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Calls to ‘defund police’ don’t necessarily mean abolishing departments

Some critics say it's about police departments being immediately abolished, but many activists say it's to reallocate some of police funding and responsibility.

DENVER — Several Denver City Council members say they would be in favor of scrutinizing the budget of the Denver Police Department, amid calls nationwide to defund police.

But defunding police doesn’t mean shutting down departments.

That phrase has become a common rallying cry as thousands of people took to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

“What they’re not talking about is…we won’t have any detectives and murders will go unsolved,” said Aya Gruber, a criminal law professor at the University of Colorado and an advocate for police reform.

“What they’re saying is that the police, as in the people who are uniformed and armed and sent on street patrols to make arrests, have been relied on for too many public services for too many people and that needs to change,” she said.

Denver District 11 Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore is advocating to reallocate some of the $254 million Denver invests in its police department, sending some of the funding to social service providers.

“We have always struggled,” the councilwoman for the Montbello neighborhood, who once ran an education non-profit there said. “There has never been enough funding available to help our non-profits in the Montbello community.”

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Gilmore said some police funding could go to agencies that might be to take crisis situations off of the plates of police officers.

“Even in good times, we weren’t able to get the funding that we needed in our neighborhood around mental health supports, therapy, de-escalation techniques, food access, healthcare, education, technology… the list goes on and on,” she said.

On Facebook this week, Denver District 10 Councilman Chris Hinds expressed interest in exploring the idea.

“A few days ago, I thought the 'defund the police' movement was to literally remove all funding from police,” Hinds wrote in a post, saying he’s since learned the term means reconsidering how some policing is performed.

“A movement that moves from punishment of our people to supporting is something I can get behind, whatever it's called,” Hinds wrote.

Lisa Calderon, chief of staff for District 9 Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca told 9NEWS the councilwoman was reviewing more than 2,000 constituent expressing support for the concept of “defunding police.”

District 6 Councilman Paul Kashmann agreed that the phrase “defund the police” meant different things to different people.

“I think it’s healthy to open our minds to see if a new model of policing – whatever that might look like – might serve the community better,” Kashmann wrote in a statement to 9NEWS.

“It’s a challenging discussion but one worth delving into,” he said.

Over the years, street policing has grown, thanks in large part to crime bills in the 1990s signed by President Bill Clinton, adding officers to patrol neighborhoods, according to Gruber. She said this has led to officers responding to more calls that may be better suited to someone else with different training.

“Within that policing mentality the way you solve violence is through superior violence and I think a lot of experts and a lot of the public are saying we don’t agree with that,” Gruber said.

“if all you have is that brute force and you tell police this is how you manage disfunction in society and you give them that hammer, everything and everybody is going to look like a nail,” she said.

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The concept behind the “defund police” movement, Gruber said, is to fund and empower mental health response teams, family counselors and other trained professionals to deescalate situations that may lead to violence.

“It’s just a change of mindset from seeing the public as a group in need of government services from seeing the public as a group of potentially dangerous criminals who need to be arrested,” Gruber said.

But some argue moving funds outside of the police department, rather than reallocating them inside the department will, have a negative impact on public safety, while hindering reform.

“You have to have someone respond right,” said Kevin Smith, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “You can’t have a caseworker from social services respond to someone with a gun.”

“Police officers have to be the triage unit to respond to those needs.”

Smith argues if cities are going to reallocate funding, they ought to do so to improve training for police officers and expand recruitment to bring in officers more representative of the community.

Most agree some sort of reform is necessary, especially in this moment in America.

“After what has been the biggest and most sustained and most national protest in US history…I think if we don’t see major changes people are going to be very disappointed and they’re going to really lose faith in their government officials,” Gruber said.

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