As the country grapples with a conversation about police brutality and misconduct, cities across the nation like Norman are taking a closer look at their own police departments.
In many cities, Norman included, the question of how to hold police accountable and care for communities has led to one suggestion: Defund the police.
While activists have advocated to defund police in several major Oklahoma cities — including Oklahoma City and Tulsa — Norman appears to be the first in the state to make changes to its budget that will affect its police department. Oklahoma City and Tulsa both passed their budgets this week without cutting any proposed police funding.
On Tuesday, the Norman City Council held an 11-hour meeting that ended after votes on three amendments. Norman residents and activists sat in on the June 9 and 16 meetings to push for defunding, and residents supporting the police joined the June 16 meeting.
While the 2021 city budget was supposed to provide a 3.14% increase in funding to the Norman Police Department’s budget, the city councilors’ amendments ended up cutting that number to instead provide a 0.034% funding increase to the NPD.
After this week’s vote — and in the midst of a national conversation about police funding — The Transcript took some basic questions about defunding the police to Norman activists and police supporters. Here are their answers, alongside context from national sources.
What does “defunding the police” mean?
While the actual process or push for “defunding the police” may look different by community, the core concept is the same: Diverting public funding away from local police departments and into programs that support public health and community well-being.
The idea is that if well-funded community programs are funding mental health resources, supporting people dealing with homelessness or addiction or providing nonviolent responses to calls for help, the overall health of a community can be improved without relying on violence.
Rashawn Ray, a researcher and fellow at the Brookings Institution, notes that his research has found that police nationwide are used to “respond to everything from potholes in the street to cats stuck up a tree.” According to Ray, nine out of 10 calls to police involve nonviolent situations.
Norman Citizens for Racial Justice told The Transcript that defunding the police “is about dismantling structural racism and creating the conditions in Norman to solve social problems without violence.”
“Defunding is just one strategy to work toward these goals, and should be accompanied by investments in preventative strategies that are more efficient, safe and effective uses of public money,” the group said in a statement. “Acknowledging that the mandate of the NPD has been too broad and reserving funds to begin the process of investment in public health is an important first step in making Norman safer for everyone.”
“Defunding the police” has caused a polarizing debate across the nation and within Norman, where some residents are against the idea of reducing police funding.
Citizen Police Academy Alumni of Norman (CPAAN) chief communications officer Denise Madole told The Transcript that reducing the funding “affects the different projects and programs that the police department runs.”
“Initially, you think that means they’re going to get rid of the police department, that is not what that necessarily means,” Madole said. “To me, it affects what the police department actually gets. For example, the Citizens Police Academy: It affects the police activities league, it affects the care track; all these different programs that are within the NPD. This other group was calling and saying that they needed more training. Well, if you cut the police department's budget, the first thing that goes is training.”
In Norman however, the city council’s Wednesday morning decision to reduce the NPD funding did not affect any community programs the police department organizes.
Maria Haberfield, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice told The New York Times that reducing the funding of police would lead to slower response times to violent crimes and that reducing their funding would not actually address the underlying issue within police departments. “These proposals are utopian at best, if I want to be positive about it and if I want to be more negative, are just ridiculous,” Haberfield said.
If cities defunded police, where would that money go?
This question’s answer would vary by city. In Norman, the three amendments passed during the June 16 city council meeting reallocate funding in a few different ways.
Here’s what the amendments look like:
First amendment: Transfer $300,000 from NPD patrol to community outreach and programs with reserve balance to be held in Norman’s general fund.
Second amendment: Reduce salaries and benefits in the NPD general fund by $235,000 to provide for the implementation of an internal auditor program.
Third amendment: Reduce salaries and benefits in the NPD general fund by $330,000 to community outreach and programs with reserve balance to be held in the general fund.
Discussions for how and where this money is going will begin Thursday, July 9, during the Norman Oversight Committee meeting.
With the cuts made to NPD’s budget, CPAAN President Judy Hixon worries many officers will be cut and lose their jobs. Another worry is about the community police initiative set in place on Wednesday morning.
“A lot of the money was taken out of salaries and benefits, so we won’t have as many officers in Norman,” Hixon said. “So, that will cut down our commissioned officer staff. We’ll have enough officers, but I think the community policing that they took $300,000 out to put in a community policing thing, but they don’t even have an account for what that money is going to be used for. They’re going to decide that in the future. So, all that money that they pulled out there’s not an account to put it in, it’s just out there.”
Why are we having the conversation about defunding the police right now?
Though defunding the police is not a new concept, the idea has come to broader public attention in light of continued police brutality on a national scale.
The killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police on May 25 sparked national protests and renewed calls for change amid ongoing national police brutality.
Norman Citizens for Racial Justice told The Transcript that while racial injustice and police brutality are always important issues, the current climate and events in the country have prompted a conversation that demands attention.
“The issue of police brutality and misconduct has always been an urgent, life or death issue. But with the converging crises of a global pandemic and economic collapse, as well as the ongoing worldwide uprisings against racial violence, our city leaders are no longer able to ignore these issues,” the group said in a statement. “Oklahoma has rates of incarceration that are among the highest in the world … in the context of COVID-19 outbreaks, getting processed through a jail or prison could be a death sentence. Norman residents could die just because they can’t afford to pay their bail.”
CPAAN told The Transcript though they never thought defunding the police to be a possibility, they believe this conversation is being had out of frustration. While defunding police has become a more widely publicized conversation in the last few weeks, many activists and scholars have been doing work around defunding the police for decades.
“I think everybody is very frustrated with racism,” Madole said. “The thing that happened in Minneapolis was wrong and it shouldn’t have happened. I don’t think there is anybody in the City of Norman who would deny that. But Norman is not Minneapolis. That's not to say that things can’t go wrong, but I just think people are frustrated and they want answers. With police in the news right now, I think people are frustrated and trying to find answers.”
Why are some groups asking for defunding over reforming?
As different communities talk about addressing or enacting change in their local police departments, a national conversation also is emerging about whether reforming existing police departments or defunding them will be more effective.
Hixon said she believes defunding is not the answer, and in order for any type of reform to take place the NPD needs more funding.
“They need more money,” Hixon said. “They need more money for more training and to add more things in to help the community. That would be my reform.”
Along with the budget decision made earlier this week, the City of Norman also has committed to reassessing and possibly reforming some of its policing.
Norman Mayor Breea Clark announced in early June that she, the NPD and the Norman Citizens Advisory Board would conduct an evaluation of the Norman Police Department’s use of force policy. Clark’s announcement noted Norman would “reform police use of force policies based on findings."
Groups like Norman Citizens for Racial Justice say police reform tactics can be helpful to some, but that reform ultimately does not hold police or municipalities accountable. The group told The Transcript that the next steps from the city should be to address and remove “obstacles to accountability and transparency” within the NPD.
The group has said a focus on reform through more community outreach or listening sessions suggests that “what needs changing is perceptions (of police) in marginalized communities, rather than police behavior.”
“The danger of only focusing on internally reforming the police without shrinking their mandate is that it doesn’t address the root causes of police brutality, which are bound up with systemic racism and the lack of accountability for police misconduct,” the group told The Transcript this week. “Reforms can be useful and valuable, particularly for the health and well-being of police officers. But we are looking for changes that will benefit all residents of Norman, including those who are victims of police misconduct and abuse of power.”
Would defunding the police lead to more crime?
A common concern echoed by some Norman residents is that defunding police will lead to a spike in local crime. While the impacts of the current actions to defund police in major U.S. cities isn’t yet known, crime data from decades past does make some important points.
A 2020 data analysis from The Washington Post found that nationally, pouring more money into police and fighting crime had no correlation to crime rates. In fact, while the United States’ overall spending on state and local police has gone up since the 1970s, overall and violent crime rates have gone down since the 1990s.
On a more local level, Politico reports that “reducing crime depends less on a police department’s total budget than on how they choose to spend it.” More sworn officers in a community can mean less crime, but so can better access to health care, employment and social welfare programs, Politico reports.
According to information provided by the Norman Police Department, in 2019 there were 97,723 calls for service made to the department. Also according to data provided by the NPD, the Norman Police Department made 9,050 arrests in 2019.
Norman Citizens for Racial Justice said that many issues currently addressed by law enforcement and labeled as crime have alternate solutions that involve getting to the root of the issue rather than responding to it after the fact.
“The idea that police prevent crime is flawed. Police respond to crime and, in many cases – including here in Norman – have perverse incentives to create 'crime’ through the criminalization of poverty, homelessness and other societal failures,” the group said. “A lot of criminal activity is driven by desperation, mental illness, substance abuse and a lack of basic needs being met. Policing does not have the tools to solve the root causes of these issues, so we must invest in solutions that can help those in our community who are struggling and prevent the need for law enforcement.”
Defunding police does not mean that there would no longer be people in place to help those in need, said Martin Sheeks, a member of a Minneapolis movement to dismantle local police called MPD150.
“This does not mean that when you dial 911 there won’t be someone to respond to your emergency; it means that the right person will respond with the right skills and tools to provide the care needed,” Sheeks told Vox in an interview. “We already have some of this in the form of fire departments and EMS.”