The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Will Election Day render ‘defund the police’ defunct?

Demonstrators paint the words 'defund the police' in the street as they protest near the White House on June 6, 2020. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Remember “defund the police”? You may not need to. Just as voters head to the polls on Tuesday, advocates of a Minneapolis ballot measure that was originally intended to reduce the number of police officers now insist it won’t reduce the number of police officers.

Yes, you read that right. Seventeen months after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, the pendulum has swung back in favor of law enforcement. Amid a wave of violent crime, the “defund the police” catchphrase that was a hallmark of street protests last year has morphed into a liability in urban areas from Atlanta to Buffalo and Cleveland to Seattle. Reformers who never even used the slogan nonetheless find themselves on the defensive.

The Minneapolis proposal would still remove a requirement from the city’s charter that there be a minimum number of officers, based on the size of the population. It would also replace the police force with a new entity that would include social workers — and, “if necessary,” policemen — to take a “comprehensive public health approach” to fighting crime.

The language is intentionally vague. But with a Minneapolis Star Tribune poll showing 55 percent of likely voters opposed to reducing the size of the city’s police presence, mailers and door-to-door canvassers supporting the referendum emphasize that the city will “maintain police response.”

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Even if the ballot measure passes, the way the campaign has played out underscores how badly the concept of abolishing the police has backfired and served as a reminder of why it is difficult to enact meaningful and necessary criminal justice reform. A Pew Research Center survey released last week found that 47 percent of U.S. adults want to increase spending on policing in their area, up from 31 percent in June 2020. Support for reducing spending has fallen from 25 percent to 15 percent.

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These numbers shouldn’t be surprising: The country suffered a 29.4 percent surge in homicides last year. That’s the largest one-year increase since the FBI began compiling national figures in the 1960s, and the numbers for 2021 will also be terrible.

What’s amazing is how strong these dynamics are in some of the bluest enclaves. A Suffolk University poll finds that just 10 percent of likely voters in the Boston mayor’s race, also on Tuesday, support “defunding the police to reduce their power in our city,” while 26 percent want more money for cops. Former New York Police Department captain Eric Adams won the Democratic primary for mayor of America’s largest city by positioning himself as tougher on crime than any of his opponents.

The most striking example of the shifting political winds comes from Upstate New York. Last fall, community activist India Walton led a protest outside police headquarters in downtown Buffalo. Demonstrators waved signs that looked like pink slips for police officers, according to the Buffalo News, as Walton shouted into a megaphone: “F--- these racist a-- police.”

Walton, a democratic socialist, unexpectedly beat Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in June’s Democratic primary. Now, Brown is waging a write-in campaign to win the general on Tuesday, and an Emerson poll shows him ahead by 17 points. Republicans didn’t even nominate a candidate.

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The Buffalo police union has endorsed Brown, and 18 officers recorded an attack ad saying Walton will terminate them if she wins. She responded by saying their jobs are safe. Walton’s spokesman explained that she’s shifted away from the “slogans of activists” and believes cost savings can be achieved through natural attrition and less overtime.

In Atlanta, the local police union has also endorsed former mayor Kasim Reed in a 14-person race. His previous tenure was clouded by corruption charges against former aides, but Reed has taken a lead in polls by promising to hire 750 new police officers, buy new equipment for the department and triple the city’s network of cameras — after the brutal murder of a woman in a public park.

The dynamic is even more pronounced in suburbs where Democrats made major inroads during the Trump era. In Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, outside Philadelphia, Democratic nominee for sheriff Mark Lomax appears in a closing commercial alongside Antonetta Stancu, the Democratic nominee for district attorney. “We know that, to fight crime, we must fund the police,” he says over footage of the candidates talking with two officers.

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“Defund the police” was a slogan meant for the street, not the ballot box. Hence the pullback. But this isn’t the first time liberal activists have embraced catchphrases that have come back to haunt Democrats down the road, from “abolish ICE” to “Medicare-for-all.” By overplaying their hands with “defund the police,” the left has also made it harder to get Republicans on board with police reform efforts at the federal level.

Tuesday’s elections may close the book on the “defund” movement, but that hopefully won’t hinder future efforts to make the police more responsive and accountable to the policed.

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