With homicide rates increasing in some major cities, support waning for reducing police funding and Republicans aggressively pushing a “law and order” midterm message, President Biden declared in his State of the Union address this past week: “The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.”
Although this has long been Biden’s position, the blunt statement brought Republican lawmakers to their feet in applause, provided a bumper-sticker-size sound bite to Democrats running in swing districts and confirmed to dismayed activists that the once-widespread desire to overhaul policing has lost its momentum.
In June 2020, amid nationwide racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, about a quarter of Americans supported reducing police funding by a little or a lot, according to a Pew Research Center survey. By October 2021, that support had fallen to 15 percent. There were even starker drops among voters who leaned Democratic.
With the midterms eight months away, Biden and party leaders believe that coming out strongly in support of police will asphyxiate inaccurate Republican arguments that Democrats are anti-police, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy on a contentious issue. And the White House sees Biden’s stance as closer to where most Democrats and most Americans are, including many people in communities of color.
But for many liberal activists, “fund the police” sounded like a betrayal — especially as police shot and killed at least 1,055 people in 2021, the highest total since The Washington Post began tracking such incidents in 2015.
“Nobody wants to hear the movement or the work they’re passionate about is being dismissed by the president of the United States,” said Bernice Lauredan, an organizer with Tampa Dream Defenders. “We need more than symbolism. We need more than kneeling. It’s terrible to see the work that people have done on improving our communities, on investing in making a difference, just be pushed to the side.”
Lauredan spent the summer of 2020 marching through the sweltering streets of Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla., demonstrating for wholesale police restructuring and saying Floyd’s name. That year, Biden met with Floyd’s family, called for “real police reform” and showed his solidarity with the movement by taking a knee in Delaware.
Then, over the next two years, Lauredan said, she watched elected leaders ignore nearly everything she marched for: Tampa increased the police budget instead of shuttling dollars to other community services. Police restructuring legislation that bore Floyd’s name stalled in the Senate. Bipartisan negotiations focused on police revision collapsed amid disagreements. And public opinion has shifted away from what activists refer to as police abolition.
For Lauredan, Biden’s words Tuesday, and the bipartisan applause that followed, hit like a eulogy — and she worries the sentiment will lead to more police on U.S. streets and more deaths.
At Thursday’s White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki said “fund the police” has been Biden’s view for decades, and he was defending himself and his party from “attempts to mischaracterize his position and the position of, frankly, a number of his Democratic colleagues.”
“The president has been clear many times that he believes that we need to continue to ensure police departments have the funding they need, that there are strong relationships and partnerships built with communities, but that there also needs to be steps that are taken to ensure there are accountability measures put in place,” she said.
Though legislative efforts have failed, the Biden administration says it has already implemented some incremental changes. The Justice Department has prohibited the use of chokeholds and carotid restraints for federal officers and restricted the circumstances where its agents can use no-knock warrants. The department has also launched pattern-or-practice investigations into law enforcement agencies, and last month, three former Minneapolis police officers who were at the scene when Floyd was murdered were found guilty of federal civil rights offenses. Psaki added that the administration continues to mull an executive order that would concretize some police restructuring measures floated in failed legislation.
“Defund the police” became a rallying cry for many activists in 2020 as they called on cities to shift funding away from policing and toward social programs that help struggling communities. Although many activists have clarified that they aren’t advocating for the immediate abolition of all police, the slogan gave Republicans an opening to paint Democrats with a wide, lawless brush.
A misleading Donald Trump ad in 2020 featured audio from a fictitious 911 call that is answered by a recording. “To report a rape, please press one. To report a murder, press two.” As the audio played, the ad showed images of violent protests before flashing the words: “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
Celinda Lake, one of Biden’s lead pollsters in the 2020 election, said Republicans are bringing up defund the police “everywhere.” Trump’s campaign, for example, spent at least $6.7 million airing the ad on network television in battleground states, including Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Even as Biden was still speaking Tuesday night, the National Republican Senatorial Committee tweeted an ad that featured Democrats — many of them people of color — speaking in support of reallocating cash for policing.
The ads feature out-of-context statements, and don’t fully reflect the views of the Democrats featured in them, but telling voters that Democrats support defunding the police is an easy attack that can be difficult to defend against, Lake said.
“It’s become a values attack more than a substantive attack. It’s like calling [a Democrat] a socialist,” she said. “It’s a subject that lends itself to a nine-second attack, but not a nine-second response. … It’s hard to say what you’re for in nine seconds, because it’s adding mental health services, it’s retraining police and more pay for better-quality police.”
For Democrats, real-world problems have amplified the messaging difficulties. Homicides increased in some large Democrat-controlled cities. Philadelphia, for example, saw a record 561 homicides last year, a spasm of violence that put the city at the epicenter of a debate about the future of policing as it tried to stem the killing and respond to calls for police restructuring.
Biden and other Democrats have long said that it is better to give police departments money for training and other tools to implement needed changes instead of stripping their funding.
“There is a need for reform, but reform can’t take hold without the tools to implement it,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), the former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), in a statement. “Too often a lack of resources and overreliance on law enforcement to solve social service issues has led to a loss of lives and distrust in our communities. Put simply, in order to reform, we must also invest.”
In the nationwide discussion, White House aides say Biden’s position is closely aligned to that of New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), who won his race while promising to crack down on gun crimes, bolster violence-prevention programs and enhance community policing. Biden met with Adams, who is Black, after he won the New York primary, and last month attended anti-gun-crime events with him — including a visit to New York Police Department headquarters.
Lake, the pollster, said Biden is also more closely aligned with the country — including with many Black voters who care about removing troublesome police officers from departments, but who also want to be protected from criminals on the streets.
Amid declining support for reducing police funding, DCCC operatives told Politico that Democrats should work to counter effective GOP arguments rooted in culture wars, like “defund the police,” instead of ignoring the attacks. Democrats, for example, should stress their support for police.
Maurice Mitchell, a social movement strategist with the Movement for Black Lives and national director of the Working Families Party, said many activists see the shifting rhetoric and wonder what it means for a real-world debate about the proper role police should play in keeping communities safe.
“Folks are concerned that the intensity of the post-George Floyd moment has subsided, and what’s taken place is sort of a backlash,” Mitchell said. “And there are Democrats that are worried about picking up voters that they think otherwise would not be in play.”
Among them, he said, is Biden, who has gone out of his way to show his support for police.
The president was the keynote speaker at the Fraternal Order of Police’s “Salute to Our Fallen Heroes” on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in October, an annual event that Biden said he had attended frequently over his career.
Biden stressed his enduring support for police officers and their families. He said cities could use American Rescue Plan funding for police and violence-intervention programs, and he said his requested budget included an additional $300 million for community policing. He also pledged more money for mental health treatment.
“There are going to be more resources, not fewer resources, helping you do your job,” he told the officers and their families. “That’s why I proposed we invest in — we invest again in community policing we know works.”
But Mitchell, the Movement for Black Lives strategist, said that those programs aren’t as proven as Democrats have suggested, and that Democrats in power haven’t done enough to root out racism in police departments. The pro-police stance, he believes, is based on fears of getting branded as being soft on crime, a tried-and-true Republican tactic that goes back decades.
“I think some Democrats are operating from a place of fear and are getting sucked up based on reliable Republican talking points,” Mitchell said. “The Republicans will attempt to argue that every single Democrat running for every single office, from dogcatcher all the way up to president, is an antifa socialist. … So the question for Democrats … is what is the positive message that you are going to articulate around how you’re going to make sure that the people in your community are safer? And running away from ‘defund the police’ does not take you closer to that goal. And I think it’s actually a political mistake.”