“Defund the police.” In Boston neighborhoods where people of color predominate and frequently interact with police, that demand of Black Lives Matter activists draws opinions as rangy and complicated as the slogan.
Its literal meaning — to withdraw financial support — is the one that activists who call themselves “abolitionists” have in mind. They propose the eventual dismantling of police departments.
Andrea James, founder of Families For Justice As Healing, is one such activist. The Roxbury nonprofit seeks to end the incarceration of women and girls and to shift resources from criminal punishment into a community-run fund so that Black and brown residents can determine how to secure their public safety.
“It’s taking all the power and funding that only the police get and reallocating that into what we know would be more effective for public safety and the health and wealth of our communities,” James said in an interview with GBH News.
James, 55, a former attorney who is African American, was inspired to create her nonprofit after serving a federal prison sentence for wire fraud.
For other residents, like Davida Andelman, chair of the Greater Bowdoin Geneva Neighborhood Association in Dorchester, that idea is off-putting.
“Defunding, to me, is extreme,” she told GBH News. “Defunding is like total and complete, and I really don’t think that that’s going to work.”
Andelman, a longtime Bowdoin-Geneva resident who is 74 and white, embraces a modified definition of the slogan that some Black Lives Matter activists have offered.
That more widely accepted approach calls for shifting part of the police budget to social services and community investments.
Andelman said she supports reallocating money, particularly from the police department’s gang unit, to services for high-risk youth. But, in her view, police are necessary and do need to be funded.
“I understand why a lot of folks in Boston and in my neighborhood would want to have [all] monies go elsewhere, given everything that’s going on,” she continued. “Let’s figure out how to have that happen in a way that there can be some coming to agreement.”
James and Adelman were among the community leaders that GBH News interviewed in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan, the three neighborhoods where about 80 percent of the city’s Black residents live. Boston Police data show that violent crimes are concentrated in those neighborhoods.
A statewide poll that GBH and media partners conducted in June found that a slight majority of Massachusetts residents support reallocating funding from police to social services. The survey’s sample was not large enough to determine opinions on that question down to the neighborhood level.
Linda Barros remembers reassuring cab drivers about the safety of her address and stepping over loiterers to get into her home when she first moved to Dorchester three decades ago. She said the community started to change when police and community leaders began approaching gang violence with more emphasis on prevention. That experience led her to support shifting money from the police budget to social services.
“Let's work on prevention more and less on intervention, because if you fund prevention, you will not need as much intervention, if you do your job right,” she said. “You will not need do it two or three times.”
Barros, who is Cape Verdean and 53, worked at the Bowdoin Street Health Center around the time of the “Boston Miracle,” a period in the late 1990s that saw the reduction of youth gun violence. She wants to see more trauma treatment and mental health resources transferred to serve children and teens in her neighborhood, where gang violence has been a problem.
Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the organization supports the two-fold definition that calls for “divesting from police and investing in community,” but not dismantling police departments.
“That is not a place that the ACLU has arrived at, but we’re adjacent,” he said.
Hall, who is African American and 47, added that despite the slogan’s double meaning, it has been effective at reframing mainstream public discourse to reconsider police budgets.
“Five years ago, this conversation was not happening. But it's happening now because people are saying 'defund the police,'" he said.
In aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Mayor Marty Walsh in June announced the reallocation of $12 million from the Boston Police overtime budget to several city agencies.
Longtime police reform advocate Jamarhl Crawford says he is put off by the ambiguous meaning of the “defund” slogan.
“If you talk to 10 different people, it means 10 different things. So, no, I'm not into that,” he said in a recent interview with GBH News.
Crawford, an African American resident of Dorchester who is 49, said he also takes issue with the idea of moving away from police as an institution that responds to crimes.
“Folks might say, ‘Well, I don't need the police.’ Well, that's you. But somewhere there's an 85-year-old lady who doesn't have anybody living with her. And when she hears something that goes bump in the night, who she's supposed to call at 2:30 in the morning?” he said.
Crawford added that he supports diverting funds from the gang unit and elsewhere in the department’s total budget of $414 million into results-driven agencies and organizations.
“I’m not saying that function [of the gang unit] is not needed, but the way that they patrol the neighborhoods, with an aggressive, 'us versus them' attitude … it’s antagonistic,” he said. “The whole department needs to tighten its belt and the whole department needs an overall audit.”
Crawford is a member of the police reform task force that Walsh convened in June. Walsh is set to receive initial recommendations from the 11-member panel Thursday. After they are published, residents will have a chance to weigh in on the reforms proposed, and perhaps, push for a further budget reallocations.