What Do “Defund the Police” and “Police Abolition” Mean? And What Do They Not Mean?

Jerry Jackson/Baltimore SunFollowing the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a call by activists to “defund the police” achieved national attention. Supporters of defunding the police have argued that—at least some of—the billions of dollars spent on policing each year could be better used by investing in educational, recreational, and mental health programs, among others, in an effort to reduce crime and increase community well-being more generally. With the release of footage showing multiple officers pepper-spraying, kicking, and punching Tyre Nichols—leading to his death three days later—questions of whether and how to reduce police budgets have been brought back into the national conversation.1

In order to understand this issue, it is important to define what defunding the police means and what it doesn’t mean. Responding to the deaths of five Dallas police officers in a 2016 mass shooting, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. … Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. …Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”2

Image Credit: Neal Skorpen/Mud CompanyThis is what many activists mean when they call for the police to be defunded. Reduce the number of responsibilities we ask of the police, decrease police budgets to match the reduced size of the police force, and use the diverted funds to invest in programs and staff who are trained to address mental health crises, struggling schools, and other social issues.

“Defund the police” does not mean “abolish the police.” It means police would have a more limited, primarily peacekeeping role. But they would not be asked to take on other roles, like those mentioned by Chief Brown.

Defunding the police is not a brand-new movement. Activists have been calling to defund the police for nearly a decade—since at least 2014, following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri—but the slogan caught on much more broadly in 2020, even being echoed by some progressive members of Congress.3 While many Democratic Party leaders worried that the slogan was “divisive,” members of the so-called “Squad,” including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), expressed support for defunding the police. They were clear that they did not want only to cut police funding, but to redirect those taxpayer dollars into other social services.4

The movement to defund the police has also garnered opposition. Opponents of the idea believe it is unwise to call for reducing the size and budgets of police forces when crime has risen in some parts of the country in recent years. Opponents argue that such a policy could actually encourage crime by reducing the capacity of police forces. As Jacqueline Helfgott, a professor of criminal justice at Seattle University, wrote, “If we defund the police, those most affected will be the poor and the marginalized. Wealthy neighborhoods will hire private security as they are already doing, and poorer neighborhoods will have to fend for themselves even more than they already have to. Delays in police response and lack of police capacity will increase fear of crime, render victims of crime helpless, and wreak havoc on communities, especially communities of color, even more so than is already the case.”5

Other political activists and commentators want to go beyond merely reducing the budgets and responsibilities of law enforcement and “abolish the police.” In an interview following Nichols’ death, police abolitionist Andrea Ritchie called for police to be phased out completely, beginning with limiting their authority to conduct certain actions, starting with traffic stops. “[I]t would require a complete restructuring of the society that we live in,” she said. “It would require us to shift our priorities from responding to every form of need, conflict, and harm with agents of violence. … And so, it does require a radical reimagination of what we understand safety to be.”6 Ritchie and other police abolitionists make the case that “safety is not produced primarily through force,” and therefore, “police don’t make us safer.”7

WATCH: “Howard Prof. Justin Hansford & Abolitionist Andrea Ritchie on Tyre Nichols & Calls for No More Police,” from Democracy Now!

Police abolitionist scholars have argued that the over-policing of Americans—disproportionately low-income people of color—has led to “the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States,” most directly through the War on Drugs.8 Alex Vitale explains that, as a response to the War on Drugs, the Los Angeles Police Department “developed specialized antigang units first known as TRASH (Total Resources Against Street Hoodlums) and later sanitized [renamed] CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums)” in the 1970s.9 These specialized police teams became the model for later elite forces, such as the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION Unit (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods), five members of which have now been charged with the murder of Nichols.10

READ: “To Produce Safety, We Must Understand What Drives Violence,” from Common Justice

With another high-profile police killing of an unarmed Black man, Americans are once again reconsidering what safety looks like and how police fit into that picture.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does policing look like in your community?
  2. How does your community feel about the police? Do most people you know trust or distrust the police?
  3. What are some ways to reduce crime that do not involve law enforcement?
  4. What do you think about the activists’ call to defund the police? Why?
  5. What do you think about abolishing the police? Why?

Possible Extension Activities

  1. Have students research which cities have embraced defunding the police/abolishing the police policies and compare police budgets in those cities before and after 2020.
  2. Ask students to compare the BREATHE Act and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. How are they similar? Different? Would students amend either or both? How?
  3. If students are interested in going further, they can research police budgets and crime rates and consider if there is a clear correlation between increases in law enforcement spending and decreases in crime.

Further Reading

  • Mariame Kaba. We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice. Haymarket Books, 2021.
  • Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie. No More Police: A Case for Abolition. The New Press, 2022.
  • Danielle Sered. Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair. The New Press, 2021
  • Alex S. Vitale. The End of Policing. Verso, 2017.
  • Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010.

Related Posts

Protests, Police Reform, and Civil Unrest

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun
[1] BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-64680815
[2] Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/07/11/grief-and-anger-continue-after-dallas-attacks-and-police-shootings-as-debate-rages-over-policing/
[3] Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie. No More Police: A Case for Abolition. The New Press, 2022.
[4] Newsweekhttps://www.newsweek.com/which-lawmakers-support-defunding-police-1510556
[5] Seattle Times: https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/the-movement-to-defund-the-police-is-wrong-and-heres-why/
[6] Andrea Ritchie. Interview Conducted by Amy Goodman for Democracy Now!: https://www.democracynow.org/2023/2/1/tyre_nichols_traffic_stops_police_violence
[7] Common Justice: https://blog.commonjustice.org/blog/to_produce_safety_we_must_understand_what_drives_violence; No More Police.
[8] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press. 2010.
[9] Alex S. Vitale. The End of Policing. Verso. 2017.
[10] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/29/opinion/tyre-nichols-police-scorpion.html.


CEO Compensation: An Issue of Fairness or Evidence of a Functioning Free Market?

There is currently a bill in Congress, S.794 –  Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act of 2021, that would increase taxes on companies on the basis of their CEO-to-worker compensation ratio. The legislation, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and cosponsored by a host of Democrats including Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), has progressed to the Senate Committee on Finance but faces an extremely polarized Congress.

In the proposal, a ratio is ascribed to a company by dividing the CEO’s compensation by that of the median employee.1 The tax hike proposed in the bill is gradually increased in proportion to the ratio, starting with a 0.5 percentage point increase for companies that pay their chief executive between 50 to 100 times more than their median worker. The highest tax applied is a five percentage point increase for corporations in which the CEO makes more than 500 times the typical employee. These percentage points would be added to the current corporate income tax rate of 21 percent.1

Compensation ratios vary greatly depending on specific organizations. Coca-Cola’s ratio, for example, is on the high end of the spectrum at 1,621 to 1.2. Of the top 1,000 firms, around 80 percent would be subject to higher taxes because of pay disparity.2 However, compensation can sometimes be difficult to calculate, with many CEOs receiving stock options and other forms of payment. Using data from the top 350 firms, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found the CEO-to-worker pay ratio to be 399 to 1 in 2021.3 This is an increase from 20 to 1 in 1965 and 58 to 1 in 1989.4 Some scholars credit this trend as contributing to growing wealth inequality in the United States. The EPI study found that from 1978 to 2019, CEO compensation expanded by 940 percent while median worker compensation grew by only 12 percent.3 The nearby chart illustrates the incongruent growth.

Arguments for the Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act

Arguing in support of the legislation, Senator Warren said, “We need to take dramatic steps to address wealth inequality in this country and discouraging massive executive payouts is a good place to start.” She added, “Corporate executives have padded their pockets while American workers, who helped generate record corporate profits, have hardly seen their wages budge.” Senator Sanders also views the current CEO-worker dynamic as inequitable and believes it is time for corporations to “pay their fair share.”5

Others argue that even if the tax does not incentivize companies to lessen the gap between CEO and worker compensation, the tax could still generate revenue that could be reinvested. A similar, but less extensive, tax in Portland, Oregon, generated $5.2 million in 2019. On a federal scale, the revenue could be used to tackle any number of issues facing America.

Arguments Against the Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act

Opponents argue that in cities like Portland that have experimented with similar taxes, the policy has not led to a dramatic lessening of CEO compensation.6 In fact, detractors insist that instead of reducing CEO pay, the policy would lead corporations to pass this new tax burden onto workers (in the form of lower wages) and consumers (in the form of higher prices).7 This ultimately hurts lower-income individuals the most.8 Others argue that the bill would disproportionately harm specific sectors of the economy. Industries such as retail and fast food tend to rely on lower-skilled labor and could be affected more than specialized industries. Opponents worry that this disproportionate targeting could disrupt the fair and normal functioning of the economy and the global competitiveness of U.S. companies.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is wealth inequality an important issue for Congress to act on? Is it an important issue in your community?
  2. Is CEO-to-worker compensation in the United States a national issue the federal government should be involved in? Why or why not?
  3. Is the proposed legislation an effective method for reducing the disparities in CEO-to-worker compensation? Would you propose a different approach?
  4. What economic effects might the legislation produce?

Related Posts

Addressing Economic Inequality: Elizabeth Warren’s Wealth Tax Proposal

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Jose Luis Magana/AP
[1] https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/794/text?r=74
[2] https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/ceo-pay-ratio/index.html
[3] https://www.epi.org/publication/ceo-pay-in-2021/
[4] https://www.thestand.org/2022/10/ceo-to-worker-pay-ratio-hits-all-time-high/
[5] https://www.sanders.senate.gov/press-releases/news-sanders-and-colleagues-introduce-legislation-to-combat-corporate-greed-and-end-outrageous-ceo-pay/
[6]  https://www.oregonlive.com/business/2022/08/ceo-pay-keeps-soaring-defying-congress-and-local-taxes-see-which-executives-top-the-list-in-oregon.html#:~:text=Outsize%20pay%20packages%20remained%20abundant,package%20valued%20at%20%24179%20million.
[7] https://taxfoundation.org/bernie-sanders-ceo-pay-tax/
[8] https://www.forbes.com/sites/johngoodman/2021/04/02/who-pays-the-corporate-income-tax/?sh=e195dac58abe


Mishandling Classified Information

The handling of sensitive information has become a headline-grabbing issue in recent months owed to the discovery of classified documents at the homes and offices of former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden, and former Vice President Mike Pence. The political consequences of any judgment of wrongdoing on behalf of former President Trump, President Biden, and/or former Vice President Pence have introduced significant controversy into the national discussion of this issue. In light of this controversy, Attorney General Merrick Garland has established a special prosecutor for the Trump and Biden cases, who will work independently of the Department of Justice to determine whether any criminal conduct took place. Although a special prosecutor has not yet been appointed to investigate the Pence case, many experts see this as highly likely.1

What Are the Government Rules for Classified Material?

According to the President Records Act of 1978, former presidents and vice presidents have the responsibility to surrender all records into the legal custody of the National Archives. (It is important to note that the documents in question in the Biden case stem from his time as vice president, 2009-2017, and not from his current term as president.) Sometimes, classified documents are found to be missing by the National Archives; the Archives will then request the documents’ return within a certain timeframe.2 When this is properly done, there is usually no need for investigation.

Separate from executive branch records are classified documents and materials. Information is designated as classified when it has been determined that its release could represent an immediate threat to the national security of the United States. Classified materials range in the level of security clearance necessary to view and handle them, ranging from the lowest, “confidential,” to “secret,” to the highest level, “top secret.” All classified material is clearly marked and labeled with its security clearance level. Key to understanding the controversy in the Trump, Biden, and Pence cases is that no individual, regardless of security clearance or the office they hold, is permitted to hold classified material at a private residence.3

What Are the Trump, Biden, and Pence Cases?

On May 6, 2021, the National Archives requested that former President Trump return missing documents from his time in office. After multiple requests were made, a Trump representative told the National Archives in December 2021 they had located 12 boxes of materials at former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, which the National Archives then arranged to be returned (15 boxes were ultimately picked up by National Archives officials). These boxes contained both presidential records and 184 classified documents. There were still missing materials after this process was completed. The materials were referred to the FBI for further investigation. Over the course of the summer of 2022, the FBI continued its investigation and obtained a warrant to search former President Trump’s residence and home office. An additional 13 boxes containing over 100 classified materials were recovered.4 A special prosecutor was appointed on November 18, 2022, to conduct an investigation of criminal activity, which remains ongoing.5

Many Republicans accused the investigation of being politically motivated, part of an effort by the Biden administration to discredit Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign.6 President Biden and his administration were highly critical of former President Trump’s alleged lack of cooperation with the National Archives’ requests and his handling of classified material.7 However, on November 2, 2022, ten classified documents were discovered in President Biden’s former office at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C., and reported to the National Archives.8 President Biden’s lawyers began a review of his personal records and discovered more classified materials. On December 20, a second set of classified documents was discovered in the garage of the president’s private residence in Wilmington, Delaware. Additional classified materials were found in an adjacent room on January 14, 2023.9 Thus far, approximately 20 classified documents have been recovered from President Biden’s office and home.10 A special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the case on January 13, 2023.

On January 16, 2023, former Vice President Pence instructed his lawyers to review his own documents for classified materials. A “small number of documents that could potentially contain sensitive or classified information” were discovered and given to FBI agents on January 19. Four boxes of documents containing “copies of Administrative papers” from Pence’s residence were brought to the attention of the National Archives by Pence’s lawyer and delivered to the Archives on January 23.11

The Special Prosecutor Controversy

Attorney General Garland argues that he appointed special prosecutors in the Trump and Biden cases in accordance with the rule of law, saying, “We do not have different rules for Democrats or Republicans.”12 Some Democrats have criticized Garland’s decision for equating the Trump and Biden cases by appointing a special prosecutor. They argue that the far greater number of documents discovered in the Trump case, along with the former president’s failure to cooperate with records requests, represents a much higher likelihood of criminal activity than the Biden case. However, at least part of Garland’s decision-making has been tied to the fact that both Trump and Biden are likely presidential candidates in 2024 (Trump has officially announced his campaign, Biden has yet to do so).13

With revelations of classified materials and records being discovered at former Vice President Pence’s residence, questions have emerged about whether Attorney General Garland will appoint a third special prosecutor to investigate given speculation that Pence is also interested in running for president in 2024. At the same time, Garland has begun to receive criticism from both Democrats and Republicans that an overreliance on special prosecutors undermines the Department of Justice’s authority and raises questions as to how well the Department can be relied on to carry out its responsibilities on its own.14

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you compare the seriousness of the Trump, Biden, and Pence cases?
  2. Do you agree with Attorney General Garland’s reasoning that the Trump and Biden cases deserve the same level of scrutiny? Or do you feel one case is more deserving of a special prosecutor’s investigation than the other?
  3. These cases are not the first time that improperly secured classified information has weighed into a presidential race. Famously, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced an investigation into her handling of classified information on a private internet server in her home during her campaign for president in 2016. Ultimately, FBI Director James Comey publicly acknowledged fault on the part of Secretary Clinton but declined to recommend prosecution largely due to the absence of clear intent to improperly handle the information. Do you feel the same reasoning could or should apply to the Trump, Biden, and/or Pence cases?

Related Posts

Executive Privilege and the Supreme Court

Summer Roundup: Back to School with the Supreme Court, the Midterms, and the Search of Mar-a-Lago

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Anonymous/Associated Press
[1] https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/pence-special-counsel-more-likely-020321500.html
[2] https://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/laws/1978-act.html#:~:text=The%20Presidential%20Records%20Act%20(PRA,beginning%20with%20the%20Reagan%20Administration).
[3] https://www.archives.gov/isoo/faqs#what-is-cnss
[4] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-search-timeline-mar-a-lago-justice-department/
[5] https://www.politico.com/news/2022/11/18/garland-to-appoint-special-counsel-for-trump-criminal-probes-00069451
[6] https://apnews.com/article/donald-trump-presidential-elections-mar-a-lago-election-2020-congress-cfcdf3bccd5bd8c008248b19ab299044
[7] https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/columnist/2023/01/10/biden-classified-documents-double-standard-trump/11022762002/
[8] https://www.nationalreview.com/the-morning-jolt/who-ordered-the-review-of-papers-at-the-penn-biden-center/
[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/12/us/politics/biden-documents-timeline.html
[10] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/total-number-of-biden-documents-known-to-be-marked-classified/
[11] https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/timeline-were-pence-classified-documents-200959463.html
[12] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/garland-defends-handling-trump-biden-special-counsel-probes-rcna67116
[13] https://thehill.com/opinion/judiciary/3821283-merrick-garlands-special-counsel-conundrum/
[14] https://www.cnn.com/2023/01/26/politics/mike-pence-merrick-garland/index.html