can be adopted in many community issues, not just policing.

1. One Size Doesn’t Fit All

One argument for defunding is that police are doing jobs that other groups of people can be doing—and that police are not trained to do. Therefore, those tasks are better handled by others. The underlying issue is in many places, the calls for the first response service are evaluated by urgency and then addressed through a universal process without triage beyond fire, ambulance, and police. Police are dispatched to calls related to mental health, addictions, homeless services, or other social and public health situations. In Edmonton, Canada, 30 percent of the police service’s workload is dealing with social issues. So, what is the lesson?

Public organizations aim to serve everyone within their mandate. As we design a service delivery process that works for everyone, it often ends up with a one-size-fits-all approach that is ineffective and inefficient. This approach assumes we serve “average people” who demand similarly. But in reality, there are no “average people,” as all of us have unique situations and biological and socio-cultural differences, which lead to the differences in how people experience the service. It is up to the organization to design a delivery process that addresses the diverse needs of its residents.

The work has to start with recognizing the differences in needs and understanding the nuance in detail. For example, patterns can be drawn from analyzing behavior data, such as trends and types of calls received. We can also understand the people’s opinions (particularly from minority groups) toward the service through perception and satisfaction data, which was explored in earlier articles on proactive planning and effective surveys. We can only solve the issue by understanding the issue first.

2. How You Frame the Conversation Matters

How can you defund the police while keeping people safe? This is one counter argument of defunding. For years, police have been seen as a centerpiece of public safety. Policemen are known as the people who maintain law and order in our communities. By intuition, defunding the police seemingly equates to defunding public safety. We have seen cities such as Memphis, who downsized its police force between 2010 and 2017, while seeing an increase in violent crime. So, what is the difference between cutting police now and then? The proponents of the defunding movement argue that defunding is about reallocation, not just reduction. Money can be redirected to crisis intervention and mental health and social services to better provide the first response service.

A key lesson from this argument is prioritization. Your budget allocation reflects your community’s priorities. When your council approves a budget, what are they actually approving for the community? In many cases, your current year’s budget is equal to the base budget, which is based on the previous year’s budget plus the incremental. The incremental is in part determined by the inflationary increase from the cost of goods and material the administration purchases, as well as salary adjustments in union agreements. The other portion of the incremental is the changes in delivering services, which is the gist of council debate and decision-making. Police budgetary items are presented in front of the decision-makers along with many other items, such as economic development, environmental, social, or administrative items. Each item has its own business case unintentionally “competing” with other items for resources. Apples are constantly compared to oranges. It can be seen as a zero-sum game when it comes to approving the budget.

The defunding movement has shed light on reimagining our budget process. What if we frame our budget conversation as how we can best provide the first response service? Or how we can best enable community safety? In either case, we debate and make budget decisions within a bigger context. Items are grouped by their relevance to the frame and funded based on the value-add. For example, budget decisions are better informed considering multiple items among police, crisis intervention, mental health, and related social services through the first response service frame, or among police, homeless, health, housing, jobs, youth, and community development through the community safety frame. (The idea is that by investing in the social safety ecosystem, it can reduce the number of people who need the first response service.) Community needs and priorities, along with subject matter experts, can help inform the identification of proper frames. So intentionally, we turn the budget conversation upside down. Business areas no longer “compete” for sources but are working toward the same goal to serve our community.

3. Evidence Has to Be in Place and Used

Once we have a good sense of the community needs, and priorities are clarified through value driven decision-making, we can start to explore the solution in detail: How much police funding are we going to reallocate? To whom? What best practices are available? What accountability measures will need to be in place to ensure the success? And implemented by whom?

Part of the reason people are anxious about defunding is that the future is unclear. That’s why we will need to take an evidence-based approach. In response to the call for defunding, the Toronto police service was asked to provide its budget with line-by-line breakdown. In Minneapolis, the city council created a working group whose first task is to engage the community and come up with recommendations of partners that the city administration can collaborate with. In Edmonton, the city council asked for analysis on how many calls for service are driven by mental health, addictions, homelessness, or other social and public health factors, and how many calls could be better handled by partners. You need this evidence to develop your alternative model. But none will be possible if the evidence is not in place.

In addition, there are questions about whether certain programs are working, such as the body camera program, bias and use-of-force training, carding, and street check policies, etc. Program-level information, such as demographic data, process data, and outcome data, has to be collected and analyzed to inform the defund decision.


The movement of defunding the police was a result of a series of tragic events. It is a wake-up call to the community’s evolving needs in policing and public safety. History has taught us that incremental changes to policing would not work. It demands transformational changes that are based on a holistic approach built on community needs, good decision-making through prioritization, and hard evidence.

As we watch the evolution of policing unfolding in many communities, we know this is just one among many issues we - public servants are dealing with. They are different in nature. And yet, you can always benefit from an approach that is rooted on the diverse needs of your community, is based on a frame that is relevant and adds value not leads to competing or conflicting priorities for resources and is built on evidence not just experience or political interests. So, are you ready for the next transformation in your community?



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