Rights and Wrongs of "Defunding the Police"

If "defunding the police" means abolishing them completely, it's a bad idea. But there are ways to use cuts in funding to improve police incentives for the better.


"Defunding the police" is an idea that has rapidly become a part of mainstream political debate over the last few days, fueled by public outrage over the killing of George Floyd and other police abuses. But, like many political slogans, it is a vague phrase that sidesteps crucial distinctions. Depending on what it means, it could be a terrible idea, a great idea, or somewhere in between. If it means abolishing existing police forces and replacing them with nothing, it's likely to do far more harm than good. On the other hand, there are ways to cut and restructure police funding that could potentially do much to improve policing and curb abuses.

To many people, the phrase "defunding the police" sounds like the goal is to abolish police departments entirely, even though that is not what many advocates actually mean. However, at least a few supporters really do mean that. Actually doing it will be a really bad idea.

I have long argued that there is much to be done to curb police abuses, abolish unjust laws that police enforce, and combat racial profiling. But abolishing police completely is a different matter. Doing so is likely to result in a serious increase in violent and property crime, often at the expense of poor minorities.

Beginning with a classic study by Jonathan Klick and my George Mason University colleague Alex Tabarrok, much social science research shows that increasing the number of police on the streets can reduce crime rates, often dramatically so. Matthew Yglesias of the liberal Vox site has a good overview of the research, and here is an even more recent one by  Tabarrok. Abolishing the police completely or severely curtailing their numbers could easily increase crime, in the process disproportionately harming the very same poor and minority communities reformers most want to help. As Yglesias notes, many minority communities have long complained that the police don't do enough to protect them against crime. Abolishing the police entirely would make that problem worse.

There is no contradiction between this concern and minorities' longstanding complaints about police abuses and racial profiling by law enforcement. Most African-Americans and other minorities want the police to do a better job of protecting them against criminals, and also avoid abusive and racial discrimination. This combination of attitudes is entirely understandable. It is what most of the rest of us would want from the police who patrol our own communities, as well.

There are many steps we can take to curb abuses and rein in profiling without reducing the number of police on the streets. Indeed, many of those steps would actually increase the resources available for combating violent and property crime.  For example, cutting back on the War on Drugs (better still, abolishing it entirely) and taking various other petty victimless crimes off the books would eliminate some of the main causes of abusive policing while also freeing up more police to combat violence and theft. Alex Tabarrok—who is far from being an uncritical booster of police—has a helpful summary of what we should aim to achieve:

Can we increase the number of police? Not today but in recent years large majorities of blacks, hispanics and whites support hiring more police. It is true that blacks are more skeptical than whites of police and have every reason to be. Some of the communities most in need of more police are also communities with some of the worst policing problems. Better policing and more policing, however, complement one another. Demilitarize the police, end the war drugs, regulate people less, restrain police unions and eliminate qualified immunity so that police brutality can be punished and the bad apples removed and the demand for police will soar.

To be sure, cutting or even eliminating police probably would not lead to a "Mad Max" world of total lawlessness. Private security guards would take up some of the slack. Libertarian scholars such as Ed Stringham and Terry Anderson and Peter Hill have documented how private security can work surprisingly well, and is far from being an exclusive preserve of the very rich. There are already many more private security guards than public police in most countries (including the US), and we could potentially rely more on former and less on the latter. Private security firms have less of a record of brutality and racial discrimination than police do, and they are also much easier to hold accountable for their misdeeds in court, since they aren't protected by police union privileges and qualified immunity.

It may well make sense to rely more on private security at the margin. But I am skeptical of claims—made by some libertarians—that they can fully displace public police. Among other things, they are unlikely to have much incentive to apprehend and detain criminals (as opposed to merely deterring them from preying on the firm's clients). At the very least, complete privatization of law enforcement would require radical changes to the legal system that are unlikely to occur anytime soon. This is one of those areas where I, a fairly radical libertarian, differ with those who are even more radical, though I admit the latter raise some important issues.

The likelihood that large-scale defunding of the police would predictably lead to greater reliance on private security firms creates a difficult tradeoff  for those on the left who support defunding, but also dislike privatization. Perhaps the dilemma could be resolved by combining defunding of police with new restrictions on private security forces. But then you would need some way of enforcing the new restrictions on private security—and of preventing organized crime from filling the void, if legitimate security firms are driven out of the market. Effective enforcement would require relying on public police, private security, or some combination thereof—thereby bringing back the very entities these types of left-wingers seek to ban! Someone would have to police the ban on policing, and that entity could easily have many of the same flaws as the original police did.

Another possible meaning of defunding might be to abolish the existing police department, but replace it with a new government agency. Camden, New Jersey is occasionally cited as a successful example of "defunding the police." But it is actually better understood as an example of replacing a badly flawed old police force with a new and better one.

In 2013, Camden did indeed abolish its police department. But it then set up a new one, that actually put more police on the streets, while also curbing union power and imposing much stronger accountability for abusive behavior. The result was a decline in police brutality combined with a substantial decline in crime. Camden is a success story. But one caused by reforming police rather than abolishing them entirely. However, it may be the case that abolishing an existing police force and replacing it with a new one will often be preferable to trying to incrementally improve a deeply compromised status quo.

While completely defunding the police and replacing them with nothing is likely a bad idea, there are many specific police revenue sources that should be curtailed in ways that improve cops' incentives. For example, we should abolish asset forfeiture programs, which incentivize police to seize citizens' property, including in cases where they are never charged with a crime, much less convicted. Asset forfeiture revenue incentivizes police to devote more resources to drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses likely to generate profitable seizures, and less to violent and property crimes. Jason Brennan (coauthor,  with Chris Surprenant, of an important new book on perverse financial incentives in the criminal justice system) summarize a wide range of other ways to reform police financing here.

Brennan also warns that we should be wary of unfocused budget-cutting. That could result in police adopting a "Washington Monument" strategy:

Historically, when government departments (such as the U.S. National Park Service) have their budgets threatened, they respond by cutting their most essential services (like threatening to close the Washington Monument), to drum up voter support. If police are willing to murder civilians on livestream, they're presumably willing to slack off where they're most needed until we beg them to come back.

In addition to eliminating revenue sources that create perverse incentives for police, there is also often room for cutting bureaucratic bloat in law enforcement. As co-blogger David Bernstein points out, some large police departments, such as the NYPD, have seen a major growth in dubious bureaucracy in recent decades. One of the reasons for Camden's success is that they cut back on desk jockeys and instead used the money to put more cops on the streets.

In sum, "defunding the police" is a bad idea if it means totally abolishing police departments and replacing them with nothing. On the other hand, it makes much better sense if it means eliminating revenue sources that create perverse incentives, cutting back on bureaucracy, relying more on private security services at the margin, and—in some cases—abolishing a malfunctioning police department in order to replace it with a new and better one.

I end on a point of political strategy. Reformers should abjure using "defund the police" as a slogan, even if the reforms they advocate  include cutting some types of funding. A recent survey finds that only 16% of Americans support reducing police funding (to say nothing of completely abolishing it) and that opposition cuts across party lines, with Democrats, Republicans, and independents opposing funding cuts at roughly the same rate.

Instead of "defund the police," I tentatively suggest "police the police." That implies imposing accountability for police abuses (which is broadly popular), but without implying that you want to get rid of the police entirely (which is not).

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  1. Re: Camden.

    Let’s really look at what this was. This wasn’t about “police abuse”

    This was about union busting to reduce the budget.

    By eliminating the department entirely, they got out of a whole bunch of benefits and other items, essentially slashing the budget. They then reinstituted the department (as the county department) by hiring a bunch of rookies and rehiring a bunch of the old police officers they fired. They got a lot more cops on the street, that were ironically much whiter than the previous force.

    If that’s what “defunding the police” means (union busting to eliminate the cops benefits, then hiring a bunch more white people to put even more cops on the street)….I’d be amazed.

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    2. Neato narrative. Hardly the only potential explanation.

      Indeed, their results look well beyond budgetary.

      Perhaps the truth is not one quite as neatly aligned with your ideological preferences.

      1. If by “defund the police” you mean “Hire lots more cops and start ticketing heavily for minor offenses like tinted windows and broken headlights”…

        Then yes, that’s what Camden did.

        1. Quite a pivot from your initial anti-union bit.
          Ticketing is a bit telling, no? Not arresting?

          Anyhow, here’s a decent 8 minutes on what actual activists are saying:

          Dunno if it’s feasible or not, but I’m willing to try.

          1. (Quick pivot) Not really.

            And you don’t arrest people for broken taillights.

            1. You went from ‘this was to kill the unions’ to ‘this was about implementing a broken windows policy.’

              That’s def. a quick change of emphasis, and it looks like of thesis.

    3. That was a part of it, Armchair. You’re correct about that. Additionally, there were endemic corruption issues spanning decades (I kid you not). I live not too far from Camden and there was a lot of reporting regarding the corruption over the years.

      Dissolving the Camden PD was one of the few smart things Chis Christie did.

      1. It was really 95% of it.

        Camden was severely under-policed in 2013, with police salaries and benefits at more than $180,000 per cop. They had just 175 police officers for the entire city, with just 12 policing at night during some nights and hours.

        When they “defunded the police”, they rehired a bunch of the Camden cops at country cops (average cost $99,000). Then used the savings to hire a bunch more cops, such that Camden now has 411 full time sworn officers.

        The new officers started issuing tickets for little things like obscured license plates and broken headlights (which made the residents complain). The police force went from majority minority to majority white. But murders and crime went down dramatically as a result.

        So, technically speaking, Camden’s police force was “defunded”. But really what happened was a massive expansion of the police department with lots more tickets for little things (like tinted windows and broken headlights) which ultimately resulted in crime dropping.

        I really don’t think when people say “defund the police” they mean “expand it dramatically and start ticketing heavily for little things”. But that’s just me.


    4. I would be inclined to separate salaries, benefits, and other things that are traditionally subject to negotiation from discipline on serious matters like excessive force, violations of civil rights, gross negligence resulting in harm, and similar, which I think should be matters addressed by imposed law rather than negotiated contract. Understanding many members of the Conspiracy don’t like unions, I wouldn’t associate the kind of reforms involved here with general anti-unionism.

      1. How would you separate them?

        1. State passes a law creating a uniform procedure and rules for discipline in these matters, perhaps a state-level disciplinary board, taking them out of municipalities’ hands, and declaring any inconsistent contract provisions void as contrary to public policy.

          1. That’s what California did. It’s called the Peace Officers Bill of Rights, which tells you all you need to know.

  2. I’d like to start with abolishing qualified immunity and see how that goes. That may fix enough of the problem to where defunding the police wouldn’t be necessary.

    1. Qualified immunity is a red herring. Police officers don’t have enough money to be worth suing; abolishing qualified immunity would mean higher payouts by municipalities and/or their insurers, nothing more. The whole thing is beloved by libertarian law professors with little idea of how the tort system operates in practice. Do tort plaintiffs look for the guiltiest party to sue? Of course not, they look for the deepest pocket, because their aim is not to punish the wicked but to get money. So in general, plans to expand tort liability are a silly way to deter or punish wrongdoers.

      1. Hitting the municipalities (which hire and discipline the police) and their insurers (which In turn hit them in the pocketbook) would absolutely deter wrongdoing, by incentivizing oversight.

        1. Potentially. Or, the cops could just…not proactively police…

          There would be less police wrongdoing. More crime, more violence, more murders. But less police wrongdoing.

          1. We GOTTA have thuggish police, because I KNOW the intimidation keeps crime down!

            Not a very libertarian position.

            1. Proactive policing keeps crime down. But if you punish proactive policing, you see crime and murders increase.

              1. Infinite crime prevention means a police state.

                You gotta deal with the costs, as well as the benefits, of your preferred policies bout lest people think you’re an authoritarian yahoo.

                You also need to define what proactive policing is, and why it requires qualified immunity.

        2. Bu for a department of any size, the damages from even an egregious malfeasor are going to be a minuscule part of the budget. While there are certainly arguments for removing or significantly limiting the scope of qualified immunity, I’m dubious that doing so would significantly alter officers’ behavior.

        3. You realize that this is what happens now, right?

          Qualified immunity applies to officers in their individual capacity, not to the government. Municipalities (and their insurers) regularly pay out for wrongdoing.

          It’s unlikely further oversight will be incentivized by shifting liability from the municipality to individual officers (who are, in turn, insured or subrogated by the municipality).

          1. Municipalities aren’t directly liable for employees actions unless the actions are pursuant to official policy. They’re indirectly liable because they typically indemnify officers for suits based on on-the-job conduct. Qualified immunity means they don’t have to pay out pursuant to indemnification agreements.

      2. If insurers could rate on the basis of exposure to liability, it’d be an incentive to cities to clean up their PDs.

  3. The Latin phrase for “police the police” is quis_custodiet_ipsos_custodes, but police the police sounds more intuitive.

    1. I agree with most of what Ilya says here. At least locally, however, I’ve still decided to embrace the phrase – because I think doing so has a much greater likelihood than the alternative of resulting in positive outcomes.

      1. Sorry – meant to post this as a general comment rather than a reply, but here it is.

    2. The phrase is often used that way, but it actually originated in the context of the problem of a husband keeping his wife faithful.

      the plan that my friends always advise me to adopt:
      ‘Bolt her in, constrain her!’ But who can watch
      the watchmen? They keep quiet about the girl’s
      secrets and get her as their payment; everyone hushes it up.
      (Juvenal, Satire VI, lines 346—8, O29-33, possibly interpolated)

      1. Wasn’t the line “but who shall guard the guardians?”

        1. That is the most common translation of qui custodiet ipsos custodet. My quote translates it as “who can watch the watchmen.”

  4. Bernstein’s article, cited above, was rather thoroughly demolished by his commenters, who pointed out that (i) the “growth” in the number of NYPD officers was primarily caused by merging the formerly transit and housing authority police into the department, (ii) the “bloat” in administrative was caused primarily by transferring school safety assistants from the Board of Ed to the NYPD, and (iii) the Fox Butterfield tone of the whole article, which noted with amazement that the number of police was up even though crime was down.

    1. I had to Google “Fox Butterfield.” Thanks for the nudge…it’s a useful phrase to know, since it does occur reasonably often–even in non-internet debates!

  5. Fun fact. When London transitioned to a professional police force in the 18th century it was viewed as a huge affront to liberty.

    1. Can you point us to a source for that? (Both the affront to liberty thing, and London having a professional police force in the 18th century.)

      1. The transition happened in the 19th century; Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829, although there was an experiment with a few partly paid constables starting in 1792.

        You can find a fairly detailed account of English law enforcement institutions in the 18th century, without police, in my _Legal Systems Very Different from Ours_. For more than that, take a look at books by Beattie, probably the leading authority.

  6. Another thing would be to not have police act as revenue agents as Ferguson, Missouri did. Having the police acting to collect fines to fund the government only causes problems from the number of interactions with civilians to the dislike of those being fined. Leave that position to the bureaucrats.

  7. I’m sure there are reforms but we could literally dissolve every other part of the government first, the police should be last part.

    1. There’s virtue signaling, and then there’s radical signalling.

      Got that out of your system?

  8. I like how when you call them on it is ‘DEFUND THE POLICE’ is really not defund the police but some 90 page gibberish when its obvious in the heart of the mob and the meaning of the demagogues its exactly what it says.

    1. Much like “Believe All Women”, if in retrospect it turns out to be stupid you can always claim that it means something else.

      1. That is as close as I can remember you coming to calling Trump out on his endless lies. “Don’t pay attention to his words.” is said, unironically, by his most passionate defenders.

        I do not believe in a double standard, and I thought that “defund the police” is such a stupid term to deliberately adopt. On the other hand, my impression is that only a narrow narrow (I’d say “lunatic”) fringe of the Democratic party really means, “Get rid of the police and leave only salted ground in its place.” Biden immediate disassociated himself with that notion, Pelosi also, Warren also, Obama also, Schumer also. [God knows what OAC is saying (Google does not tell me.) But I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt for now.]

        1. Well, when they say “Defund the police”…I go to the source.

          Here’s what they mean.

          1. “The Seattle Police Department and attached court system are beyond reform. We do not request reform, we demand abolition. We demand that the Seattle Council and the Mayor defund and abolish the Seattle Police Department and the attached Criminal Justice Apparatus. This means 100% of funding, including existing pensions for Seattle Police. ”

          2. “In the transitionary period between now and the dismantlement of the Seattle Police Department, we demand that the use of armed force be banned entirely. No guns, no batons, no riot shields, no chemical weapons, ”

          It goes downhill from there.


          1. Quit nutpicking. Seattle is the source? Since when?

            They’re doing an experiment. One I already see failing.

            1. Oh….an “experiment”…For the “Seattle Autonomous Zone”

              By….forcing businesses to pay “protection money”? By forcing people to show ID to prove you “belong there”? By having armed guards around the perimeter with assault rifles. With “checkpoints” into and out of the zone?

              Is this what “defund the police” means? Sounds about right. Sounds like gang rule.

              1. And it is why police have MRAPs.

              2. AL, I said it’s already failing. No need to come in so hot, dude.

            2. Seizing six blocks of private property is an “experiment”? And it’s failing because the homeless people ate all the food. Next up we’re going to go conduct an experiment at the bank.

              1. It’s failing for lots of reasons. Power vacuums, warlords, etc.

                I’m not sure how you saw my comment as an endorsement – I called them nuts, and I said they were failing.

                1. I didn’t see it as an endorsement. Was just poking fun at the experiment thing.

        2. “That is as close as I can remember you coming to calling Trump out on his endless lies. “Don’t pay attention to his words.” is said, unironically, by his most passionate defenders.”

          ?? I’ve never claimed that Trump doesn’t constantly lie. The problem I’ve pointed out is that he drags many of his critics down to his level. I’ve certainly never claimed to support Trump, even if I sometimes have to point out that many attacks on him are unfair. There’s certainly plenty to criticize.

          1. But if the point of the comment is that the #metoo crowd and Trump are equally dishonest, sure, I’ll happily agree with that.

      2. The slogan was “Believe Women,” not “Believe All Women.”

  9. Hey Dumbo, the objective isn’t to reduce crime rates. The whole idea is that crime non-suppression is a reparation. Terrorized Whites is a feature, not a bug. Can you find the TP by yourself?

    1. TP? Toilet paper???

      1. This blog attracts the best kind of commenters.

  10. Among other things, they [private security] are unlikely to have much incentive to apprehend and detain criminals (as opposed to merely deterring them from preying on the firm’s clients).

    I don’t buy that. It implies that the only reason cops today have such an incentive is other matters, such as the legal authority to steal, assault, rape, murder, and commit general mayhem, with impunity. That in turn implies that if we take away the ability to be authoritative assholes with impunity, public cops will also have no incentive to apprehend and detain criminals.

    1. I’ll add, the police we have now actually kind of suck at “apprehend and detain criminals”.

      Go look up the FBI UCR section on clearance rates.

      The national average clearance rate for murder is under 70%. Everything else is worse.

      Clearance rates for robbery is under 30% Straight property crimes are even lower.

  11. Somebody picked the wrong slogan, and now we see Democrats trying to explain that “defund the police” does not really mean “defund the police”, but some nebulous something else.

    1. Exactly right. Somebody did pick the wrong slogan. And Democrats are saying that what they support is something VERY different. (I have seen a few Dems do what you say–explaining that “defund” does not mean defund. But most are simply saying, “I do not at all support defunding…we love and need the police, and we fully support all good policemen. We want to also try other things. Reallocate some money from the police to drug treatment, to people who specialize in helping the mentally ill and/or homeless, etc.”

      Seems like a measured and reasonable argument to me.

      But yes, “Defund the police.” is, taken literally, just as stupid and ill-thought-out as everyone here is saying.

      1. So, what do you think these points mean when they said “defund the police”..


        It sounds like they meant what they said. And more.

      2. They (Team D) did it to themselves = Somebody did pick the wrong slogan.

        That will be a cudgel from now to the election, wielded by Team R.

        1. Simplistic slogans works among the base. Rather like Abolish ICE, and Lock Her Up.

          1. Tippecanoe and Tyler too; The Union now and forever; Grant Us Another Term; Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?; In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts….all simplistic slogans. Literally from the start of our Republic.

            Amazing how people don’t change over time. 🙂

            1. Yeah, the people taking it literally, or saying it’s a bad choice for a slogan because others will take it literally, should look at the countless examples.

              I’m seeing a bit less skepticism than I thought, to tell you the truth. I think that’s less about the slogan and more about the moment, though.

  12. An interesting opinion. Some folks are pretty serious about complete defunding and it means exactly what it appears to mean. As a case in point, here are the demands of the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle:

    1. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean we have to let these people control the language of the discussion.

  13. I think the slogan “defund the police” was an extremely poor and self-defeating choice. It lets opponents of serious reform tar any call for change with a brush of revolution, anarchy, and violence.

    By associating any change with extreme, maximalist change, it may well result in no change.

    Proponents of reform don’t have to do this. They should reject this slogan.

    Police need to be more sensitive, emergency response has to include social workers, medical personnel, and conflict defusers, we are overpolicing on some things, coming in with guns drawn and hairtrigger fingers should not be the standard response to any distress call. Locking people up should not be the primary way we address society’s problems.

    All this is true. But “defund the police” is not the way to advocate it.

  14. “Pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for fear each man would swallow his brother alive.”
    Ilya, I personally think it’s a terrible suggestion to legalize things just to cut down on police interactions. Though I get you just taking advantage of the occasion to push for what you anyway want.

  15. I find it amusing that practically nobody in this discussion seems to realize that police, in the Anglo-American system, are a recent invention, dating in England from 1829. It really is possible to have law enforcement without them.

    But I don’t think that system, with thieftakers, Societies for the Prosecution of Felons, and rewards, is what the people talking about defunding or abolishing the police intend.

  16. Havana is one of the safest big cities in the world. You can see teenage girls walking alone along the Malecon at midnight, without concern. The Cuban justice system is frightening. You can get 25 years for breaking and entering, and if you actually hurt someone, you may never be seen or heard from again.

    Like it or not, the level of violent crime rises and falls based on the severity of the police and the courts. The right position is: 1) there is no such thing as a victimless crime, and 2) for real crimes, violent criminal acts, the police should be aggressive, and the courts should be merciless.

  17. “To many people, the phrase ‘defunding the Police’ sounds like the goal is to abolish police departments entirely…”

    Can’t imagine why they’d possibly think that.

    “…even though that is not what many advocates actually mean.”

    Well that’s interesting. May I suggest in the future, they do a better job of expressing their thoughts. It might actually prove effective.

    1. The thing is, it has proven effective. At least for now, according the polling.

      And such simplistic sloganeering has proven effective throughout history.

      The sudden concern at slogans not being literally true has me a bit skeptical.

      1. I’m sure that DJT loves the slogan.

  18. To many people, the phrase “defunding the police” sounds like the goal is to abolish police departments entirely, even though that is not what many advocates actually mean. However, at least a few supporters really do mean that. Actually doing it will be a really bad idea.

    Notice the use of weasel words like “many” and “some” to suggest “most” and “few.”

    How many are on the “reform the police” side and how many are on the “abolish the police” side?

    I think there are a lot higher percentage (even if not a majority) on the “abolish” side than leftists like Mr. Somin want to admit.

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