Police reforms arise in different contexts. They might be triggered by increasing levels of crime and violence. Sometimes, they can stem from a wider reforming project, such as attempts to modernize the State, or efforts to democratize the security sector in post-conflict and transitional societies. In other cases, they are related to particular events, to research results or to investigations – by the media, the judiciary, parliament, or the police itself – that highlight problematic aspects of the police and of policing that need to be dealt with.
The recent killing of George Floyd by a US police officer in Minneapolis and a series of high-profile cases involving the use of disproportionate and even lethal force by police against racialized minorities are once again putting law-enforcement institutions under the spotlight. That is why calls to reform the police are rising again, not only in the United States, but elsewhere too: in Canada, in Quebec, in Australia, in New Zealand, in South Africa, in Kenya, in St. Petersburg, in Barbados, in France, and in the United Kingdom. This time, these demands are rallying behind a new slogan: “Defund the police”. What does it mean? Where does it come from? What is new about this idea? What does it entail? How is it different from previous calls to reform or to abolish the police? In this policy brief, we want to look at some of the main demands of today’s movement and to contribute to the discourse by clarifying concepts and ideas that can sometimes be confusing.