Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.
American politics has been shaped by a minor handful of major events in recent years. Few predicted the transformative effect Donald Trump could have on the Republican Party, which now sits almost entirely in the palm of his hand.
No one could have knowingly predicted the outbreak of an obscure virus in Wuhan province that would lead to over five million deaths worldwide, leaving economies ravaged in its wake. But just like death and taxes are life’s two great known outcomes, crime remains a constant political problem that won’t go away. Is Joe Biden losing his grip on such a fundamental issue?
Keeping the nation safe is the first function of government. Fail on crime, fail to get re-elected. On that basis, public attitudes to crime in the United States are alarming. Consider the numbers revealed in the polling undertaken by Morning Consult in July of this year:
- A staggering 78 per cent of voters said they believe violent crime is a “major problem” in the US;
- 73 per cent said crime is increasing;
- 52 per cent identified “too many guns on our streets” as a “major reason” that violent crime is increasing in the US; and
- 49 per cent blamed police defunding for the crime surge.
Logic dictates that tackling and reducing crime should be a political priority from the White House to Congress, all the way down to state legislatures and town councils. The president is understandably spinning infinite plans – Covid, climate change, managing his own party to name three of the most time-consuming – and few could blame him for struggling to find time to fight crime. At the local level, that excuse does not wash. With such a stark backdrop, how can it be that Democrats still flirt with the idea of taking money away from police departments?
Is “defund the police” a vote winner or loser?
Progressive Democrats have for years been leading campaigns to “defund the police” in towns and cities across the US. This is not informed by any clear partisan divide over attitudes to crime. Republican voters (79 per cent) and Democrats (68 per cent) both overwhelmingly agree that crime is increasing.
“Defund the police” became turbocharged by the “Black Lives Matter” movement that followed the murder of George Floyd by an on-duty police officer. Since then, it has become an integral part of the American political vocabulary. Before that, it was largely the preserve of small, devoutly Democratic local jurisdictions overwhelmingly stacked with progressives in positions of power.
The left of the Democratic Party has been working hard to turn a slogan into meaningful policy. In the pursuit of defunding the police, more than 20 cities have reduced their police budgets in some form, diverting cash to fund the ‘solution’ and not the ‘problem’. Local government in Austin, Texas, passed a major cut to the city’s law enforcement budget and is now reallocating that funding to housing programmes. The city used to spend 40 per cent of its $1.1 billion general fund on law enforcement, whereas that figure is now just 26 per cent.
Calls to defund the police present two major headaches for any incumbent Democratic president.
First, it creates a fight with the unions that no Democrat wants to have. Not least Biden, a self-described “union guy”. Protecting their members jobs and to a greater extent their own existence, police unions have consistently opposed any reforms that might reduce the number of officers keeping the peace.
Some have pursued a middle ground in which they recognise the need for reform, but instead pursue more police with new training programmes and standards for community engagement – especially in the communities of colour which have historically so often felt the brunt of police misconduct in the US. Whether reform is a pill that police departments are willing to slow, even if it helps stave off huge reductions in their budgets and number, the very debate around defunding the police is reported as a major hammer blow to morale in the communities in which their existence is under threat.
Second, on the campaign trail it becomes manner from heaven for Republicans in any district or state that is anything but deep blue. Police reform is a worthy political priority in cities and states the length and breadth of the US where raging homicide statistics sadly speak for themselves. But for communities less affected and perhaps with a more traditional view of policing – visible, firm, respected – the “defund” campaign sounds like the beginning of the end for law enforcement. It gifts Republican strategists and candidates the chance to warn of police abolitionists and link surging concerns about crime, identified above, with a Democratic Party intent on making crime easier.
Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, lurching the Minnesotan city to the epicentre of the “defund” movement. Seventeen months later, in November of this year, voters resoundingly rejected a proposal to remove the Minneapolis Police Department from the city charter and replaced it with a “public-health oriented” Department of Public Safety. Even some cities that successfully defunded their police departments have begun to distance themselves from the slogan.
Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in Oakland, San Francisco, where city council members once supportive of aggressive reform have shifted to terms like “reimagining” and “reinvesting” when speaking of their approach to policing and public safety. “Defund” has turned off voters that were tempted by police reform but turned off by the prospect of chaos in un-patrolled streets.
President Biden is experienced enough to know a political problem speeding towards him. As the national murder rates rises, just over one in three Americans (36 per cent) approve of his handling of crime, down from 43 per cent in an ABC News/Ipsos poll in late October. His approval ratings on crime are tumbling just at the time when Americans are growing ever more concerned about it.