‘Defund the Police’ Is Dead. Now What?

Some said it was dumb.

Some thought it was politically disastrous.

Some thought it was being unfairly demonized and mischaracterized.

But whatever the case, Defund the Police, both the slogan and the substance of the issue, appears to be dead. Its opponents beat it to death, not that it was ever wildly popular.

A poll published by the Pew Research Center in October found that support for reducing spending on the police had fallen significantly, from 25 percent in 2020 to just 15 percent in 2021. The numbers have always been low.

That poll also found a racial differential, but no race with a majority in support: 23 percent of Black people supported decreasing police funding, while only 13 percent of white people and 16 percent of Hispanics did.

According to a Pew analysis published this week, there was surprise uniformity among Black Democrats and Black Republicans.

According to Pew:

When Democrats underperformed in 2020, party leaders placed part of the blame on the movement to defund the police. The Democratic strategist James Carville called Defund the Police “the three worst words ever in the English language, maybe.” Representative Jim Clyburn blamed some Democratic losses directly on the Defund the Police movement and suggested that the slogan actually hurt the Black Lives Matter movement, saying: “It had the possibilities of doing to the Black Lives Matter movement and current movements across the country what ‘burn, baby, burn’ did to us” in the 1960s.

Activists have pushed back on whether the defund slogan harmed Democrats or to what degree, but it is clear that Republicans believe it harms Democrats and that Democrats are running scared from the slogan.

As some categories of violent crime began to rise, there was less public appetite for doing anything that might reduce a community’s police presence.

Fast forward to this week and the speech President Biden gave in Pennsylvania touting his “Safer America Plan.” It was the capstone in the crusade against the defund movement, and possibly the gravestone of the movement itself.

In it, Biden said of his plan: “It’s based on a simple notion: When it comes to public safety in this nation, the answer is not ‘defund the police,’ it’s ‘fund the police.’ ”

This echoes what Biden said during his State of the Union address, in which he also said, “We should all agree that the answer is not to defund the police, it’s to fund the police.”

I believe that redirecting some of the money police departments receive toward other services is a good idea. I believe that continuing to pour money into a system that is on many levels broken is a bad idea.

But I am also enough of a realist to understand when my position is not one that caught on broadly enough. I register the fact that the movement to defund the police hit a wall.

But I have another question, particularly for liberals who rail against the movement: If not redistributing funding, then what?

The issue that launched the push to defund the police — police shootings — has not changed. According to The Washington Post, about 1,000 people have been shot and killed by the police every year since 2015, when the paper started tracking the data. Last year set a record with around 1,054 killings, and 2022 is on pace to be in that range.

Furthermore, according to The Post:

“Although half of the people shot and killed by police are white, Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate. They account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans. Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate.”

What do we do about this? Have we simply become inured to these horrific numbers? Do these lives no longer matter?

I am genuinely, intensely interested in the answer to those questions. I suspected that the summer of protest was fueled in part by cabin fever with Covid lockdowns. I wanted so badly to be wrong about that. But the further we get from those protests the more reversals of passions and policies I see.

Do police killings only upset us when there are fewer killings by civilians?

I fear that the signal we are sending to all the people who truly believed that there would finally be real change in policing and the possibility of more equity in our criminal justice system is that racial equity is a tertiary issue, that it is lower than people want to admit on the social hierarchy of policy priorities. We will regret that.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and Instagram.

Back to top button