The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are wasting an opportunity to rethink American policing

President Biden speaks on the campus of Wilkes University on Tuesday in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Biden and much of the Democratic Party are reembracing a “tough on crime” posture, seeming to believe it’s both good policy and smart electoral politics. But in reality both the electoral and substantive arguments behind it are weak.

Democrats aren’t returning fully to 1990s-style centrism on criminal justice issues, but they are moving in that direction. Over the past year, Biden has both urged cities and states to use American Rescue Plan funding to hire more police officers and repeatedly denounced calls to defund the police, most notably in his State of the Union address. In Philadelphia on Tuesday, the president touted his new proposal to hire 100,000 additional police officers over the next five years and once again attacked the defund movement.

Meanwhile, centrist House Democrats Josh Gottheimer (N.J.) and Abigail Spanberger (Va.) are pressing the party to hold votes before November on their bills to increase funding to local police departments. New York Mayor Eric Adams and new San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins are among the numerous figures in the party pushing for a rollback of bail reforms and other more lenient criminal justice policies. Many Democratic leaders in Minneapolis last year strongly opposed a ballot initiative that would have replaced the city’s police force with a comprehensive public safety department. In San Francisco, prominent Democrats cheered on the recall of reform-minded prosecutor Chesa Boudin.

There are three reasons for this shift. 2020 and 2021 saw big spikes in murders, and the homicide rate in many cities remains higher than before the covid-19 pandemic began. Second, many Democrats, including Biden and Spanberger, have argued that the party didn’t win by as much as it could have in 2020 because it was too closely associated with the defund-the-police rhetoric. Third, criminal justice reforms have been a particular focus of the party’s left wing, so centrist Democrats find that attacking these reforms and their advocates is a useful way to win intraparty power.

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Taking the last reason first: Harming the criminal justice movement to gain advantage in intraparty feuds is petty and counterproductive. But that’s what happening, even if centrist Democrats don’t admit it. The campaign and mayoral tenure of Adams, the recall of Boudin and other political fights in Democratic-dominated cities have featured the same dynamics: centrist Democrats exaggerating the increase in crime, blaming not only the crime surge but also long-standing problems like homelessness and drug abuse on progressive reforms, and implying their left-wing opponents want to immediately and drastically reduce police spending with no plan to keep people safe. It’s fine for centrist Democrats to want to defeat the left. But they should use a strategy that doesn’t involve a misleading portrayal of criminal justice reforms that will end up weakening a much-needed movement.

What if, however, Democrats are moving rightward on criminal justice to win elections and prevent Trumpian Republicans from taking power? That would be morally defensible. But the case for that electoral strategy is thin. Democrats lost the 1994 congressional elections right after passing a major anti-crime bill that included funding for 100,000 more police officers. Democrats won the House, Senate and presidency in 2020 after some of the largest and most police-skeptical protests in U.S. history — protests that were, by the way, a massive mobilizer of younger Americans who then turned out at unusually high numbers in the 2020 presidential election.

And despite what you may have heard, no 2020 Democratic candidate lost by running on defunding the police because the few who invoked that slogan campaigned in heavily liberal areas. The idea that significant numbers of voters who would have backed Democratic candidates in 2020 did not do so because they believed those candidates would defund local police departments has always been far-fetched — especially since Biden and the overwhelming majority of other Democratic politicians explicitly rejected defunding.

Biden and Spanberger might sincerely believe this theory. But it’s also possible what we are seeing is motivated reasoning. Biden, Spanberger and other Democrats who think the party should have done better in 2020 can either blame themselves for their underperformance or they can blame unnamed activists. It’s disappointing but not surprising that they have chosen activist-bashing over self-reflection.

Since 2020, Democrats have spent much of their time emphasizing their centrist stands on issues such as policing and infrastructure in an effort to appeal to moderate and conservative White voters. This is nothing new for the party, which for decades has employed a political strategy of distancing itself from activists and avoiding issues of race and identity for supposed electoral benefits that often don’t materialize. And the past few months have further illustrated why this strategy is misguided. Democrats’ electoral fortunes improved markedly once they started aggressively attacking Republicans on abortion and democracy issues in particular, instead of emphasizing bipartisanship and centrist stands.

The most defensible reason for Democrats’ new posture on crime is the murder-rate increase. It’s possible, at least in the short term, that adding officers in some cities will help. But Biden and other Democrats aren’t simply calling for more cops in a few places as a quick, targeted fix. In using “fund them” rhetoric, Biden and other Democrats are venerating police and rebuking those calling for reform. These Democrats are also pumping new resources into local and state police departments across the country with little oversight or accountability. It’s almost as if everything that was unearthed about police abuses over the past decade has been forgotten by Democrats.

It’s not that all or even most police officers act improperly. But as a group, the police still kill more than 1,000 civilians a year, often without justification. They still oppose and subvert virtually all accountability measures. They still disproportionately stop Black people. And politically, police officers, and particularly their unions, are increasingly tied to former president Donald Trump and his style of politics, while being wary of Democrats and actively hostile to Black Lives Matter activists.

That means Biden is not only attacking a group of people (BLM protesters) who largely voted for him to appease those who didn’t (the police). He’s also empowering a group of people (the police) who in many cases physically assaulted their critics (the protesters) in 2020.

Biden and Democrats are also squandering the opportunity that the 2020 protests created for a much-needed rethinking of how America can permanently reduce its crime rate and reimagine its approaches to public safety.

A true campaign to reduce the nation’s number of murders from more than 20,000 last year to close to zero would mean addressing some of the root causes of crime: poverty, deprivation, drug addiction, mental illness. High murder rates are concentrated in communities with low incomes and little social mobility. America needs to work to revive those areas with social services, jobs, great schools and community-connecting institutions. We know more cops and police spending aren’t the ultimate answer. America incarcerates a higher percentage of people than any other country but is nowhere close to having the lowest murder rates.

And one reason to be skeptical of Biden’s seriousness about crime is that conspicuously round number, 100,000. Then-President Bill Clinton included funding for 100,000 more officers in his 1994 anti-crime legislation, which was pushed through the Senate by then-Judiciary Chair Joe Biden. Even if adding police is a great way to reduce crime (and that is very contested), it is hard to imagine that the right number of new officers is exactly the same as it was 28 years ago. I suspect a better explanation for the figure can be found in the fact that the president and many of his aides worked on the 1994 bill.

“It’s political pandering, welfare for law enforcement and a sop to the police as a political constituency,” said Alex S. Vitale, a policing expert and professor at Brooklyn College, of Biden’s plan to fund more officers. “It’s not evidence-based.”

Biden and other Democrats haven’t completely walked back their 2020 posture on policing. The party tried last year to pass a police-reform measure, but it was blocked by congressional Republicans. Biden instead issued an executive order that includes limits on no-knock warrants. The Justice Department is once again launching investigations of local police departments, a policy that had been stalled during the Trump presidency.

And while Biden and many Democratic mayors want more police funding, they are also putting more money (although not nearly enough) into expanding mental health services and other non-police crime-reduction strategies.

But Democrats are moving in the wrong direction overall. 2020 was just two years ago. They need to honor the promises they made then to overhaul a criminal justice system that they know remains racist, classist, overly punitive and often ineffective in reducing crime.

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