Defund the Police vs Campaign Zero: What’s the Difference?


Two police officers talking together while standing in a crowd with onlooking citizens nearby.

If you’re looking for the best way to effect real change in the criminal justice system, chances are you’ve probably heard about Defund the Police and Campaign Zero. Right now, these are perhaps the two biggest movements for police reform and/or abolition. Therefore, it would be prudent to understand what makes these two movements unique and whether they overlap.

The difference between Defund the Police and Campaign Zero is in the scope of what they want to accomplish. Campaign Zero seeks to reform existing police systems, whereas Defund the Police is about completely reimagining how issues traditionally dealt with by police could be solved differently.  

If you’d like to dive into the differences between Defund the Police and Campaign Zero, we’ve got you covered. Below we briefly review the aims of each movement, highlight key features that distinguish them from each other and investigate the arguments to discover which movement is better suited to address the problems with the US justice system.

What is Campaign Zero?

Campaign Zero was created in 2015 as a response to the criticism that those who push for police reform never specifically lay out real policy proposals. With the campaign, advocates present ten sets of evidence based policy reforms aimed at reducing the police misconduct that disproportionately affects people of color.

Here are the ten proposals laid out by campaign zero along with a brief description of what they would do.

  1. End Broken Windows Policing: Ending broken windows policing wouldessentially decriminalize minor offenses like sleeping in a public park or carrying an open bottle on the sidewalk. It would also allocate resources to allow mental health professionals to deal with issues like addiction–as proponents point out they never should have been made criminal in the first place.
  2. Community Oversight:This would allow local communities to create civilian oversight committees and make it easier to report police misconduct. Doing so would ensure police are accountable to the people. Without this community oversight fewer than 1 in 12 complaints of police misconduct ever lead to any consequences. 
  3. Limit Use of Force:This would both increase how police officers report their use of force and limit the situations in which they can use it. The goal would be to reduce the number of simple interactions with police that escalated to the point of becoming deadly.
  4. Independent Investigations and Prosecutions: Prosecutors work closely with police departments, meaning that they cannot be unbiased when prosecuting police misconduct. Further, advocates point out that the police should not be able to investigate themselves for the obvious conflict of interest. Instead, independent investigators would be brought in to ensure a fair investigation.
  5. Community Representation:This would require police departments to recruit officers who are actually representative of the population they are policing. When a police officer is part of the community they will have a larger stake in the long term effects of their policing.
  6. Body Cams/Film the Police:This proposal not only seeks to make body cams mandatory, but also bans any law that prohibits citizens from filming police. This would hopefully increase police accountability and build public trust.
  7. Training:On average police officers spend only eight hours learning de-escalation tactics, meanwhile they spend an average of 58 hours learning how to use their firearm. This proposal would require police to undergo far more training to interact with the public nonviolently.
  8. End Policing for Profit:These proposals would seek to end any form of profiteering that can come from tickets, incarceration, arrests etc. The logic behind this move is that without a profit motive, police can be solely focused on serving the community.
  9. Demilitarization:Police departments often receive surplus military equipment. By demilitarizing the police, we could reduce the likelihood of unnecessary escalation. Further if the drug war is ended most of the military equipment that police currently use would not be needed anyway.
  10. Fair Police Union Contracts:Police union contracts often make it difficult to hold police accountable. For example,they often give officers 48 hours after an incident before any interrogation. By re-negotiating these contracts, officers will receive the same treatment as citizens when they are accused of a crime.  

8 Can’t Wait Project

In response to the murder of George Floyd, Campaign Zero laid out eight more proposals directly addressing police violence in cities. While some police departments have adopted a number of the proposals, none have adopted all of them. Each of the eight common sense reforms are listed below with a brief description of what they would require.

  1. Ban chokeholds and strangleholds: This would block any kind of neck restraint from being used in the hope of avoiding events like the murder of Eric Garner.
  2. Require de-escalation: This goes hand in hand with Campaign Zero’s goal of increasing officer training to include more de-escalation tactics. This would hopefully prevent simple stops from becoming deadly.
  3. Require a warning before shooting: Police would not be able to shoot someone without first verbally warning them that they are about to use deadly force.
  4. Require that all alternatives be exhausted before shooting: Officers must go through non-force or de-escalation tactics followed by less than lethal options before they would be permitted to use deadly force.
  5. Require officers to intervene when excessive force is being used: The argument behind this one is that an event like the murder of George Floyd could be prevented if officers know that they have to intervene when they see their colleagues use excessive force.
  6. Ban shooting at moving vehicles: This would categorically ban shooting at moving vehicles for any reason whatsoever. Activists point out that the loopholes that allow officers to shoot at moving vehicles can easily be exploited and that it is an ineffective practice that causes more harm than it prevents anyway.
  7. Require use of force continuum: This would further restrict the situations in which an officer could use severe types of force with the hope of reducing excessive force cases. 
  8. Require comprehensive reporting: Officers would not only have to report when they use force against citizens but also when they threaten to use force. The goal being to increase police accountability.

These proposals were initially met with high praise, however they’ve come under some criticism for being a band-aid on what are truly systemic issues. Still supporters point to data that suggests adopting these reforms can reduce police violence by 72% and that their wide acceptance amongst the general public makes them more likely to be put into action.  

A police officer standing near a construction area.

What Does “Defund the Police” Mean?

The basic tenet of the Defund the Police movement is that our modern policing system has been tested and it has failed people of color and impoverished communities. Therefore, it is time to cut police funding and give it to healthcare, social work, education and other preventative programs.

Below is a more specific list of how the money divested from policing could be used to improve impoverished communities and reduce crime.

  • Job Training: Many times people turn to selling drugs and other crime simply because there aren’t really a whole lot of other viable options. With job training programs, young people can be prepared for a career that will actually pay enough to put food on the table.
  • Mental Health Services: The medical community has been telling us that addiction is a mental health issue for decades now, however it is still treated as a crime. Giving people the opportunity to avoid self medicating or to get help when they need it, could drastically reduce addiction rates without trying to arrest the problem away.
  • Healthcare: Access to health care services has been found to reduce crime, in large part because it also helps to address addiction issues which plague impoverished communities. It also would address issues particular to women of color, providing more autonomy over their bodies with increased access to birth control.  
  • Education: Funding for education, particularly in communities of color, has been cut at just about every turn. Sociologists know that lower rates of education and how disciplinary action is taken in school, lead to higher rates of incarceration. This is often referred to as the school to prison pipeline.
  • Social Work: Social workers would be able to take over for officers who currently take care of wellness checks. There are several examples of officers who were called in for wellness checks but ended up using deadly force against the person they were supposed to help.   

When the slogan “Defund the Police” first began to pick up steam, there were really two major factions of people using it. One faction claimed their goal was simply to reduce the load police officers have to deal without ever abolishing them. The other major faction however, set out to make policing as we know it completely obsolete, with varying timetables for abolition.As the slogan slowly became a movement, the latter has become the more prominent view.

The Breathe Act

Proponents of defunding the police have introduced The Breathe Act–a comprehensive timeline that lays out when and how we should disband, defund and reform various criminal justice systems that range from immigration and drug enforcement to environmental regulation. 

The Breathe Act is important because it provides the specifics behind how defunding the police would actually work. We’ve gathered the sections outlined in The Breathe Act and give  brief summaries of what each would set out to accomplish below.

  1. Divest Federal Resources from Incarceration and Policing & Ending Criminal-Legal System Harms
    • This section outlines how The Breathe Act would cut funding to the Department of Defense budget, abolish both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and cut off and close federal prisons as well as immigration holding facilities.
    • It would further change policy surrounding everything from how policing is done to prosecution, sentencing and jailing practices. For example, predatory laws like civil asset forfeiture, minimum sentencing and “three strikes” laws would be removed.
  2. Investing in New Approaches to Community Safety Utilizing Funding Incentives
    • Section two incentivizes decarceration and other practices that disproportionately affect people of color through grants, while subsidizing community based efforts toward public safety.
    • Section two also stipulates that the grant funding be required to go toward interventions that are geared for community safety, not further incarceration, and that they must be chosen through a “participatory process.”  
  3. Allocating New Money to Build Health, Sustainable & Equitable Communities for All People
    • Section three dictates where the allocated money needs to go. Investments must be made in education so that there is more equity between schools and a better curriculum that actually talks about the current and historical impact of racial injustice in America.
    • To enhance communities, section three puts forth a plan to address housing issues as well as create a jobs program that lifts more people out of poverty.
    • Section three further has a plan to address environmental issues by subsidizing sustainable energy for communities and nonprofit organizations as well as preparing for the impact of climate change. 
  4. Holding Officials accountable & Enhancing Self-Determination of Black Communities
    • Section four would require congress to acknowledge their role increating policy that disproportionately affects people of color. For example, it would require them to directly address the drug war and the harms it has caused.
    • This section would also combat voter suppression by making it easier to vote and getting rid of the bans that do not allow incarcerated people or those with felonies on their record to vote.

The Breathe Act is a huge piece of sweeping legislation, filled with specific aims and solutions to the problems facing communities of color. If you would like to dig into more of the specifics of the act, the creators have provided a thorough thirteen page summary here.

The Pros and Cons of Campaign Zero

Campaign Zero has been wildly popular amongst police reform advocacy groups since its inception. Below we’ve outlined several of the reasons that it has caught the attention and support of so many criminal justice reform advocates.

  • Specific Policy: Within the ten categories of change listed on Campaign Zero’s website, there are dozens of specific policy changes that could be enacted to reduce police violence. Having specific policy really helps to focus the movement.
  • Evidence Based: All of the policy pushed by Campaign Zero has been implemented in some form and has been proven to be effective. This helps defuse the skepticism of those who would question the movement’s efficacy while simultaneously supplying a strong case for the implementation of each reform.
  • Positive Polling: Police reforms like those listed in Campaign Zero and 8 Can’t Wait, poll increasingly well.  Many of the reforms such as requiring body cams, actually have support all the way across the political spectrum. With body cams 94% of Democrats, 85% of Republicans, and 86% of Independents are in full support of the reform.

There have been several criticisms lobbed at Campaign Zero over the years that question its effectiveness and suggest more drastic action must be taken. Below we’ve listed three of the main critiques of Campaign Zero and other police reform movements.

  • Reforms haven’t worked: One of the most common sentiments you’ll hear from proponents of defunding the police, is that reforms haven’t worked. Campaign Zero has been pushed since 2015–with what you would think were all common sense reforms everybody could agree with–however, police continue to kill people of color at a disproportionate rate to their representation in the population.
  • Systemic issues: Many of the problems with policing in the US are systemic. While Campaign Zero certainly addresses some of those problems–like increasing community representation–in a lot of ways it doesn’t go far enough. One of the biggest systemic problems that Defund the Police is better suited to address, is the over policing of black neighborhoods. This is important because even if every individual officer wasn’t racist, over policing communities of color would still lead to racist outcomes.
  • Police departments can pick and choose reforms: In order for Campaign Zero to be most effective, police departments need to adopt all of the proposals. A study of Campaign Zero’s 8 Can’t Wait reforms, found that police departments that adopted the reforms only adopted three on average. To date, only San Francisco, California and Tucson, Arizona have adopted all eight.
A group of 15+ police officers standing outside listening to a fellow officer.

The Pros and Cons of Defund the Police

The movement to defund the police has grown in large part due to the failure of police departments to do the basic reforms set forth by advocacy groups like Campaign Zero. Below we present three of the most compelling reasons defunding the police could have a positive impact on American society.

  • Addresses root causes: Defunding the police not only aims to reduce police violence but it addresses root causes like education inequality and access to healthcare. By addressing underfunded schools and mental health facilities, situations that could escalate to violence would be prevented before they even started.
  • Improves entire community: This goes hand in hand with addressing root causes. When you increase funding to social services, education and healthcare, the entire community benefits. This holistic approach allows for multiple issues to be addressed at once in a way individual reforms fall short. To really see this in action take a look at the scope of The Breathe Act and how many issues it covers.    
  • Allows professionals to deal with issues: One of the biggest problems with police in the United States is that they are expected to be able to deal with everything from mental health crises to cold blooded murders. By increasing funding to other services, professionals in each field can deal with the issues more appropriately. 

The movement to defund the police has been heavily criticized for not having enough support and being too drastic to actually be implemented. Though activists point out that every major social stride forward—from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement—was criticized for the same thing. Still, below we have listed some of the concerns those in favor of reforms have pointed out.

  • Inconsistent polling: On average only 31% of Americans support defunding the police. While this number is undoubtedly higher than it would have been ten years ago, it’s still not at the point where it has a majority of the American public’s support. Further some of that percentage goes towards people who do not actually want to work towards full abolition, likely making the number smaller when that difference is accounted for. To be clear, this doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing but rather that it will be an uphill battle. 
  • Mixed messaging: As we mentioned previously, when the slogan “defund the police” was first introduced, there was some disagreement as to what the end goal was. Some proponents pointed to Camden, New Jersey, which abolished their problematic police department but then replaced it with a new one that was more community based. Others however, were pushing for the eventual full abolition of police. It’s important to note that the latter has become the more predominant view, though the former still exists.
  • Historical Increase in crime: Though this isn’t an insurmountable problem, historically when police budgets have seen major cuts, crime rates have risen. On the other hand, proponents of defunding the police are not only saying we should cut police budgets but reallocate them to other resources. The increase in funding to education, job and healthcare programs could counter any rise in crime that would result from cutting police budgets.

Systemic Change vs Reform

As we’ve seen in our exploration of both Campaign Zero and Defund the Police, the biggest difference between the two movements is that one sets out to reform an existing system and the other ultimately wants to replace it. This has led to a debate over whether or not reform is enough to properly address the issues communities of color face in the criminal justice system.

Proponents of reform make the case that their policy is more likely to get support of the American people as well as congress. They can point to polling data and specific studies which suggest that their policy is both popular and effective. They argue that the sweeping changes from defund the police are likely to be a turn off to most voters and could possibly even reduce the strides they have gained in getting people to support their reforms.

Those pushing to defund the police and ultimately replace them with a better community-based system argue that reforms, like those favored by groups like Campaign Zero, have either been blocked from being fully enacted or ultimately shown to be ineffective. They argue that history is rife with bold movements that didn’t hesitate to push the envelope even when it wasn’t popular and that every moment we delay is another moment injustices are being enacted on entire minority communities.

Does Defund the Police Overlap with Campaign Zero?

If there is such a wide gulf between those who suggest reform and those who push sweeping changes, you may wonder if there is any place where these two fundamental views might overlap. The answer is really found somewhere between yes and no, as they are not entirely mutually exclusive even though they come from two different perspectives. 

While it is certainly true that you can make incremental reforms while trying to work towards a completely new system, the specific reforms sometimes contradict the plan to reallocate funding from police to other community needs. For example, increases in training and making sure police have body cams on at all times, would likely require more funding, not less.

There is common cause to be made however, in the desire to demilitarize the police and involve the community in the regulation of the criminal justice system, along with a slew of other reforms. Though the decision on the best path forward is complicated, it is imperative that activists from both perspectives be willing to hear each other out. Allies should make sure that it is the voices of people of color that rise to the top of the debate, as they are the most affected.

So, What’s Actually the Difference Between Defund the Police and Campaign Zero?

The primary difference between Defund the Police and Campaign Zero is that Defund the Police is focused on reducing and eventually replacing police.  In contrast, Campaign Zero is about specific policy proposals that could reform the existing system. Proponents of each approach to fixing the American criminal justice system, argue that their method is more effective than the other.

The benefit of Campaign Zero is that each of the proposals is evidence based, and generally viewed favorably by the public. However, they have been pushed for half a decade now, and problems with police remain. This is why Defund the Police has been positioned to address more of the systemic issues surrounding the American criminal justice system. In any case, it is undeniable the desire for change is rapidly growing and something needs to happen soon. 

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  • Writing allows me to provide useful information in a way that is easy to grasp. I hope people are able to use my articles as a springboard for learning, advocating and advancing the causes they believe in.

Shenetta Webster

Writing allows me to provide useful information in a way that is easy to grasp. I hope people are able to use my articles as a springboard for learning, advocating and advancing the causes they believe in.

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