““Defund the police” is a catchy phrase, but some Americans hear it and imagine a home invasion, a frantic call to 911 — and then no one answering the phone.
That’s not going to happen. Rather, here’s a reassuring example of how defunding has worked in practice.
In the 1990s, both the United States and Portugal were struggling with how to respond to illicit narcotics. The United States doubled down on the policing toolbox, while Portugal followed the advice of experts and decriminalized the possession even of hard drugs.
So in 2001, Portugal, to use today’s terminology, defunded the police for routine drug cases. Small-time users get help from social workers and access to free methadone from roving trucks.
This worked — not perfectly, but pretty well. As I found when I reported from Portugal a few years ago, the number of heroin users there fell by three-quarters and the overdose fatality rate was the lowest in Western Europe. Meanwhile, after decades of policing, the United States was losing about 70,000 Americans a year from overdoses. In effect, Portugal appeared to be winning the war on drugs by ending it.
That’s the idea behind “Defund the Police” as most conceive it — not to eliminate every police officer but to reimagine ways to make us safe that don’t necessarily involve traditional law enforcement”