The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The debate over Democrats and crime is disastrously confused

The crime scene at 10th Street and J Street in downtown Sacramento on April 3. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Some elections take on outsize importance simply because lots of influential voices assert that to be the case, making it so. So it is with the recall Tuesday of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who is a real lefty on crime and law-and-order issues.

Pundits, Republicans and many Democrats are citing the result as proof that even liberal cities are fed up with the consequences of extreme ideas about crime. This has created a major political problem for Democrats, goes this line, because they are associated with those far-out lefty ideas.

Is crime a political problem for Democrats? Of course. Whenever the country experiences an increase in crime, voters will take it out on politicians who are in charge. And the small but vocal minority inside the Democratic Party calling for some form of “defunding” of police has probably harmed the party’s overall brand.

But if Democrats as a party are handling this issue badly, what precisely should they be doing instead?

This question is driven home by a new report from the Democratic centrist group Third Way. It finds that Democratic-run cities haven’t been defunding their police forces. Just the opposite has occurred, to the point of outpacing Republican-run cities on a per capita basis:

In this report, we find that police funding and police personnel levels are far higher in the 25 largest Democrat-run cities compared to the 25 largest Republican-run cities. In the most recent funding cycle, these same Democratic cities increased their police budgets to a greater degree than cities with Republican mayors.

Third Way undertook this study because the default media storyline on crime is “lazy and inaccurate,” according to Jim Kessler, the group’s executive vice president for policy.

“The press narrative is that crime is an out-of-control, urban-Democratic-city problem,” Kessler told us. “In fact, it is a national problem that crosses party.”

If this is the case, then why has Boudin’s loss been turned into a parable of Democratic political vulnerability? The main argument has been that this loss shows voters care deeply about crime and will punish anyone perceived as far left on the issue.

Boudin is in that ideological space. He instituted reforms such as ending cash bail, not charging children as adults and sending more drug defendants into diversion programs rather than jail. While some categories of crime fell and others rose during Boudin’s tenure, he clashed constantly with a hostile police force, was seen as unsympathetic to anti-Asian hate crimes and was blamed for some visible increases, including of car thefts.

Boudin’s critics also blamed him for an increase in fentanyl overdoses. And the city’s high rate of homelessness contributed to a widespread sense of disorder that the well-funded campaign against him exploited.

Yet as New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore details, there are reasons to doubt that Tuesday’s results definitively confirmed a supposed tough-on-crime backlash. There were other reasons for Boudin’s loss, such as anger at him among San Francisco Democrats over other matters. Voter turnout was low. And some Tuesday results in California didn’t fit the narrative, with progressive Democrats that should have been vulnerable to “soft on crime” attacks winning other races.

The narrative of a national backlash against progressive crime-fighting also breaks down on other fronts. Boudin was only one of a few progressive prosecutors elected in recent years, and crime (or more particularly, some crimes, including homicide) have gone up all over the country, in red states and blue states, and cities run by Republicans and Democrats. And as noted, many Democratic cities are spending more on police per capita than Republicans are.

So even if voters are out to punish people perceived as far to the left on crime, what are Democrats supposed to do if most don’t hold positions that actually are far to the left on crime?

One answer is to tout their records more forcefully. The Post reports that many vulnerable Democrats are aggressively advertising how supportive they’ve been of funding the police. That’s fine; Democrats should forcefully push back against lies about them.

A second answer is to stage dramatic scenes denouncing leftist activists who have advocated for “defund" in a kind of “Sister Souljah” vein. Does anyone really think that will make a big difference amid rising crime and the general tendency for voters to blame the incumbent party when things go wrong?

Either way, both of those are communications fixes, not policy ones. On policy, what should Democrats as a party be doing differently? Should they be advocating the return of stop-and-frisk? Lengthy prison sentences for misdemeanor drug possession?

President Biden recently signed an executive order on police reform. It strengthens national standards for conduct of police departments across the country, improves monitoring of delinquent officers and tightens use-of-force standards on federal law enforcement.

Is the claim that Democrats should have opposed this on grounds that it’s not “tough” enough on crime?

That executive order was necessary because Democrats and Republicans in Congress failed to reach a deal on a police reform bill. That would have banned chokeholds and limited transfers of military equipment to local police forces, among other things.

That bill died when Republicans refused to sign on to it, even though Democrats agreed to drop a provision that would have exposed police officers to face greater legal liability for misconduct.

Was that a “soft on crime" position from Democrats, or a 'tough on crime" one? Is the argument that Democrats shouldn’t have pushed for those police reforms at all?

Until critics are ready to be brutally specific and clear with their answers to all these questions, they’re saying nothing worth listening to.