Democrats look to shake off ‘defund the police’

FILE – In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo a protester holds a sign that reads “Defund Police” during a rally for the late George Floyd outside Barclays Center in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

(The Hill) — Democrats are looking to shake off the “defund the police” slogan, moving to be more visibly proactive in addressing rising crime rates even as Republicans seek to tie them back to the 2020 movement ahead of November’s midterms.

President Biden visited New York City on Thursday to meet with Mayor Eric Adams (D), a former New York City police captain who was elected last year, and Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) to announce new plans to combat gun violence days after two police officers were fatally shot by a man with an illegal gun. 

“Enough is enough because we know we can do things about this,” Biden said. “But for the resistance, we’re getting from some sectors of the government and the Congress and the state legislatures and the organizational structures out there, you know, Mayor Adams, you and I agree, the answer is not to abandon our streets, that’s not the answer.”

The remarks come amid increasing concern about rising crime violent crime rates in some major cities. According to a recent report from the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ), homicides in major U.S. cities have increased 44 percent since 2019 and five percent since 2020.  

Republicans are looking to pin those increases on Democrats, in an extension of a strategy they used successfully in 2020 to tie down ballot Democrats to activists seeking to “defund the police” in the wake of high-profile police killings of Black Americans. 

“Joe Biden and Democrats’ soft-on-crime policies have emboldened criminals in Democrat-run cities across the country,” said Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, reacting to Biden’s remarks on Thursday. “Americans are less safe because of Democrats’ failed leadership, and until Joe Biden condemns dangerous policies and anti-police rhetoric from Democrats like Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, he is complicit in the crime surges across the country.”

Polls show the public appetite for reducing police funding has waned. A Pew Research survey released in October found 47 percent of Americans said police spending in their respective communities should be increased, up from 31 percent in June of 2020. The poll also found that support for decreasing police funding dropped from 25 percent in 2020 to 15 percent in October of last year.   

Moderate Democrats blamed losses in a number of swing districts in 2020 on progressives’ embrace of the “defund the police” slogan, and now many in the party are pivoting hard in the other direction.They are also looking to clarify their stands on public safety.

“Defund the police is an absolutely stupid slogan,” said Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond. “Even if you agree with the policy goals of what folks in this movement are pushing, it’s a very bad slogan because it’s not actually at least a hundred percent indicative of what they say they want to do, at least most of them.” 

Calls to “defund the police” reached fever pitch in 2020 amid nationwide protests over the police killings of unarmed Black people, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The movement asked to reallocate funds away from police departments and into other government agencies, which proponents said would more effectively deter crime and protect minority communities.

The term became a rallying cry for activists on the progressive left, but down ballot Republicans used the slogan to paint vulnerable Democrats facing reelection as extreme.

“It became an issue that defined many races in 2020 and I don’t think we can allow the same mistake to happen in 2022,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “Therefore I think it’s good that we’re being crystal clear about our position on the issue.” 

Ahead of Biden’s visit to New York this week, national Democrats amplified their messaging on the matter, touting what they said was their party’s support of law enforcement and brushing off the notion that “defund the police” rhetoric stood as a threat to them. 

“The defund police movement is dead in New York City and good riddance,” Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) told MSNBC on Tuesday. “And any elected official who’s advocating for the abolition and or even the defunding of police is out of touch with reality and should not be taken seriously.”

Ahead of Biden’s visit to New York, Democrats were busy pointing out that House Republicans opposed the president’s American Rescue Plan last year, which provided $350 million to help local governments, which include police departments. 

Additionally, Democrats have cited Republican opposition to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in the House and Senate. The legislation would prohibit racial profiling at every level of law enforcement, ban chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants, institute a national police misconduct registry and overhaul legal protections currently afforded to law enforcement known as qualified immunity.

“This is a step toward making sure voters across the country, regardless of where they live, understand where we are and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want safer communities,” Seawright said. “But I think in the same vein, we want accountability and we want a police system that does not discriminate or does not abuse its power.” 

However, Republicans say the strategy won’t work at the ballot box come November. 

“Voters aren’t going to believe that Democrats are suddenly tough on crime after they spent the last two years trying to defund the police,” said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. 

“The fact is Democrats’ pro-crime agenda is the reason we are seeing a wave of violent crime against the country,” he added. 

And Democrats are not necessarily united on the issue of policing.

The day before Biden visited New York City, Minneapolis police shot and killed 22-year-old Amir Locke while serving a no-knock warrant. The shooting of another Black man in a city still reeling from Floyd’s murder set off another round of outrage and scrutiny of the police department, including from progressive Democrats in Congress.

And some on the progressive left argue that dismissing calls to defund the police does nothing to bring liberals to the table on the issue. 

“I think it’s an ill-advised political strategy, but I also feel like it also robs the discourse of the seriousness it deserves and makes it harder to have the real conversation, which is how do we actually keep our communities safe,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director at the Working Families Party.

“For decades, all we’ve done is invest more and more public resources into police, jails, and prisons, and less and less public resources into education, into healthcare,” Mitchell said. “We need to reconsider that strategy, that 40-year strategy of defunding our communities and investing deeply into police and police only solutions.”  

However, on Thursday, the New York Working Families Party put out a statement praising Biden for visiting New York City to meet with officials to discuss public safety, but added that more funding was needed outside of the policing sector. 

“The most impactful thing President Biden can do to increase safety is pass [Build Back Better], which makes critical investments in housing, jobs, health care, and violence prevention. Pouring more federal dollars into policing and incarceration won’t solve the problem,” the group said in a statement. 

Still, Democrats say it’s best to amplify their stance on the issue of policing and public safety early on in the midterm cycle. 

“Collectively if we know it’s being used to energize the opposition party and defy some folks in our party, it doesn’t make sense to continue to play gymnastics with words on the issue that could potentially be used to define some races in 2022,” Seawright said.  


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