James Oliphant and Nathan Layne, Reuters, August 17, 2021
Last summer, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser played a high-profile role in the protests sweeping America over police killings of Black suspects. She renamed a street Black Lives Matter Plaza and joined thousands of demonstrators there, many shouting what had become the movement’s slogan: “Defund the police!”
Earlier this year, the mayor, a Democrat, proposed cutting the police budget and redirecting money to social services.
Now, however, Bowser and many other Democratic city leaders are scrambling to boost police budgets and hire more officers amid the deadliest crime wave in two decades. Local and national Democrats are distancing themselves from “defund” politics and policies, a reflection of how deeply unpopular the concept has become among most voters – and how effective a weapon it can be for Republican candidates.
The crime wave has laid bare tensions between progressive Democrats, who still aim to overhaul U.S. policing, and mainstream Democrats now pushing traditional enforcement to combat crime.
The division has chilled efforts to reshape police departments and hold officers more accountable for excessive force. In New York, Atlanta and Seattle, Democratic city politicians have abandoned or scaled back police budget-cutting efforts and other proposals they touted amid the uproar over the 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis. In Congress, a policing bill named after Floyd – sponsored by Vice President Kamala Harris when she was still a senator – remains stalled more than a year later.
New York pivoted from slashing almost $1 billion in police funds last year to adding $200 million this year. Oakland, California, boosted its police budget in June by $38 million after last year setting a goal to cut it by $150 million. Austin, a liberal bastion in conservative Texas, this year passed its largest-ever police budget under pressure from state Republicans over rising crime. Last year, Austin had diverted $150 million in police funds to other priorities.
In Washington, Bowser asked the city council last month for $11 million to hire 170 new police officers after a series of shootings. The council agreed to fund 40 officers.
Violence nationally has upended the dynamics in key mayoral races. Centrist Democrats campaigning on their support for police have won or emerged as favorites in party primary elections. In New York, former police officer Eric Adams captured the Democratic nomination for mayor in June, defeating more progressive candidates by vowing to hire more officers and support aggressive tactics.
Voters reject cutting police budgets by large margins, polls show. A USA Today/Ipsos survey last month found that about two-thirds of respondents believe crime is worsening and that 7 in 10 support bigger police budgets. Only 22% said they support defunding police.
Atlanta was among many cities that last summer saw massive protests demanding racial justice and police accountability. Its city council was poised last year to slash $73 million in police funds. The measure failed by one vote, in favor of a proposal of giving the mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms – who opposed cutting police budgets – time to develop a new policing model.
Atlanta has since become one of America’s deadliest cities. Murders are up 58% so far this year, compared to the same period in 2019. Talk of reinventing the police department has quieted, and the council added 7%, or about $15 million, to this year’s police budget. Last month, Bottoms said she wanted to hire 250 more officers.
Republicans labeled most Democrats as police-defunders in the 2020 Congressional elections. It worked, according to voter interviews and polling data reviewed by Democratic political groups.
Democrats are looking to limit the damage. In July, President Joe Biden invited Bowser, New York’s Adams and other urban leaders to the White House for a summit on gun violence, urging cities to use federal stimulus money to hire new officers.
In the nation’s capital, homicides rose 20% in 2020 to a 16-year-high and remain on that pace this year. The rising violence followed the city council’s decision last year to cut police funding by 5%, or $15 million.