There are renewed calls to defund the police, but what does it actually mean?

A new video appearing to show police force against a Black teenage girl has gone viral.
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Dan Kitwood

This article contains graphic descriptions of rape, domestic violence, racism, and homophobia. 

‘Defund the police’ is a slogan that has re-entered mainstream discourse following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA. Its basic premise is that government funds should be invested in alternative community support mechanisms – such as social work and education – instead of policing.

When we talk about state violence at the hands of the police, we often make the mistake of thinking this is limited to police officers in the USA. But that doesn't appear to be the case.

A viral clip, shared by Twitter user @Sarch11e, shows two police officers intervening in a fight between two young girls has gone viral for illustrating the stark difference between how the white teenager and the Black teenager appear to be treated. In the video, police officers can be seen separating the two girls from a fight, while the white girl is left to lie on the floor without handcuffs or additional force, the Black girl is knelt on by a police officer, before being handcuffed. 

Many people have responded to the video by calling the Metropolitan police “institutionally racist," and calling for an explanation. The Met has yet to release an official statement on the incident. 

It's far from the first time the Met Police has come into question.

On Tuesday 1 February, The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) watchdog released a report revealing that Metropolitan police officers had shared messages about hitting and threatening to rape women, and had made racist and homophobic remarks, as part of an offensive culture in the police force. 

These messages included: 

A male officer messaged a female officer saying, “I would happily rape you … if I was single … if I was single I would happily chloroform you."

“Getting a woman into bed is like spreading butter. It can be done with a bit of effort using a credit card, but it’s quicker and easier just to use a knife.”

The report has been released at a time when trust in the police seems to be at a historic low. Earlier this year, a serving police officer kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah Everard as she walked home. 

When women and other mourners gathered to hold a vigil for Sarah at Clapham Common in March earlier this year, they were accompanied by a disproportionately heavy police presence (although a report by the police inspectorate defended the Met's use of force). 

The Independent Office for Police Conduct subsequently investigated five police officers' conduct immediately after Sarah's body was found, finding that a probationary Met officer had shared an "inappropriate graphic depicting violence against women" with colleagues on WhatsApp. 

There are also ongoing investigations into how the Kent Police in 2015, and the MPS in 2021, handled allegations of indecent exposure now linked to Wayne Couzens. It seems the entire culture of policing is finally facing some scrutiny. 

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Patsy Stevenson was arrested at the Sarah Everard vigil. She's since been ‘liked’ by 50 police officers on Tinder. Can she – or any of us – ever trust the police again?

"One of my best friends is a police officer, and I have to constantly message her saying: ‘It’s not about you’. 

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While the case of Wayne Couzens certainly exposed failings within the police force, it's sadly not unique. The Met Police have apologised to the family of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman who were murdered in June 2020, after the police failed to take the family's concerns seriously. Dame Cressida Dick admitted that, “if [the police] had responded better we may have saved their friends and family immeasurable pain.”

It's clear that the policing system is failing women and other marginalised people. But what does defunding the police actually mean? And, more importantly, is it the answer we so desperately need in the UK?

What does ‘defund the police’ involve?

Contrary to popular belief, defund the police doesn't mean withdrawing public funds from the police: it's about diverting money into alternative methods of protecting and serving the public.

Critical Resistance, a US-based organisation which campaigns for prison abolition, describes the 'defund the police' as a movement to “invest in things that actually make our communities safer." 

This would include, "quality, affordable, and accessible housing, universal quality health care, including community-based mental health services, income support to stay safe during the pandemic, safe living wage employment, education, and youth programming.” 

Where did the term ‘defund the police’ come from?

Although it's hard to pinpoint exactly where the term ‘defund the police’ originated from, the rhetoric behind it is rooted in the police abolition movement, which has been active pretty much since the advent of policing in the USA in the early 1800s. 

Advocates for police abolition claim there is a deeply racist past of policing, both in the UK and the USA, and argue that liberation for Black people and of other marginalised identities cannot be achieved while policing institutions still exist.

The slogan ‘defund the police’ surfaced at protests in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot in the back by Darren Wilson, a police officer who wasn't indicted for his death. After George Floyd was murdered by serving police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, activists continued to demand that resources be diverted from the police.

Why has trust in British police been low for decades?

There have been innumerable instances of British policing failures in the past 50 years, which have historically impacted marginalised communities, particularly Black and working class people, the most severely. 

In 1993, Stephen Lawrence – an 18-year-old boy – was stabbed to death in a racially-motivated attack. The Met's failure to properly investigate his murder led to The Stephen Lawrence Enquiry, which declared the Met Police institutionally racist, as well as causing untold agony for the Lawrence family. 

In 1989, 96 Liverpool fans died in the Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield, after thousands of fans were fed into an already-packed turnstile. Following the tragedy, individual police officers perpetuated a false narrative, which absolved the police of wrongdoing, and shifted the blamed firmly onto Liverpool fans. 

It took until March 2016 for David Duckenfield, the Police Chief Superintendent, to admit to his role in causing the tragedy, saying  (via BBC News) during the Hillsborough inquest in Cheshire that his failure to close a tunnel was “the direct cause of the deaths of 96 people.” 

Sadly, there are countless more examples of historical police failings, which have eroded the public's faith in the police. 

Are people in the UK currently calling to defund the police?

Although there's a clear distrust in UK policing, there isn't a specific campaign calling for the Met Police to be defunded. However, there are currently protests against giving the police more powers than they already have. 

In March 2021, the government voted for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would “widen the range of circumstances in which the police can impose conditions on protests" and “create new stop, search and seizure powers to prevent serious disruption caused by protests.”

Activist groups, including Sisters Uncut, have led thousands-strong protests under the slogan #KillTheBill, calling for politicians to stop the government from passing this legislation. 

Read More
Wayne Couzens has been charged with four counts of indecent exposure, prior to murder of Sarah Everard

The alleged offences are said to have taken place between January and February 2021.

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