Defunding police: An idea most Democrats don’t want to talk about

It became a political flashpoint last year; now, Democratic leaders refuse to entertain the notion.

While calls to "defund" police departments persist, Democratic leaders are distancing themselves from those demands [File: John Minchillo/AP Photo]

When Daunte Wright became the latest Black person to die at the hands of the police on Sunday, the reaction was swift.

Democrats and progressives, as they had after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray and the dozens of others who were killed by US police in recent years, expressed their outrage and again called for police reforms.

Some, such as Representative Rashida Tlaib, re-upped their call for dismantling US police forces, arguing that they “can’t be reformed”.

“It wasn’t an accident. Policing in our country is inherently & intentionally racist,” Tlaib wrote on Twitter Monday. “Daunte Wright was met with aggression & violence. I am done with those who condone government funded murder.

“No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Representative Ayanna Pressley, a fellow progressive member of the US House’s “Squad”, a group of four congresswomen of colour.

“From slave patrols to traffic stops. We can’t reform this,” Pressley tweeted.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke out in solidarity with her fellow “Squad” members tweeting, “Cameras, chokehold bans, ‘retraining’ funds, and similar reform measures do not ultimately solve what is a systemic problem.”

Their comments went further than last summer’s calls to “defund the police”, which gained momentum after Floyd’s killing in May 2020.

And despite the “Squad’s” insistence that dismantling the policing system in the US – and not incremental reforms – is the solution, they’re finding themselves severely outnumbered.

Republicans are having a field day with the re-emergence of the “defund” argument, but unlike last year, when some Democratic leaders were slow to denounce the idea, this time around, there is an active effort to distance themselves from it.

President Joe Biden, who was accused during last year’s presidential campaign of supporting the redirection of some police funding, ultimately insisted he is against the notion that policing is beyond reform, something his spokeswoman pointed out clearly on Tuesday.

“That’s not the president’s view,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “The President’s view is that there are necessary, outdated reforms that should be put in place; that there is accountability that needs to happen; that the loss of life is far too high; that these families are suffering around the country; and that the Black community is exhausted from the ongoing threats they feel.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also distanced herself from the “Squad”, pointing instead to the sweeping George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House last month.

“Our legislation provides a solution to systemic racism and does not paint all law enforcement with the same brush,” Pelosi said in a statement to Fox News.

Political liability

It became clear after last summer’s violent protests that any calls to weaken or eliminate police forces were not going to pay political dividends.

Republicans, including then-President Donald Trump, seized on the “defund” issue and incessantly hammered Democrats, even those not calling for cutting police funding.

It led Democratic leaders to believe that rhetoric actually hurt them at the polls last November. Key African-American House leaders such as James Clyburn, the number 3 Democrat in the House, and Cedric Richmond, who later became a Biden adviser, blamed the progressives’ “defund” rhetoric for costing Democrats House seats in battleground districts.

And while the jury is still out as to whether that issue was a key reason for those Democratic losses, polling since reveals that the idea is a political loser.

An Ipsos/USA Today poll released last month showed only 18 percent of Americans supported “defund the police” including only 28 percent of African Americans and 34 percent of Democrats.

Numbers like that aren’t lost on politicians who are looking to keep their jobs or are trying to help their party gain seats in competitive elections.

They’re also not lost on elected officials who have entertained, or even implemented, defunding policies and then saw crime spike in their cities or states.

Leaders in cities such as Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon, while initially gung-ho about diverting funding from their police departments, have seen their mayors do an about-face as crime levels spiked, asking for more funding for their police departments in recent months.

Despite some progressives’ calls for even more robust police “defunding” and Republicans’ desire to fan the flames of that extremely unpopular point of view, it’s becoming clear Democrats from the White House on down are unifying around a different path forward, one that they hope does not become the political liability many thought it was last November.

Source: Al Jazeera