Opinion | Criminal Justice

The evolution of 'defund the police'

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"Defund the Police" is not what you think.

In the wake of George Floyd's death in police custody, captured for all the world to see on nine-and-a-half minutes of excruciating video, violent protests in big cities across the nation transformed the phrase "Defund the Police" from a Black Lives Matter mantra into a policy reality. In Minneapolis, where rioters destroyed the Third Precinct station house from which Derek Chauvin and three other former cops were fatefully dispatched to deal with a citizen complaint about Floyd, the city council vowed to dismantle the city's police department.

Dismantle, as in disappear. That is what the hard left initially meant by "defund the police." It remains the goal to which progressive activists aspire. But there is the little matter of getting from here to there.

Minneapolis couldn't do it because, outside radical cauldrons, the police are popular. This is political reality, and it led to political embarrassment once we learned that some progressive pols demanding that the taxpayers' police be disbanded were quietly spending taxpayer dollars on private security for themselves.

Nearly a year later, Minneapolis still has its police department. This dismays the woke left, though it is a boon for the Biden Justice Department. Just a day after Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd, Attorney General Merrick Garland, making like his Obama administration predecessors, announced that the Minneapolis Police Department is now the target of a federal "pattern or practice" investigation. There is a lesson in that - and note that the community organizers also known as the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Civil Rights Division quickly added to their hit list the police department in Louisville, Ky., site of last year's racially charged shooting death of Breonna Taylor.

To listen to Republicans scoff at the "Defund the Police" enterprise is to realize that, as is too often the case, they are a lap behind the policy machinations.

Yes, at first, "defund the police" denoted what "defund" usually means in budget-speak: the zeroing out of public money. The point was to eliminate police departments. But that is no longer what it means to most progressives, at least publicly and in the present tense. To miss this is to miss how policing is being denuded, to the growing detriment of American security and prosperity.

The left convinced itself long ago that policing could be dispensed with in favor of addressing the "root causes" of crime. They envisioned a "public safety system": Cops supplanted by social workers, anti-poverty measures, substance-abuse counseling, and community activism, all underwritten by public funds. This is not a new goal; it was the progressive vision in the 1970s, too. But because we are even more race-obsessed today than we were a half-century ago, the narrative now dismisses policing as indelibly tainted by a racist past - the notion that because early police departments in the South enforced racist Jim Crow laws, all modern policing traces back to antebellum slave patrols. (As my National Review colleague Dan McLaughlin explains, this is bad history.)

Much of the public, however, sees cops as vital and not racist. In this, Americans exhibit common sense. Despite the gaslighting media coverage and Democratic Party rhetoric, it remains a fact that police are not hunting down African American men, or anyone else for that matter. Indeed, the total number of fatal shootings by police in the U.S. is small - about 1,000 annually, in a country of 330 million people, and in which, as the Wall Street Journal's Holman Jenkins recently noted (based on Justice Department stats) there are 60 million yearly interactions between police and civilians, 10 million arrests, 2 million incidents of the use or threatened use of force. Modern police departments, moreover, are more representative of the racial and ethnic composition of their communities than at any time in history. 

At well over 7,000, the number of Black homicide victims per year is very high compared to other demographic groups (the FBI says African Americans accounted for about 56 percent of total U.S. homicides in 2019), but only about 0.2 percent are unarmed victims of police shooting, whereas 80 to 90 percent of Black homicide victims are killed by Black assailants.

The public perceives that some of the prevailing narratives about crime and policing are bogus. Consequently, smarter progressives know that, practically speaking, "Defund the Police" is a non-starter that damages them politically.

They have thus revised the concept of "Defund the Police" to mean deep cuts in police budgets, but not the dismantling of police departments. This is already happening in numerous cities across the country. The budget-slashing cuts policing both immediately and gradually. With a sudden, dramatic reduction of resources, departments must shift police from special units and detective work to patrol duty. They must reduce the number of calls to which they can respond. They must cancel cadet classes. Cops who are in a position to retire, do so - as they are doing in staggering numbers. The slots are not filled, trimming departments by attrition as well as budgetary pressure. Meantime, the funds cut from policing are reprogrammed to other progressive priorities, which are portrayed as alternative forms of public safety.

This is what happens in cities dominated by progressive Democrats. Meanwhile, the Justice Department uses its authority to commence "pattern or practice" investigations into allegedly unconstitutional and discriminatory policing, using disparate impact theory to locate "evidence" of systemic racism. Municipalities do not have the resources to compete with DOJ's $30 billion budget. Thus they are pressured into signing consent decrees in which they agree to federal monitoring and the adoption of Democrat-approved policing methods. That is, the "broken windows" enforcement and data-driven policing (deploying police based on intelligence about offense conduct) - the approach that led to historic reductions in crime and to urban prosperity for a generation beginning in the mid-1990s - give way to such progressive preferences as non-enforcement of petty crimes (expansively defined), and "restorative justice" programs, where criminals and their victims, equally regarded as wronged by our wayward society, meet to talk it out and explore alternatives to prosecution.

If you were under the misimpression that "Defund the Police" was a fringe idea that thankfully has been abandoned, you're behind the curve. "Defund the Police" has evolved into a sophisticated program in which law enforcement agencies are simultaneously downsized, placed on a path to disappearance by attrition, and in the interim remade into the social-justice hubs by which the left envisions ultimately replacing them.

Former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at National Review Institute, a contributing editor at National Review, and a Fox News contributor. His latest book is "Ball of Collusion." Follow him on Twitter @AndrewCMcCarthy.

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