The Problem with “Defund the Police” Isn’t Policy, It’s Branding
[This post is part of a series on Marketing + Politics. Start with the primer on the role of brand marketing in politics if you’d like background on the topic.]
As the protests and marches continue, weeks after we witnessed the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many more, we are seeing unprecedented support for Black Lives Matter from Americans of all races and ethnicities. Yet we run the risk of limiting the success of this movement due to poor branding decisions once again. #DefundThePolice is one of the plans being pushed by a number of progressive groups, while many moderate Democrats and political commentators are calling it a losing issue. Like we’ve seen so many times before, it’s not the issue or the policies that are failing to catch on—it’s the poor branding that may very well derail an idea that could actually bring about necessary police reform.
In the last few days alone, I’ve seen countless tweets and dozens of articles trying to explain what “Defunding the Police” actually means. The problem isn’t just that you need to do research, but that the branding has opened the door for Republicans to scare Americans into thinking that progressives are trying to create a crazy dystopian future where police forces don’t exist, and vigilante justice rules the streets.
Would some Republicans push this narrative regardless of progressive branding issues? Yes, of course! But it would be far less effective at influencing mainstream America if this movement was called #StopOverPolicing or #PoliceOverhaul. Both of these campaign names convey the same underlying concept—the idea of reallocating money from the police, and distributing community responsibility, to develop more effective solutions to public safety—and are way more defensible than “Defund The Police.” When all it takes to scare Americans off from a valid idea is repeating their own words, you have a branding problem on your hands. And that’s more likely to derail the plan than the substance of the notion itself.
Case in point: it didn’t take a genius to write this comeback, but it was an effective talking point, reaching millions of people and giving Republicans an easy messaging hook to combat the #DefundThePolice movement.
The fact of the matter is that most people, even most police, believe that armed cops aren’t the best first responders to deal with mental health issues—yet that is who we rely on to resolve those issues and other non-threatening situations. How many times do we need to read a story about a small mental health issue with an unarmed, nonviolent person that turns into another police shooting? It’s not hard to imagine the societal benefits of a city-run team of social workers or public health officers trained in mental health response and conflict de-escalation. For the sake of clear branding, let’s call them “Community Officers.”
Now let’s imagine a future where instead of sirens, flashing red lights, and guns ready to be drawn, this team of well-paid Community Officers responds to these incidents instead. They’re mostly specialized social workers, with some hostage negotiation and self-defense skills sprinkled in. They arrive on the scene in plain clothes. They show their badges to identify themselves, and leave them out so that everyone knows they are officers of the city. They have tasers for protection, not guns, and they are trained to defend themselves if needed. They could even have small body cams for added accountability. They aren’t there to play a similar role as the police, but 100% focused on helping people having a mental health crisis and protecting the community. Their job is to defuse the situation and connect people to the resources they need, both immediate and longer-term.
In addition to mental health response, these Community Officers could be helpful in so many other situations. Youth services, nonviolent school issues, and non-emergency community disputes, just to name a few. I could imagine countless situations where trained social service experts with legal authority, acting as official officers of the courts, but with the purpose of protecting and serving the community, not the police department, would lead to safer and happier communities.
From a branding perspective, all you need to remember are five words: Replace Police with Community Officers. It’s a specific and simple phrase, and the concept is clear and sensible. Based on all of the videos America has seen over the years, it’s clear that something needs to be done to prevent the police from killing more innocent Americans, especially Black Americans. This movement taps into very strong emotions that millions of Americans are already feeling. But instead of using negative language that can be easily turned into a scare campaign, like #DefundThePolice, let’s use the principles of good branding to assign it a positive handle, like #CommunityOfficers, which would go a long way toward building the type of public support that’s needed at the city and county level throughout America to bring it to fruition.
About the Author
Eric Facas, Media Cause Founder & CEO
After 10+ years as a digital marketer for tech companies and startups Eric shifted course toward social impact in 2010, founding a purpose-led marketing agency Media Cause. As CEO Eric has led the agency’s growth into a market leader with hundreds of nonprofit and mission driven clients and offices in San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, and Washington, DC. Eric’s passion for developing scalable solutions to important global issues has continued with the creation of the advocacy platform, Rally Starter, and nonprofit incubator Social Good Labs.
Earlier in his career Eric spent five years at Google where he helped launch new programs, built teams, and ran Google’s SEM Agency Council. In 2008 Eric received an EMG/Founder’s award from Google’s Executive Management Group for his work on the creation and rollout of the multi-billion dollar AdWords API program. When not at work Eric can be found hiking, mountain biking, or at the beach in Marin Country, CA or Kauai, HI with his family.