Where “Defund” Isn’t Dead

A few months ago, Salley May showed up at a mosque in Harlem where a woman was having a mental health crisis, holding children inside and refusing to allow people in or out. About 50 onlookers had gathered outside, as well as a large number of police officers.

May, a social worker, talked to the cops, “and we got them to cross the street,” she said, where they stayed. An emergency medical technician from the New York Fire Department took over managing the situation. He was able to enter the building and talk to the woman, to “really engage” with her, May said. He and May eventually brought her husband to the scene. The tense situation was resolved without violence.

May and her EMT partner are part of the city’s new Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division, or B-HEARD, a pilot program that provides a nonpolice response to mental health emergencies. Before it was launched, when a New York resident called 911 about a mental health emergency, the police were almost always part of the response. Now, in cases in the pilot precincts that don’t involve weapons or an imminent risk of harm, mental health experts are dispatched instead. When May and her team show up, there are often people gathered around with their phones out, prepared to record any police abuse. But onlookers seem to understand that B-HEARD responders represent a different approach. “They lower their cameras when they see us,” May said.

At the height of the protests over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, demonstrators across the country started to make a potent demand: “Defund the police.” The call came after years of activism, largely unsuccessful, to reduce bloated police budgets and increase funding for other social services, and it coincided with a moment when the finances of many cities and states appeared dire. The pandemic had cost tens of millions of people their jobs and shuttered hundreds of thousands of businesses, depriving governments of tax revenue just as more spending was required to keep the needy afloat. Lawmakers in over a dozen cities pledged to shift resources and change the way they responded to public safety, moving away from police and toward supports like mental health counseling and housing assistance.

Things look different a year later. Thanks to federal pandemic relief funds, many city budgets are far less pinched. Streets are empty of the constant protests against police brutality and racism. A rise in the murder rate, especially in a few large cities, has pushed some local governments that had reduced police budgets last year to increase them, as in New York City, where this year’s budget raises funding for the NYPD by $200 million. And the phrase “Defund the police” has been co-opted by the opposition to scare people away from the idea of reform—it’s become “so politicized,” said Tracie Keesee, a cofounder of the national Center for Policing Equity. Some Democrats claimed that the slogan hurt them in the 2020 elections.

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