How does the “defund” slogan affect support for the movement against police violence? We investigated, as we’ll explain below.
Here’s the controversy
Most advocates of police defunding seek to redirect some police funds toward other social services, as opposed to completely disbanding the police. But that nuance may not be widely understood, and recent polls show that clear majorities oppose simply “defunding” the police.
Some observers worry the “defund” slogan could confuse voters and cost Democrats votes this fall. The Trump campaign has already spent millions running ads in battleground states falsely suggesting a Biden administration would abolish the police.
But is the defunding label less popular than alternatives? To answer these questions, we conducted two surveys in June and July with the polling firm Lucid, each one on a sample of about 1,000 U.S. adults that are nationally representative on age, gender, race/ethnicity and region.
Here’s how we did our research
In our first survey, fielded on June 15, we randomly assigned respondents to one of three groups. In the first group, respondents were asked whether they supported or opposed “protests against police brutality.” In the other two groups, respondents were instead asked about their support for “protests by Black Lives Matter” or “protests to defund the police.”
The second survey, fielded on July 13, asked all respondents these three questions, this time in randomized order. We also added new questions about shifting some police responsibilities to other social services and about government spending more generally.
‘Defund the police’ was significantly less popular
In both surveys, we found that the “defund the police” language reduced public support for protests by about 20 percentage points compared with asking about protests to reduce police brutality. The Black Lives Matter protests were about as popular as the protests against police brutality.
For which groups were these differences particularly important? Democrats, Republicans and independents were all less supportive of the protests when they were framed as defunding the police. But majorities of Black respondents supported the protests no matter how they were framed.
This shows activists for police reform might gain support from a broader political coalition if they rely on a different slogan than “defund the police.”
How unpopular is police spending?
In our July survey, we learned only a quarter of Americans believed there was “too much” spending on the police, which is comparable to other policy areas. Among Black respondents, 36 percent said there was “too much” spending on police services, compared with 20 percent among Whites and 26 percent among non-Black racial and ethnic groups.
This suggests cutting funding to the police is unlikely to be a winning political strategy in our current moment.
Do Americans think social services should play a larger role in policing?
To find out, our July survey gave respondents a list of common police activities and asked whether each should be performed by the police, other social services or a combination of both. A clear majority believe the police should continue to be solely in charge of law enforcement — responding to and investigating crimes.
However, averaging across all activities, Black respondents were about 16 percentage points less likely than Whites and other racial/ethnic groups to say police should be solely responsible. Further, clear majorities across all groups would like to see more social service professionals involved in delivering such things as maintaining order in public spaces, handling community engagement like youth outreach, and responding to people experiencing mental health crises. Typically, police handle all of these.
To be sure, many protesters are aiming at more than immediate policy reforms. Some want to fundamentally reimagine U.S. policing in ways that go far beyond what’s usually acceptable in American political discussion. But these advocates are constrained in two important ways.
First, defunding the police is generally unpopular among the mass public, as we can see above. Second, while Americans largely oppose reducing spending on policing, they do support supplementing police efforts with additional social services.
Democrats who embrace the call to “defund the police” risk alienating many voters whose support will be critical in the national movement against police violence and in the November election.
Paige E. Vaughn (@paigeevaughn) is a PhD candidate in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and a research scholar at the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School.
Gregory A. Huber is a Forst Family Professor and chair of the department of political science at Yale University.