Let’s Talk About the Economic Reason “Defund the Police” May Be a Hard Sell in Philadelphia

The call to reduce police power in major cities like Philly is necessary — but those who still depend on the salaries, pensions and benefits associated with the troubled institution can't see a viable future without it.

Thousands of protesters took to the street to demand that the city defund the police on July 5, 2020. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Last summer, the term “Defund the police” took off following the extrajudicial police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others. But like many movements before it, the social justice slogan is running into initial contempt from skeptical nitpickers who critique its tone and tenor.

“If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘Defund the police,’ but, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done,” former president Barack Obama recently said during an interview while offering advice to an activist who used the slogan that many politicians are still reluctant to say aloud.

“But if you instead say, ‘Let’s reform the police department so that everybody’s being treated fairly, you know, divert young people from getting into crime, and if there was a homeless guy, can we send a mental health worker there instead of an armed unit that could end up resulting in a tragedy?’ Suddenly, a whole bunch of folks who might not otherwise listen to you are listening to you.”

But our former president gets this wrong. The problem isn’t that people are confused about what it means to defund the police. It’s that they’re struggling to picture what defunding will mean for their lives. In some cases, this is white families who have always seen the police as civil servants working to protect their interests and their property. But in others, it’s members of the Black community who have a financial incentive to support the current system.  

Right now, major cities like Philly are overly dependent on police departments to provide services, many of which, we’ve seen, they’re ill-equipped to provide. But cities like ours are also overly dependent on those departments for jobs. With a budget of more than $725 million, the Philadelphia police department has unique power to recruit, promote and engage the public at large. Here, in the poorest major city in America, the police department is a major source of competitive jobs for those without four-year college degrees — a big factor considering that as of 2019, 62 percent of Philadelphians older than 25 didn’t have such degrees.

A 2019 report from the Federal Reserve Banks of Philadelphia and Cleveland revealed that police and sheriff’s patrol officers here who don’t have four-year college degrees got paid an annual median wage of $75,100 — the second-highest-paid such job in the city, after registered nurses ($76,500). According to the report, there were 11,900 such policing jobs in the Philly metro area.

Here are a couple examples of what that looks like on the ground.

“I took the bait when my college debt got out of hand and I had to drop out,” says a Black millennial Philly officer in his mid-20s who requested anonymity in order to avoid any “real problems on the job.” “My family told me that I was smart enough to get a good-paying job at the PPD fast. I met with a recruiter at a career fair, and I’ve been on the force for three years. I know things ain’t right over here, but what place is perfect? I’m now debt-free and, God willing, about to own my first house. You can’t beat that.”

Young people with student debt aren’t the only casualties of the economy who’ve turned to the department.

“When I got laid off after being at my dream job for over a decade, this was the kind of job that paid me what I deserved,” says another PPD employee, one whose role doesn’t involve policing and who also requested anonymity. “I get what ‘Defund the police’ means. I’ve seen similar stuff over the years. And while I understand the sentiment, as a woman of color who’s lived on this Earth longer than many of these young folks protesting and looting, I want them to explain to me: What kind of job can I still get in this economy that can provide for my family, put my children through college, and keep my sick father on his meds? It’s easy to put up a hashtag on Twitter, but it’s another thing to fill the gaps that are going to be missing if this defunding stuff happens.”

In other words, the need for compensation — not confusion — may actually be driving some to oppose the “Defund the police” movement. That young cop didn’t become one because he wasn’t capable of finishing a degree, but because escalating student debt put him in a position to choose work now. In an economy that increasingly ages workers out, it’s not so hard to see why the female police staffer might be pragmatic in choosing to work there rather than shoot her shot elsewhere. Those who have become financially dependent on this institution — inequitable, unequal and racist as it may be — are reacting the way any of us would if our livelihoods were threatened. This is the inevitable result of decades of economic policy that stripped good jobs from our cities.

During the pandemic, some municipal workers have been terminated, laid-off or furloughed across various departments. The one department that notably that hasn’t had massive budget cuts during this rough time is the police. It’s almost as if the city is rewarding institutional bad behavior: While the PPD is currently facing multiple lawsuits related to its handling of Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, the city is still entertaining a request for an extra $18 million for protest coverage and raises.

Which makes you wonder: What does it say about our society and our economy when one of the better-paying jobs consists of locking up those who’ve been left out of that economy? In order for the Defund movement to make real headway, lawmakers, community organizers and activists need to create alternative pathways for those who still see policing as one of their only viable employment opportunities. Until then, the road will remain bumpy.

Philadelphia magazine is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and economic mobility in the city. Read all our reporting here.