The ‘Defund Police’ movement went from 0 to 60 in nothing flat since the death of George Floyd but despite the prominence of the slogan, it isn’t clear what the idea means or how broad support for defunding police among Democrats really is. It is clear, however, that for many people defunding police means something other than abolishing police departments. But whatever the phrase, “defund the police,” the plain language means something else to voters.
The phrase “defund the police” conjures up images of eliminating funding for police departments so that they cease to exist. However, that is not what the frequently-chanted phrase means to most on the left. When the Minneapolis city council recently announced a veto-proof majority in support of defunding the city police, eliminating the law enforcement organization was not what they planned to do. Likewise, a CNN story about Camden, N.J. disbanding its police department seven years ago is really a story about reform from a clean slate.
Speaking on “Morning Joe,” Al Sharpton responded to queries about what defunding means by saying that it means “adjusting or recommitting the funding toward things like community policing, like mental health. Intervention that does not involve policing as we know it and putting a lot into police training.”
“I don’t think that anyone other than the far extremes is saying that we don’t want any kind of policing at all, any kind of public safety,” Sharpton continued. “It’s to reinterpret how we do public safety and to reallocate those resources in ways that solve the problem….”
“The slogan may be misleading without interpretation,” Sharpton added.
That’s a heckuva problem for Democrats.
There are tens of thousands of demonstrators around the country chanting “defund the police” when what they really mean is “reform the police.” But while the demonstrators and Democratic politicians know that they don’t want to eliminate police forces, suburban soccer moms, who have a very different view of the police than inner-city minorities do, may interpret the Democratic agenda very differently.
The difference may affect the outcome of the election. Even though a recent YouGov poll found that more than 60 percent of respondents believe that police treat whites better and that deaths of blacks at the hands of police in recent years are signs of a broader problem, 65 percent oppose cutting funding for police departments.
The sensible strategy for Democrats is not to champion defunding of police but to push for police reform. The same poll found that 56 percent do not believe that police are “usually held accountable for any misconduct.” Reform and accountability are a platform that would have widespread support. Cutting funding for police is not.
Democratic leaders obviously understand this because none have signed onto the push to defund police. Joe Biden plainly said, “No, I don’t support defunding the police” earlier this week and the new Democratic police reform bill would ban chokeholds and no-knock raids like the one that killed Breonna Taylor, but it does not seek to defund police departments. Even Bernie Sanders said, “Anyone who thinks that we should abolish all police departments in America, I don’t agree.”
In fact, the Minneapolis city council is not eliminating their police force either, despite the headlines. The Star-Tribune reports that there are so far few specifics on what the council has in mind other than a ban on chokeholds.
There are other ideas for police reform that might well find broad bipartisan support. Among these are expanded use of body cameras, better training, an end to qualified immunity, and demilitarizing police departments. Police departments should not be used to generate revenue, which breeds mistrust, but should instead focus on their core missions of enforcing laws and protecting the community. Many small infractions could be better handled with civil penalties rather than arrests.
Democratic denials and reinterpretations have not stopped Republicans from pushing forward with the claim that Democrats want to eliminate police departments. Elected officials and pundits alike have attacked the idea of abolishing police, which is not on the table. For example, President Trump accused Joe Biden of being pulled all the way left” and siding with those who “want to close their police departments.”
In an irony that is probably lost on the president, the tweet attacking the “defund police” movement came half an hour after another Trump tweet which attacked “police organizations” for spying on the Trump campaign, a claim so far unsupported by facts.
The movement to “defund police” is a strategic error by the radical Twitter left. The short, undefined phrase requires “interpretation” to understand the official Democratic position. The word “defund” means one thing to the people who shout it and something else to the people who hear it. As such, it’s a lousy political slogan and Republicans are not wrong to take advantage of the mistake.
While Democratic leaders now seem to realize that the Twitter left is not representative of the Democratic base after the party unified around Joe Biden in the primary despite the online popularity of Bernie Sanders, the radicals destroying cities and calling for the abolition of police give Republicans a tool with which to define the opposition. Doing so might be advantageous for Republican campaigns but it will do little to resolve the underlying issues that led to the protests and rioting of the past several weeks.
In the end, Republicans and Democrats might not be so far apart on how to reform police, but the question of defunding police shows that the two parties don’t speak the same language. In this case, that’s the fault of woke demonstrators who failed to realize that “defunding” has a very different meaning outside their faction.