A Public Health First Approach to Public Safety: Defund the Police, Invest in People

Jesse Rubens
3 min readJun 7, 2020


An open letter released by activist Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a founding member of the Movement 4 Black Lives, includes an astonishing truth. Police and military funding has increased every single year since 1973, and at the same time, funding for public health decreased every year.

Budgets are a reflection of values. While American investments in basic government services have been slashed and privatized, we spend $180 billion every year on jails, prisons, and police and we spend over $600 billion every year on the military. Annie Lowry further illuminates our budgetary prioritization and how it compares to our peers in the Atlantic. “The distinctions are stark when comparing America with its peer nations. The U.S. spends 18.7 percent of its annual output on social programs, compared with 31.2 percent by France and 25.1 percent by Germany. It spends just 0.6 percent of its GDP on benefits for families with children, one-sixth of what Sweden spends and one-third the rich-country average. It spends far more on health care than these other countries, notably, but for a broken, patchy, and inequitable system, one that leaves people dying without care and bankrupts many of those who do get it. Meanwhile, the U.S. spends twice what Europe does on the military.”

I support the efforts of Congressional Democrats and progressive reformers working to establish national use of force standards, an end qualified immunity for police violence, and improved methods in which police officers are trained. These policies are sound but insufficient on their own to end the injustice of a policing system rooted in white supremacy. The origin story of the institution of the American police was as patrols to prevent slaves from escaping. We have to reckon with our history in order to build a just future.

Let’s reverse course and reexamine our priorities as a society. Rather than continue to shovel more of our taxpayer dollars to the punishment bureaucracies that have so cruelly and systemically abused black and brown communities, we should finance programs of social uplift that will foster equitable, healthy, and safe communities. Imagine what kind of society we would be if we had:

  • Healthcare for all
  • Free and equitable public education
  • Childcare for all
  • A universal basic income
  • A federal jobs guarantee
  • Housing as a human right
  • An economy in which every worker earned a livable wage.

We can reduce crime not with more policing but by investing in people’s health and well-being. While scaling down policing and scaling up our investments in people, we should listen to the activists calling for a total end to the policing institution as it exists and imagine new systems of accountability and law enforcement grounded in humanity. In working to rebuild this more egalitarian society, we must reckon with our original sins and establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to educate folks on our history of slavery and genocide, acknowledge the permeation of white supremacy in government and in society, and make reparations for our collective sins.

This is the future we should all be fighting for.



Jesse Rubens

Progressive Organizer, Policy Writer, Political Scientist