Thirteen months after the police killing of George Floyd sparked an impassioned movement in the Democratic Party to rein in police departments, a surge in homicides has prompted a shift in the opposite direction. Democrats are scrambling to make new investments in policing and seeking to project toughness on crime, even as they continue pushing for police reforms and alternative means of deterring crime.
Now in control of the White House, Congress and most big cities, Democrats have struggled to contain the deadly violence this year, which is expected to worsen as the summer progresses. They are facing a barrage of criticism from Republicans, who are portraying Democrats as soft on crime as part of a coordinated strategy for next year’s midterm elections.
These trends have alarmed Democrats at all levels — from the White House, where Biden recently delivered his first major speech on fighting crime; to voters, who are rallying behind crime-focused candidates in early primaries; to U.S. House members who are bluntly warning liberal colleagues to tone down their attacks on law enforcement.
“ ‘Defund police’ is a phrase that I wish had never been uttered,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when Republicans picked up 13 House seats over the two-year 2020 election cycle. “We’ve got to do a better job of talking about what we do want to do.”
A post-election analysis from House Democrats concluded that the “defund the police” slogan, embraced by Black Lives Matter protesters, gave Republicans an effective weapon in the last election, even though most Democrats, including Biden, consistently rejected the message. Republicans are continuing to produce ads featuring the slogan, depicting angry protesters and blaring sirens as they seek to tie rising crime to police overhaul efforts.
Liberals and activists respond that the jump in violent crime is caused not by holding police accountable, but by the widespread availability of guns. Few jurisdictions have actually overhauled their police departments, they say, and there is no evidence that crime is higher in those that have.
And embracing police is hardly a path to Democratic success, they argue.
“Manchin & Co. be like ‘defund the police costs us elections’ while actively sabotaging our Dem agenda,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a former BLM activist, tweeted this month. “Our movement was at the heart of the organizing that won us the 2020 elections. Now conservative Dems block our progress.”
Bush was referring to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a sharp critic of the slogan who after the last election tweeted, “Defund the police? Defund, my butt.”
Republicans have used the crime issue against Democrats since at least Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 “law and order” campaign. One question is whether, with voters more attuned to issues of race and police misconduct, the attacks will be less effective this time, or even whether Republicans risk being seen as dismissive of life-and-death social problems.
Many Democrats fear the GOP message could nonetheless hit home given the rise in violent crime. Homicides in many cities were up in the first quarter of this year from the same period last year, according to the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
Strategists in both parties say the pandemic — long the dominant issue on voters’ minds — is beginning to recede as more Americans get vaccinated and deaths decline, opening the door for other issues to capture people’s attention. Republicans are tying the rise in violent crime to the surge in migrants at the border, as they advance a larger case that America under Biden is spiraling out of control.
“After months of ignoring ongoing crime in American cities, the president finally addressed the violence this week,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Friday. Republicans, he added, “will not defund the police. We will add more.”
Cedric L. Richmond, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, called such criticism “B.S.” He said the sweeping pandemic relief bill Biden signed in March enabled the federal government to fund police departments and added that funding the police is “exactly what we said” this week when Biden and his administration promoted that money for law enforcement usage.
When it comes to dealing with the GOP attacks, Richmond said, “I think that Democratic candidates need to talk about what they want to do, and not necessarily in slogan language.” He said he also expects Democrats to remind voters of Republicans’ opposition to creating a commission to investigate the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“That’s weak on crime,” he said.
Many Democrats are now feeling a growing urgency to rebut the Republican attacks, especially in the battleground states and districts. In the House, the path to power runs through suburban areas, where Democrats dominated during Donald Trump’s presidency. Voters in those districts are getting flooded with grisly news reports of violent crime in adjacent cities.
Many of the centrist Democrats representing these districts were reluctant to discuss the issue this week, underscoring that it has not been favorable terrain for the party in recent years. One centrist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, said fellow Democrats must not shy away from talking about rising crime and the challenges facing police.
The shifting attitude is already evident in nascent Democratic midterm campaigns. Last year, candidates’ connections to law enforcement were greeted with skepticism by some activists; these days, many Democrats are openly touting their background in law enforcement or their ties to police.
“I’m the wife of a sheriff,” Bustos said.
“I went to Orlando to serve as a police officer,” Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) said in a recent video launching her campaign for the Senate, which emphasizes her record as the city’s former police chief. In contrast, when Demings was vetted by the Biden campaign last summer as a potential running mate, she faced concerns from activists over that same record.
The White House is seeking to set the tone for other Democrats to talk about crime, beginning with Biden’s speech Wednesday touting his efforts to free up federal dollars that local officials can use for more police officers or equipment, among other things.
Seeking to draw a contrast between his party's approach and the Republican message, DCCC Chair Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) put it this way: “We’re fixing problems. They’re trying to exploit them for political gain.”
In a sign of the careful balance Democratic leaders are trying to strike between independent voters and the Democratic base, Biden paired his pitch with a heavy focus on tightening gun regulations, a top priority for liberal activists. “There is no one answer that fits everything,” Biden said.
“You can actually be very much pro-law enforcement and pro-reform,” agreed moderate Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.). “That’s a false choice to claim it’s one or the other.”
Republicans disagree, saying you can’t rebuke the police and then claim a tough-on-crime mantle. In a floor speech on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said: “Prominent voices on the left — including some of our colleagues — fanned the flames of a dangerously misguided experiment. And law-abiding Americans are paying the price.”
The White House is anticipating that violent crime will continue to increase this summer, according to one White House official. The point of Biden’s speech was to get ahead of that and make sure the government is using and showcasing all of the tools at its disposal.
Another Democrat familiar with the thinking of top White House officials said worrisome polling the officials have seen has also factored into their strategy. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) said slogans like “defund the police” oversimplify a highly complex topic.
“Anyone who gets caught up in a hashtag — defund, refund, tough on crime, soft on crime, any of those talking points — doesn’t have the mental capability to talk about this issue with the depth that it deserves,” he said.
Scott said the increase would cover pension benefits and other fixed costs, not new police services. He also touted the police revisions he favors, such as community-based interventions, part of an approach he calls “reimagining public safety.”
Similar debates are playing out across the country. In New York, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD officer who focused on crime, leads the Democratic mayoral primary as vote-counting continues. It’s a big change from the mood last year when now-Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who proudly championed the “defund the police” mantra, defeated then-Rep. Eliot L. Engel, who did not.
Pastor Michael McBride, a nationally known activist on gun violence prevention, criticized what he called Adams’s strategy of “weaponizing the politics of fear around crime” and said other Democrats should not follow suit.
“My biggest fear in this moment is a tough-on-crime national and local effort with a Black face on it,” said McBride, who is known as Pastor Mike. “It appears to me that Black elected officials run elections and govern as if they are unaware that a community-based public safety approach is a winning political message and governing strategy.” Adams is Black.
In Minneapolis, where an initial push to disband the police ran into legal and political road bumps, Mayor Jacob Frey recently released a public safety blueprint that, among other things, proposes that the Minneapolis Police Department “replenish its ranks by bringing on two more recruit classes by the end of this year.”
Democrats are taking some solace in the results of a recent special U.S. House election in New Mexico, where now-Rep. Melanie Stansbury prevailed despite attacks from a Republican opponent seeking to tag her as hostile to police.
Also potentially muddying the issue is a bipartisan effort to craft a police restructuring bill in Congress. This week, the three lawmakers working on the effort issued a statement saying they had made significant progress.
It is far from certain that the effort by Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) will succeed. But the talks reflect the sensitivity of the issue for both parties, as Republicans seek to avoid being portrayed as entirely insensitive to police brutality and racism.
But for now, the strongest anxiety is voiced by Democrats who worry that the impassioned voices of the few in their party who embrace “defund the police” will drown out the far greater number who don’t.
“I think it’s critically important that we explain this in a way that doesn’t label us in a way that is inaccurate,” Bustos said.