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Two University of Cincinnati Police Department officers walk down Calhoun Street in front of marchers at the Black Lives Matter protest at the University of Cincinnati on June 3, 2020

The phrase “defund the police,” gained its popularity almost as fast as it lost it. I remember hearing it during the heat of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, after the police brutally murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Organizers rushed to educate the public about the history of racism in policing, the lack of training officers receive and the grotesque amount of the city budget poured into departments failing to protect citizens. 

It was an eye-opener for me. As a white kid from Trump-country, I was taught to respect the work of police officers. When a cruel police murder of a Black person would make the news, I was told this was the result of “bad apples.” Even as my politics became radically liberal, I never questioned this. That was until I heard the phrase, “defund the police.” As many white liberals did, I rebuffed when I first heard the phrase. 

“We can’t defund the police,” I thought. “Who would keep us safe?” 

Like many, I was missing the point. For one, I believe the police don’t keep Black and brown people safe. For two, that’s not even what “defund the police” means. Many right-wing politicians push a notion that it means proponents want to abolish policing – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It means moving some of the enormous police budgets to other government agencies, preferably public safety and social programs. According to Rashawn Ray, Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, even those who want to abolish the police don’t want to do away with law enforcement altogether. 

If Republicans didn’t cloud the messaging so much, there is no way it would be as unpopular as it is now, even amongst Democrats. No matter what conservatives tell you about “idiotic” liberals wanting to “defund the police,” the truth is: they don’t. Take the Senate, for example. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) tried to prove that Democrats want to take money away from the police, but they called his bluff

“Local leaders across the country have decided the woke thing to do is cancel their city’s police force,” said Tuberville. “My amendment is pretty simple. If your city council wants to defund their police, don’t expect the federal government to make up the difference.”

“Thank God,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) responded, calling the amendment a “gift.” He continued: “Finally, once and for all, we can put to bed the scurrilous accusations that somebody in this great esteemed body would want to defund the police.”

Tuberville’s amendment passed 99-0. Not a single Senator, no matter how progressive, voted against it.  

As for Tuberville’s loaded statement, it’s completely and utterly false to claim local leaders across the nation are “cancel[ing]” their police forces. Some cities indeed cut some of their police funding, but by no means did they “cancel” them. His rhetoric is an example of how Republicans have misrepresented and weaponized the phrase to impede much-needed progress. 

We’ve seen this on a smaller scale in Cincinnati’s upcoming Mayoral election. Out of the two candidates, Aftab Pureval is much closer to “defunding the police” than David Mann. But even Pureval has shied away from the phrase, opting for softer, coded language. Democrats shouldn’t have to be afraid of “defund the police,” though. Instead, they need to listen to community organizers, understand what “defunding the police” means and stand for what’s right.