Sunday, December 5, 2021

Democrats Don't Have to Chose Between "Defund the Police" and Being "Tough on Crime"

In their quest to win back working class voters, several liberal pundits are suggesting that Democrats need to take on the issue of the rise in violent crime. After pointing to polls showing that voters - especially people of color - see this as a major issue, the claim is that the whole "defund the police" movement that arose during the George Floyd protests is hurting the party. 

While as a slogan, "defund the police" is clearly problematic politically, it is important to keep in mind what it actually represents

Only in rare instances are liberal advocates calling for the outright elimination of police departments. Proponents by and large 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.

It is therefore important, when referring to the slogan "defund the police," to indicate whether it is being used as liberal activists meant it, or as a right wing talking point used by Republicans to lie about Democrats.

The pundits who are worried about how the slogan is affecting voters don't tend to bother with making that distinction. Instead, they pose it in the outdated false dichotomy of "tough on crime" vs "soft on crime," as we see from Ruy Teixeira.

The former UK prime minister, Tony Blair, had a very successful slogan: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Democrats would be well-advised to adopt a similar approach.

Nowhere in that piece does Teixeira mention that President Biden rejected the false notion of defunding the police. He might have addressed these facts:

In his fiscal 2022 budget, Biden kept his campaign promise and proposed to more than double the funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring Program. Funding is provided to state and local governments to hire law enforcement officers, thus inflating the size of police departments. In Trump’s last year, $156.5 million was provided for COPS Hiring, while Biden would boost that to $388 million, Justice Department documents say. In fact, Biden would boost funding for all COPS grant programs to $651 million, up from $386 million under Trump.

Moreover, 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.” He added that they also “can use the funding to scale up wraparound services for the residents as well, including substance abuse and mental health services that we know will make a difference in prevention of crime.”

Interestingly enough, it was Vice President Kamala Harris who originally offered a way out of the "tough on crime," vs. "soft on crime" dichotomy. In 2008, while serving as the District Attorney of San Francisco, she published a book titled "Smart on Crime." In 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder took up the theme with a report titled "Smart on Crime: Reforming the Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century." It identified five goals.

  1. To ensure finite resources are devoted to the most important law enforcement priorities;
  2. To promote fairer enforcement of the laws and alleviate disparate impacts of the criminal justice system;
  3. To ensure just punishments for low-level, nonviolent convictions;
  4. To bolster prevention and reentry efforts to deter crime and reduce recidivism;
  5. To strengthen protections for vulnerable populations.
The first one is critical in that it specifically addresses an issue with policing. As David Simon pointed out so powerfully in the HBO series, The Wire, the war on drugs distorted policing with a focus on chasing after statistics that only looked "tough on crime," but were heavily weighted with minor arrests for possession and trafficking, depleting resources that otherwise could have been devoted to violent crime. 

Not too long ago, I noted that Simon had been vindicated when State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that, during the pandemic, Baltimore would no longer prosecute drug possession, prostitution, trespassing and other minor charges, to keep people out of jail and limit the spread of the coronavirus. 
And then crime went down in Baltimore. A lot. While violent crime and homicides skyrocketedin most other big American cities last year, violent crime in Baltimore dropped 20 percent from last March to this month, property crime decreased 36 percent, and there were 13 fewer homicides compared with the previous year. This happened while 39 percent fewer people entered the city’s criminal justice system in the one-year period, and 20 percent fewer people landed in jail after Mosby’s office dismissed more than 1,400 pending cases and tossed out more than 1,400 warrants for nonviolent crimes.

Following the 2016 shooting that killed five police officers in Dallas, the chief articulated the problem as it exists today, suggesting that we're asking law enforcement to do too much. 

Asking law enforcement to solve all of our problems is not only a diversion of resources. It doesn't work, but is a sure-fire way to take steps towards becoming a police state.

After four years of dog whistles from Donald Trump about being the "law and order" president followed by a racist backlash against the movement to reform policing, it is important for Democrats to be clear. We remain the party committed to reforming police abuses. But just as importantly, we reject the false notion that we have to chose between "defund the police" and being "tough on crime." Instead, we can proactively be "smart on crime."


  1. I do not take "Defund the Police" seriously. DtP is an example of what happens when you start with a slogan, then try to work backwards to make it sound like it's actually a forward-thinking strategy.

    I see plenty of actual progressives who think that we should Defund the Police out of existence, so I don't think it's a false take on the slogan at all. Indeed, I think a lot of progressives who ostensibly mean the "reallocate to social services" definition are really about defunding, once you scratch the surface. Take a look at the shameful votes the Squad made against increasing funding for Capitol Police: now there's a case where they knew firsthand that security needed to be beefed up to prevent another Jan 6, but even in that singular situation they couldn't bring themselves to vote for adequate police funding.

    But even for those progressives who are sincere about thinking the solution is to reallocate funds, I say, watch the George Floyd murder video and say out loud every 30 seconds: "this wouldn't be happening if only we'd diverted some funds to social services". The bulk of our problems aren't because the police are well-meaning but overworked; the bulk of our problems are because our police are violent, racist, and generally exempt from responsibility. Any attempts at reform that don't put those matters front and center, are a distraction at best, and an intentional distraction at worst.

    1. Personally, I don't take my ques about what Democrats stand for from "the Squad."

  2. Nancy is dead-on, as usual, and KingB has several important points, too. Yes, there will always be some idealists who think crime will go away in an ideal, nurturing society that, given that there has always been theft and violence in humankind, has never existed; and yes, it's inane. Second, it came to prominence thanks to police killings and the outrage against them spurred by BLM, but it's a shift in topic from police racism, violence, and lack of responsibility rather than a solution; that's why the voices for it are white.

    Still, let's not overstate the reality of the outcry, which is part of Nancy's point. Maybe some voters feel that way, but not many, and they can mean anything by the slogan. As for those in the political arena itself, their support for the cry is virtually nonexistent. We just had a mayoral race in New York, with many candidates in the primary ranging widely in their politics from center right to sharp left. And yet not one supported this.

    When it comes down to it, the problem, as ever, is right-wing lies and a complacent, cooperative press. Democrats are soft on crime yet again, whatever they actually think or do or say, just as they're still soft on Communism (or whatever), are tax and spend and bad for the economy, are woke at the expense of good working class (white) people, and so on and so on. Aargh.


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