Recent events, like the murder of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, have led to a movement to "defund the police." Here's how to explain the term to kids.

By Maressa Brown
August 28, 2020
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As the U.S. faces a reckoning on racial injustice, people from coast to coast are taking to the streets to protest the killing and injury of unarmed Black people at the hands of police officers. This surge of activism has ignited calls for government to rethink law enforcement in our country. In turn, "defund the police" has quickly become a hot button phrase.

To children in particular, who might be taught to see their community's policemen as integral to their safety, the phrase might bring to mind fears of being left without recourse if faced with a dangerous or emergent situation. That's why it's crucial to explain what "defund the police" really means, says Shawn A. Hall, ​an independent education consultant and an education activist.

"Defund the police does not mean people don’t want police to have jobs or that they don’t want them at all," says Hall. "What it does mean is that they want the police to live up to their motto of 'protect and serve.'"

Here are six key steps for explaining the concept to kids.

1. Explain That Police Are Government Employees

Jessica S. Henry is a professor of justice studies at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey and explains this particular issue in her forthcoming book What Does It Mean to Defund the Police?. She recommends that well before even getting into the definition of "defund the police," parents can lay the groundwork by sharing with children that police are government employees.

"You can explain that they are paid for by the government," says Henry. "And there are different kinds of police officers—those who are paid for by the town or the city, others by the state, and then federal officers."

This is a concept that many kids haven't quite wrapped their heads around, she notes. But once they understand that the police work for the government, it makes it easier to get into the subject of funding.

2. Talk About What Police Do

Henry emphasizes the importance of defining a police officer's job. "The police today are required to respond not just to events that involve crime and public safety, per se," she notes.

In fact, in a New York Times analysis conducted in June, serious violent crimes made up only around 1 percent of all calls-for-service episodes. The others were defined as "relatively minor incidents such as traffic responses and noncriminal miscellaneous complaints."

Henry adds that police are tasked with responding to people having mental health crises or drug overdoses or family disputes. "And they're not really trained for that," she notes.

You can explain that a major tenant of "defund the police" is that government money could be put toward professionals trained specifically for these incidents, like a mental health care provider. "People who might be better positioned to respond could tend to situations like family disputes," says Henry. "Then, police would be there to do the job that they’re supposed to do, which is respond to crime. Some people say this reallocating of money would actually free the police to do a better job at responding to real criminal behavior."

JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images

3. Talk About the History of Law Enforcement

Explaining the roots of police in our country can be a helpful way to explain why our current law enforcement model requires an overhaul. Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and co-director of the Social Justice Institute (SJTI), a nonprofit that provides development and learning opportunities to social justice educators, says it's important to know the history of policing. She explains, "Police in America have been used to control and oppress Black people since the beginnings of the country. During slavery, they were known as slave patrols in slaveholding regions and watchmen in the north."

Kids might learn about the end of slavery, Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment in history class. But that was far from the end of oppression. Hardaway notes, "Landowners and local leaders used laws called Black Codes to subject Black people to the same types of conditions they experienced while enslaved. Police brutalized Black people to enforce Black Codes and, later, Jim Crow. In the north, police inflicted Blacks with the same treatment to keep them out of certain neighborhoods, recreational areas, and to generally enforce white supremacy."

And centuries of racist law enforcement continue to be felt today. "As more people have recognized this history, it has led them to believe the solution to society's issues of racism and state violence might not be more policing, but less, since the large police budgets have done little to eliminate the problem of systemic racism in American policing," points out Tyler D. Parry, assistant professor in the African American and African Diaspora Studies program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

4. Note That There Are Different Ideas About What "Defund" Means

Henry notes that different activists have varying perspectives on the goal of defunding the police, but many fall into three categories.

Defunding the Police

The idea discussed most frequently might be best thought of as a reallocation of funds. Henry suggests explaining to kids that people want to see government spending on policing reduced—and for those dollars to instead be invested elsewhere in the community.

"Money could be used, for instance, to improve community services, like mental health counseling services, youth programs, parks, better schools, housing, drug addiction programs," says Henry. "If we invest in the community, we could reduce crime in the long-run."

The majority of people who support this idea are not saying that they want police departments dismantled, says Hall. She elaborates, "What people are saying—Black people, in particular—is that they want the system under which policing occurs to be dismantled. Police are important to maintain peace and order in our communities, however, they are not the law itself."

"Defunding would allow for communities in need of better education, health services, whole food options, and safe, affordable housing to allocate some of the resources currently spent of policing towards those essential needs," says Hardaway. 

Abolishing the Police

You could also note that some activists want to end policing as we know it over time. Henry suggests saying something like, "Some people have a long-term vision of not needing a police force but rather having community-based agencies that would respond to crises." She gives the example of a homeless person acting in a way that is causing people to worry about them. Instead of a police officer, a homeless advocate and social worker could be sent to check in on the person.

Reforming the Police

A third vision involves reforming the police force. Advocates of this idea say that increasing the money that would go to the police could improve their training and hiring practices. "Part of the training that police often receive is this idea of a warrior or soldier mentality—'us versus them,'" says Henry. "Some of the ideas for new training or retraining involve teaching police that it's 'us with us.' They are the community they serve, and they need to protect the community they serve, and their loyalties need to lie with the communities they serve. There is no enemy."

6. Keep Learning and Discussing

Henry recommends the documentary 13th, which examines the U.S. prison system, for older kids. "It powerfully traces the arc of racism and how it has influenced mass incarceration today," she notes.

You might also check out this Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Kids explainer video.

For tweens and teens, Parry recommends Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You and for grade-schoolers, Jason Reynolds' Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, both of which are designed for young readers who want to learn about antiracism.

Hall recommends checking out the New York Times' The 1619 Project and project1619.org, which is not affiliated but offers information that's digestible for middle and high school-aged kids.

For younger kids, you can join the Parents Raising the Future Book Club in reading books for younger audiences about racial justice, such a Ibram X. Kendi's Antiracist Baby.

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