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Protesters Call For Police To Be Defunded. But What Does That Mean?


Defund the police - it's a demand that became a rallying cry for protesters in Minneapolis and across the country. This following the killing of George Floyd by police officers. But NPR's Leila Fadel reports that the phrase defund the police often confuses people.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Minneapolis is a city with some of the deepest racial disparities in the country.


FADEL: Inequity's on full display in this parking lot in North Minneapolis. It's a food desert here after every supermarket in the area shut down when stores were damaged in the midst of protests. Local churches and nonprofits are filling the gap by providing food. And in this neighborhood, people say, interactions with the police are typically unpleasant. But defunding and dismantling the department, as the majority of the Minneapolis City Council has pledged to do - most people don't know what that would look like, people like Devanee Williams. He's 18, just graduated high school. And he's picking up groceries with his family.

DEVANEE WILLIAMS: It just confused me when they said that they were going to get rid of the officers and police stuff with the school because at the end of day, if something was to go bad in a school, who are they going to call to protect every student in the school?

FADEL: Minneapolis Public Schools cut ties with the police department. Williams' stepdad, Rodney Williams - he's a forklift operator - is excited that elected officials are talking about ending a police force that he says endangers rather than protects him.

RODNEY WILLIAMS: And it is killing African Americans over here. They harassing us. We can't - basically can't do nothing on the North Side no more.

FADEL: Instead, he wants the millions of dollars that go to policing to be spent on making his neighborhood and other neglected parts of the city nice places to live.

R WILLIAMS: We don't have no, like, Boys and Girls Club for the kids. You know, we don't have no places on the North Side kids can play at no more - since I've been here. So my kids play in my backyard every day, my grandkids.

FADEL: Meanwhile, Williams says he deals with crime but is mostly afraid of police violence.

R WILLIAMS: I go to work or stay in the house. I don't even come out.


R WILLIAMS: I'm scared.

FADEL: Of who?


FADEL: His stepson, Devanee Williams, nods as they load their groceries into the car.

D WILLIAMS: Me - I'm scared if I was to go outside and just be me. I feel like a cop might, like, racially...

R WILLIAMS: You can put your hand in your pocket for your wallet, and they could shoot you.

D WILLIAMS: At any given moment, they can.

R WILLIAMS: You know? It's crazy.

FADEL: A study from the University of Michigan, Rutgers and Washington University found that police use of force is the sixth-leading cause of death for young black men, that black men and boys are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men and boys.

Nearby, a few police officers hang out in the parking lot. The white police officer looks like a linebacker in a bulletproof vest. But he's smiling. He says when he stood in riot gear on the first days of protests, it felt terrible.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Behind the riot helmet and the gas mask and the riot baton, standing there in the line, I looked like any other person. It looked like any other cop. And the image that people had because of the incident that occurred was that I was the enemy. I was a divider. I was the enemy. And I didn't love people the way I love people.

FADEL: He didn't give his name because he's not authorized to speak. But he understands people are angry. He was angry after watching the video of George Floyd being killed. He understands the calls for change. But dismantling the police, he says - that's not the answer.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: The No. 1 complaint is people feel that the cops don't humanize the community. And the No. 1 complaint by officers is, like, they don't humanize the uniform. And to me, it's just, like, how do we start doing this, right? For the last three years, I've worked so hard in the capacity that I have with the police department to change that. But one event just made it to where we took 10 step backwards.

FADEL: The calls to defund and dismantle - they mean different things to different people. Some want a partial defunding. Some want to dismantle the current system and come up with a whole new approach to public safety. Some want to give the current police chief, Medaria Arradondo, the first African American chief in the city, a chance to implement reforms. He sued the department with other officers in 2007 for discrimination. Meanwhile, the City Council passed a resolution saying it will create a transformative new model for public safety. The resolution begins a year-long process to get input from the community, but there's no clear timeline or plan on what a police-free future would look like. And right now, there are a lot of different ideas.

RON HARRIS: The system is failing. It's failing to keep people safe. It's failing to keep people alive. And it's resulting in disproportionate impacts on black and brown people.

FADEL: That's Ron Harris, a resident of Minneapolis who says he's done all the things he thought he needed to to try to change an oppressive system. He works for the city. He's advocated for reforms to make things safer for people when interacting with police. But he says none of that worked.

HARRIS: We did de-escalation trainings - right? - and tactics. We did the implicit bias trainings. We did try to put more money into the academy so that we can diversify the applicants, the cadets. We did institute and implement body cams, right? We did all the things that people are calling to do. And none of it saved George Floyd.

FADEL: And so Harris says he thinks this moment is the city's moonshot. If the city gets it right, it could be the model for the rest of the country on how to start anew instead of depending on a system he says was originally created to catch slaves.

HARRIS: So when I hear dismantle I hear, OK, what is the totality of the job of the police system and the police department? They've got to respond to domestics. They've got to respond to public intoxication. They've got to respond to mental health crises. They've got to do all those things. What if there were entities that did parts of their job better than the cops could do?

FADEL: Chemical dependency counselors responding to public intoxication, social workers dealing with mental health calls, unarmed city workers pulling people over for a broken taillight with a list of places to go get it fixed. That way, a routine traffic stop won't mean possible death. The police, he says, have proven untrustworthy. He points to the first release from the police department on Floyd's death. It said he died in a medical incident.

HARRIS: I'm not a doctor, but you open up the book of medical incidents and tell me what knee to the back of someone's neck is. What's that disease called? We can't trust a system like that? - that the only accountability on it is a 17-year-old girl and a cellphone. I think it's offensive, actually, not to ask the big questions about, how do we do this differently? - particularly if you're not black.

FADEL: He's 30. And Harris's mom still calls to make sure the lights on his car work. He still checks in with her when he gets home to say he made it. Both worry that the force tasked to protect the population might kill him. That's why he and others want change. But what that will look like is still unclear.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Minneapolis.


Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.