Defund the Police: How Flawed Framing Undermines the Persuasive Effect

By Jill D. Schmid, Ph.D.

I, like most of you, have probably been having some difficult conversations lately. The most difficult, though, are not just steeped in real ideological differences, but in the ways in which the issues are being framed. For years, there have been a debates and differences of opinion about what “Black Lives Matter” and the “Take a Knee” movement truly mean. The framing of those phrases and movements likely moves someone in one particular direction over another. This past week, another phrase has come about that is doing the same thing: “defund the police.”

I want to be very clear up front. This blog post is not intended to be any kind of statement about the movement itself. Instead, I think it is a great example of issues with framing, regardless of your actual opinions about what is going on. My hope is that this look at the framing for the “defund the police” movement might help you look at framing in your own cases in a different way.

When I first heard the phrase, I have to admit I thought, “What? Don’t fund police! How would that work?” And, right there, that is framing at work: an issue of police and social justice reform stated in a rather simple phrase that conjures up an image and accompanying set of values that either attracts or repels the audience. And, hence, the problem from a framing standpoint – “Defund the police” does not actually mean what it sounds like, hence, many people who might have been open to the message are already putting up walls. I did a quick google search of “defund the police,” and clearly I am not the only one with questions.  The only articles that popped up had titles like “What Defund the Police Actually Means” (Rolling Stone, 6/3/2020), “What does ‘defund the police mean?’ The rallying cry sweeping the US explained” (The Guardian, 6/5/2020), and “When protesters cry ‘defund the police,’ what does it mean?” (The Associated Press, 6/7/2020) – you get the drift. Bottom line, the phrase is likely not helping the movement for several reasons including the primary fact that it does not capture what it actually means and it sounds extreme, which in today’s highly polarized society is not going to help one’s cause.

Therefore, what should framing actually do?  Here are several tips:

1. Identify your core message or principle and ask yourself if the words you are using accurately reflect it? In the case of “defund the police,” “defunding” is not really what the movement is about – at least not in the way one would typically define it. Your frame should not include a phrase or word that does not speak to the heart of your message or image, and it certainly should not confuse your target audience or mislead them about what the actual message is. It should speak to the fundamental message you are trying to convey.

2. What is a value or principle associated with your case that you want people to uphold? Once again, “defund the police” does not speak to the core value of the movement – justice, fairness, and, really, letting the experts handle the issues that for years we have been putting on law enforcement folks to handle (i.e., homelessness, mental illness, poverty, drug abuse, etc.) Instead, the framing should have focused on the core idea of rethinking the role of police officers in communities. This would reduce the initial resistance in many that comes with the flawed first impression that “defund the police” is about getting rid of the police, and refocus it on basic principles that might have broader appeal even to those who strongly support the police.

3. Who is your core audience? In the case of “defund the police,” the audience is not everyone in America, but it’s also a much wider audience than just the groups advancing the position. The problem with that is what we’ve already covered. If your intended audience won’t listen because it just “sounds extreme” or like something they would not support, they’ll never do the needed research to really dig in and listen. In the litigation world, if you begin your case with a core message that flies in the face of what your audience already believes to be true about the world, they are never going to listen to you. This means it’s not only a jury selection issue – your need to find those jurors who, no matter what you do or say they are never going to be open to hearing your message, but also a framing issue that invites people in as opposed to repels them from the outset.

I need to close by saying this post is NOT an indictment against the defund the police movement. It is simply a call for those who want change (myself included) to think about how we go about getting more people on board. Framing is critical. Our two decades of jury consulting and hundreds of mock jury deliberations has made it clear to us that you can be factually and morally right, but still have your message rejected because of how you chose to package it in the actual presentation to the audience.