The difference between police defunding and police disbanding

While these terms sound similar, the outcomes are very different – here’s what you need to know


Are you scratching your head and wondering how we got to this point? Trust me, you are not alone. Many are questioning how it could be that within a few short weeks police went from “pandemic heroes” to “in-need-of-reform zeroes.”

Take heart, my friends. Despite what the media is reporting, an overwhelming number of folks in your community both support you and need the services you provide. I know because I see them, and I meet with them.

Your communities are just as bothered as you with the notion that a small but vocal group is trying to convince our elected leaders that law enforcement is no longer needed. Can this really happen and what might it look like? Let’s take a look.

In 2014, the city of Camden, N.J., disbanded its police department and handed patrols over to the new Camden County-run department. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
In 2014, the city of Camden, N.J., disbanded its police department and handed patrols over to the new Camden County-run department. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

What does defunding the police mean?

Defunding is really just a way of saying reduced funding since total defunding would result in disbanding (which we will discuss next).

The ugly truth for many of us is that our COVID-19 pandemic response and related costs already had police leadership planning on reduced funding for the fiscal year 2021 budget, which begins October 1.

Unemployment rates, increased healthcare and sick leave, PPE purchases and unplanned overtime expenses have compounded the unexpected loss in sales tax revenues for most of our city coffers. State and local governments are now facing budget shortfalls of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

So how do we tip the scales and recover from all the budgetary red ink? The default solution is defunding. Simply put, many agencies won’t receive the budget monies they were expecting. Fewer cars will be purchased, some vacancies won’t be filled, and training, equipment and overtime budgets will be trimmed.

In some cases, the loss of headcount and equipment will not be lost so much as transferred to other organizations. Despite their buzzwords and rhetoric, elected officials who wish to engage in social reform programs know there is only so much money to go around in the general fund budget and they will have to pick between hiring social workers or police officers. Unfortunately, this is also an election year, so there will be additional political considerations that can influence these decisions. This isn’t new but that doesn’t make it sting any less.

On the positive side, by shifting these responsibilities to other agencies, police departments will be freed from devoting resources to certain calls for service, for a time anyway. There will be rough patches during the transitional period, but these issues tend to be self-corrective over time.

What does disbanding the police mean?

Disbanding is the formal elimination of one or more units within the department up to and including the entire agency. The most common reasons for disbanding are that the service is either no longer needed, no longer affordable or that the organization is no longer effective.

Unit disbanding is not uncommon as law enforcement agencies are continually looking at their internal operations and disbursing resources to other units within the agency. I was personally involved in an extreme example of this a few years ago. My federal agency decided to disband the entire uniformed patrol division and disbursed that budget to other things. All of the agency duties were reassigned to investigators and other personnel, along with a small contingent of patrol officers that were reassigned to other protective service duties. The result was the overall reduction of the agency to about one-quarter of its original size. However, over time the need for traditional patrol services was realized and so additional manpower was gradually added back to the ranks.

You will probably hear a lot about changing concepts for the way your agency approaches its mission in the coming months. Save yourself some unnecessary aggravation and resist the temptation to dwell on how these changes will impact your work. The impractical experiments that only work on paper are usually quickly revealed and then reversed.

Disbanding an entire agency is much more uncommon but it can happen, either voluntarily or involuntarily. For instance, an agency is involuntarily disbanded when its municipality loses its charter. Yes, for various reasons a city can literally go out of business and one of the unintended consequences of being unincorporated is the loss of the police department. While an unincorporated community may maintain a volunteer fire department or rescue squad, only an incorporated government body can maintain law enforcement authority and jurisdiction.

Examples of voluntary agency disbanding usually involve replacing the legacy agency with another. For instance, a city can decide that a contract service with another agency such as the county sheriff’s department is more affordable than maintaining a police force of its own. Another scenario involves several small municipalities choosing to share costs and merging their agencies into a metropolitan area police force. In most of these cases, the officers from the legacy agency are offered positions with the new agency. This allows the new agency to quickly get up to speed with officers who are already trained and familiar with the jurisdiction.

In any event, local government can’t exist in most places without representative law enforcement. Local officials who wish to keep their own elected positions, as well as the ability to pass ordinances, collect taxes and continue to provide most other city services, must ultimately provide for their law enforcement. Governmental charters and articles of incorporation for boroughs, villages, towns, cities, counties, etc., with few exceptions, require a paid professional organization that is responsible for law enforcement within the jurisdiction. This is part of our system of checks and balances, with law enforcement being necessary to the operation of our Executive Branch of government. 

What should law enforcement do in the meantime?

There is little doubt that changes are coming, more for some agencies than others. There are a few things we can consider to prepare for the upcoming times of uncertainty and reduced funding:

  • Stay positive. Difficult times are an opportunity for you to show others your character and resolve. It’s easy to be positive when everything is going your way, but adversity will either break you or make you.
  • Stay professional. Don’t worry about the things you can’t control and don’t worry about something until there is something to worry about. Doing otherwise can waste A LOT of time and energy.
  • Stay the course. This is especially true if you are mid-career. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so expect a few more rises and falls before we get back to some kind of equilibrium.
  • Stay focused. Pay less attention to what is being reported by the media and even less attention to what is being posted to social media. This reporting can be less about information and more about creating controversy.
  • Stay engaged. Pay more attention to what is being reported by your PBA, FOP, or collective bargaining unit. This reporting is usually geared to your best interests. Don’t have any of these organizations? Then perhaps this is the time to investigate the possibility of either joining or creating one.

Summary

Many are calling for changes to the law enforcement profession. Officers may be creatures of habit who aren’t comfortable with change, but changes are coming. Budgets, tactics and even the role we have within our communities may change.

While some may advocate eliminating police completely, the reality is that law enforcement agencies are a fundamental piece of the overall criminal justice system. You are essential to the administration of government, as well as ensuring law and order. You provide our communities with the highest quality of life possible. You are the Thin Blue Line.

NEXT: Trump’s take on police reform

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