Liberals tone down calls to 'defund police' amid GOP attacks

Progressives are toning it down on police reform as a growing stack of evidence suggests it is hurting the party with voters.

While a number of liberal Democrats remain opposed to virtually any expansion in law enforcement funding, gone are the days when progressive lawmakers were calling openly for “defunding the police” — a message that Republicans used to devastating effect in clobbering House Democrats at the polls in 2020. 

“Everybody knows it's a bad idea,” said one moderate Democratic lawmaker who’s noticed the softer tone this year. “People like having police keeping them safe. And I think we had to do a better job of demanding reform, but supporting the police. And we only sang one song" in 2020.

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The rhetorical shift reflects not only the lessons learned after those election results came in, but also the drastic change in the political landscape over the past year. 

Last summer, the country was roiled by the televised murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, sparking widespread protests over racial bias in law enforcement and prompting a number of prominent liberals to urge cuts in police funding. 

This summer, the national spotlight has moved away from Floyd’s death and toward the spike in violent crime that’s struck cities across the country, from New York and Baltimore to Los Angeles and Seattle. The tragic trend has sparked plenty of attacks from Republicans, who are blaming liberal, “pro-crime” policies for the deadly uptick, while leading Democratic leaders to urge a lighter touch when it comes to police reform advocacy. 

It’s a message that seems to be sinking in. 

“The spike that we're seeing now is more related to trauma involving COVID and the loss of jobs and everything that people are going through in their communities, more so than: we don't have enough police,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D), a liberal New York first-term lawmaker who’s endorsing a long-term strategy of greater investment in community programs that can prevent crime before it happens.

Still, Bowman, who had endorsed cuts in police funding during his primary contest last year, did not repeat that prescription this week. 

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“We have the police in place to respond to the violent crime,” he said. “And we would like them to do so.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezMcCarthy on Dems' spending bill: 'The amount of money we spent to win World War II' On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Photos of the Week: Renewable energy, gymnast testimonies and a Met Gala dress MORE (D-N.Y.), another “defund” proponent, is also sounding more diplomatic in her strategy for curbing violence. 

“We know what to invest in to reduce incidents of violence,” she said. “And the key [question] is: are we allowing ourselves to just make our decisions be reactionary and not based on evidence? Or are we going to invest in the things that we know reduces incidents of crime?”

Concerns about the nation’s rising crime rates reached all the way to the White House, where President BidenJoe BidenCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes MORE on Wednesday huddled with local law enforcement officials and unveiled his administration’s strategy to tackle the spike in homicides and other violence. Biden’s plan includes cracking down on illegal gun sales and allowing local governments to use billions in pandemic relief money to hire more officers and fund other police programs.

The plan won praise from liberals, who were encouraged that it didn’t throw money at a police expansion. 

“We want to be smarter with our policing, not exactly do more policing,” Bowman said. 

The political landscape in Bowman’s New York highlights the shift on police reform, even in liberal enclaves.

A year ago, Bowman won his primary contest on a platform that included defunding the police. This week, the leader in the mayoral vote so far is Eric Adams, a former police captain who blasted calls to direct funds away from police.

“I am the face of the new Democratic Party,” Adams said Thursday, taking a victory lap. 

The message from another Black New York Democrat, Rep. Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksMeeks on being mistaken for a staffer: 'Glad I still blend in with the cool kids' Blinken grilled in first hearing since Afghanistan withdrawal Defense & National Security: The post-airlift evacuation struggle MORE, the Queens Democratic party boss, is that Democrats are for funding the police. 

“The fact of the matter is we pushed hard to get a new police precinct in our district,” said Meeks, who just attended the funeral of a 10-year-old shooting victim in his district. “We want safety. We want accountability from the police. We want better communications from police. We want transparency from the police. But we don't want to defund the police.”

“Clearly, we're not about defunding the police. … We've got to make sure that our messaging is clear that we're not about defunding the police.”

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Republicans gained seats in last year’s midterms, a fact that set off debates over whether the GOP was helped by the Democratic calls to defund the police. The House GOP campaign arm has pounced on the spike in violent crime, blasting emails blaming the increase on vulnerable Democrats.

“Elected House Democrats spent the last year passing pro-crime policies and slandering police as instruments of white supremacy,” Mike Berg, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said this week. “Democrats are kidding themselves if they think voters will believe they now support law enforcement.” 

Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — A warning shot on Biden's .5T plan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden continues to grapple with Afghanistan chaos Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (D-Ill.) knows firsthand how effective the GOP’s defund-the-police attacks were on Democrats last cycle. The centrist lawmaker from the Quad Cities region led the House Democrats’ campaign arm in the 2020 cycle and was a prime target of those attacks, even though her husband and many of her friends are longtime cops. 

Bustos survived her reelection — beating her GOP challenger by roughly 4 points in a district that favored Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE over Joe Biden — but Democrats’ disastrous showing last fall nudged her out of the top campaign post and she’s opted to retire in 2022. Now, she’s sounding the alarm about GOP attacks painting Democrats as weak on policing and crime. 

“My husband's a sheriff of Rockland County, Illinois, so I do not believe in defunding police. I believe in adequately funding police, and making sure that you know we get this right. … Defund the police was not the right message,” Bustos told The Hill. 

“When I've been married to a guy for 35 years, who's been in law enforcement for 38 years, and I get accused when I'm running for reelection of wanting to defund police? That's a problem,” Bustos continued. “And when I realized that there were people who actually believed that to my amazement, because I never had uttered those words in my life, nor do I believe it, but … you get tied in with people in your party who actually are saying those words, I just I think that we've got to get this right. It's a very important issue.”

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Democrats are heeding Bustos’s warning. 

Rep. Madeleine DeanMadeleine DeanLiberals tone down calls to 'defund police' amid GOP attacks The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters Democrats weigh next steps on Jan. 6 probe MORE (D-Pa.), who represents the Philadelphia suburbs, said she’s armed with a comeback if the GOP attacks her on the police issue: The leader of the Republican party, Trump, incited the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that led to 140 police officers injured and three dead, she said. And nearly two dozen House Republicans did not back a measure to honor the heroic police officers who battled the rioters for hours and protected the lives of lawmakers certifying Biden’s election victory.     

“It's stunning to me that 21 Republicans voted no to offer gold medals to the Capitol Police, who literally saved our lives, and they're the same folks that bark about Democrats wanting to defund the police,” Dean, who was stranded in the House chamber on Jan. 6, told The Hill. 

“They can't even defend the police; they can't even honor what they did to save lives. So they need to stop the nonsense of defund the police.”