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The White House’s slipshod claim that Republicans are defunding the police

White House senior adviser Cedric L. Richmond. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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“Let’s talk about who defunded the police. When we were in Congress last year trying to pass … an emergency relief plan for cities that were cash-strapped and laying off police and firefighters, it was the Republicans who objected to it. And in fact, they didn’t get funding until the American Rescue Plan, which, our plan allowed state and local governments to replenish their police departments and do the other things that are needed. So look, Republicans are very good at staying on talking points of who says ‘defund the police,’ but the truth is, they defunded the police.”

— Cedric L. Richmond, senior adviser to President Biden, in an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” June 27, 2021

Republicans often claim Biden would cut funding for police departments, a falsehood that has kept us busy churning out Pinocchios since the 2020 campaign.

Now, White House advisers are trying to turn the tables on the GOP with a new talking point, claiming it’s actually Republicans who are working to defund the police.

Richmond, a former Democratic congressman who leads the White House Office of Public Engagement, said on Fox News that Republican lawmakers opposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which included $350 billion in state and local aid. Many local governments are tapping those emergency funds to patch budget holes, hire officers and avoid police layoffs.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki brought up the same $1.9 trillion package, the American Rescue Plan, at a briefing June 23 and said: “That was voted into law by Democrats just a couple of months ago. Some might say that the other party was for defunding the police; I’ll let others say that, but that’s a piece.”

Although Republicans all opposed Biden’s coronavirus relief package, no one voted to cut, or defund, anything. Rather, Democrats proposed $350 billion in emergency funds for state and local governments, and Republicans voted against those extra funds. That’s not a reduction.

The Facts

Let’s define what it means to “defund the police,” a popular movement among some liberal activists that has so far gained little traction in Congress.

Only in rare instances are proponents calling for the outright elimination of police departments. Advocates generally want to redirect some funds now spent on police forces to items such as education, public health, housing and youth services. The idea is that low-income communities would become stronger — and less in need of policing tactics — if root problems were addressed.

Under this concept, some police officers would be replaced with trained social workers or specialized response teams in an effort to let police focus on violent crime, not drug overdoses or homelessness. The theory is that police would be better positioned to deal with rapes and murders if they were not required to deal with other social ills that sometimes lead to community confrontations with police.

It’s not a theory Biden is pursuing. In his fiscal 2022 budget, Biden kept a campaign promise and proposed to more than double the funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring Program, which provides funds for local police departments to bolster their ranks. In President Donald Trump’s budget last year, $156.5 million was provided for COPS Hiring; Biden would boost that to $388 million, Justice Department documents say.

In addition, Biden announced on June 23 that he was urging cities experiencing an increase in crime to tap funds in his coronavirus relief bill “to hire police officers needed for community policing and to pay their overtime.”

But that was not included in the text of the legislation itself, so lawmakers had no guarantee before voting on the bill that some of these funds would go to police departments.

Of the $1.9 trillion total in the American Rescue Plan, $350 billion was designated for “states, territories, and tribal governments to mitigate the fiscal effects stemming from the covid-19 public health emergency.”

The law says these funds may be used to “respond to the covid-19 emergency or its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits or aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality; provide premium pay to essential workers or provide grants to employers of essential workers during the covid-19 emergency; provide government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue of such state, territory, or tribal government due to the covid-19 emergency; or make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.”

Police officers are one category of essential workers covered by the law, but they are not mentioned specifically like “impacted industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality” or “water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.” As the bill worked its way through Congress, Democrats said these “state and local aid” funds would help shore up a host of local services, such as “health care workers, police, fire, transportation, EMS, teachers.”

White House officials noted that local governments across the country are using some of these emergency funds to hire officers or rehire officers who were laid off during the pandemic, and increase police pay or upgrade their facilities and mental health services, including in Cincinnati, Houston and Memphis.

The White House also pointed to another set of remarks from a briefing Psaki gave on July 2: “When we talk about individuals in Congress and their support for funding or opposition to funding for the police, I think what the American people are most focused on is how people vote, what their record is, which is a public record. And I will note that … the president ran on and won the most votes of any candidate in history on a platform of boosting funding for law enforcement after Republicans spent decades trying to cut the COPS program — which, again, is public record.”

This claim sounds similar, but we’re no longer talking about the American Rescue Plan and its $350 billion in state and local aid. As noted, Biden’s budget proposes to more than double COPS funding after Trump proposed to cut this program, and some Republicans voted to reduce funding for it on a year-over-year basis. That’s what a budget cut, or a proposed cut, actually looks like.

In response to our questions, White House officials said Republicans were “effectively” trying to defund the police by withholding support for the coronavirus relief package and by proposing to claw back some of the $350 billion in state and local aid amid ongoing infrastructure negotiations.

The Pinocchio Test

We often fact-check claims in which huge spending bills are reduced to one cherry-picked expense out of thousands.

In this case, there’s not even a line item to attach to the White House’s claim that Republicans are trying to defund the police.

The American Rescue Plan devoted $350 billion to “state and local aid,” a pot of money that was designed for a variety of budget-plugging purposes. Among those is keeping police, teachers and emergency medical technicians at work, but going strictly by the bill text, lawmakers had no guarantee that police would get a slice of the pie.

What’s more, voting against a one-time infusion of cash is not the same as voting to cut funding, so there is little basis to claim that Republicans are trying to “defund the police.”

Psaki and the White House are on more solid ground by framing this talking point in terms of the COPS program, which some Republicans did vote to cut funding for as recently as the Trump administration. That’s the only thing keeping this talking point from being a Four Pinocchio claim.

Overall, we award Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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