(NewsNation) — As politicians continue to use their commitment to law enforcement — or lack thereof — as a political yardstick, some say the profession has been caught in the middle.
“We have not been this politicized … since, really, the 1960s,” said retired Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith, a 29-year law enforcement veteran and spokesperson for the National Police Association.
Smith, who now travels around the country training police, said she has noticed how political rhetoric has impacted attitudes among officers.
“In Florida, their morale is much better than in other parts of the country, like here in Illinois,” she said.
Much of the difference, Smith believes, comes down to messaging from the states’ leaders.
That contrast came to the fore earlier this week when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to the Chicago area for an invitation-only event where he gave a speech in support of police. The visit immediately drew criticism from Democratic politicians.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker issued a statement blasting the Florida Governor’s “dangerous and hateful agenda” as it related to “banning books” and “censoring history.” Pritzker called on every candidate running for public office to condemn the event.
The showdown presented a unique challenge for some of the city’s top Democratic mayoral candidates who found themselves trying to do two things at once: convince voters that public safety is a top priority while denouncing Republican politicians who have been vocal about “Backing the Blue.”
Chicago Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas — who’s made law and order a centerpiece of his campaign and has the endorsement of the local police union — issued a statement slamming the Florida Governor, writing, “There is simply no place in Chicago for a right-wing extremist like Ron DeSantis.”
Incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has recently seen her support slip in the polls, criticized Vallas for embracing the police union and accused him of being “fast on his (DeSantis’s) heels,” in an interview with NBC News.
The jockeying is just the latest instance of law enforcement being used as a “political football,” Smith said.
Jim Dudley, a retired 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, is also concerned about the way the job has been politicized.
“I didn’t think much about command staff, much less the mayor or the board of supervisors or the governor,” Dudley said of his early years as a patrol officer. “Now it’s a daily reminder in every media outlet.”
He’s worried the career has been vilified by politicians seeking the media attention that often comes with criticizing law enforcement.
Polling shows Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to say they have “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in police — 67% compared to 28% — according to a 2022 Gallup Survey. That could explain why politicians in deep blue urban areas have generally been less vocal in their support.
The perceived lack of encouragement may also illustrate why police departments, including many in major American cities, have struggled to recruit officers.
A 2022 Police1 survey of more than 2,300 officers found that just 7% of respondents are promoters of a law enforcement career.
Dudley fears the heightened political rhetoric has amplified distrust among community members and made it more difficult to do proactive police work.
“If police only get to respond to incidents that means someone’s already a victim, that means there’s already a crime, somebody’s already lost,” he said.
Despite the wide partisan gap, the police remain one of the most trusted institutions in the country with 45% of Americans saying they have a “great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in them. Only “small business” and “the military” ranked higher.
Over the past two years, Democratic politicians have moved away from the “defund the police” slogan that gained momentum in some progressive enclaves following the June 2020 police murder of George Floyd.
That shift is perhaps best exemplified by former New York City police captain Eric Adams’ mayoral victory in Nov. 2021.
It remains to be seen whether Vallas, the candidate who is considered to be the most pro-police, will also win in Chicago.