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How Democrats went from defund to refund the police

As crime rates rise ahead of the midterms, Black mayors of the nation's largest cities are leading the call to crack down on lawlessness.
A police officer in Harlem
Police officers lock down the scene after two New York police officers were shot in Harlem on Jan. 21, 2022. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)Alexi J. Rosenfeld / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — A young Democratic member of Congress declared the "defund the police" movement “dead" on Thursday, and Black Democratic mayors from San Francisco to New York, Chicago to Washington, D.C., are moving to increase police budgets and end “the reign of criminals."

As violent crime surges ahead of the November midterms, President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party are toughening their talk on crime, and refunding the police only two years after some progressive activists took up the call to defund them.

“People are still against crime and people want to be safe,” said former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in an interview. “You’re seeing in communities all across the country that when folks actually came to grips with the conflict of rising crime rates and an effort to quote unquote take away from policing, the public, being way ahead of the politicians as usual, figured out ‘no no no, that’s not a good idea, we want to be safe.’”

Biden traveled to New York City Thursday to meet with the city's recently elected Democratic mayor, Eric Adams, a former police officer who has vowed to clean up the streets. Adams' victory in the crowded Democratic primary last year was seen by many in the party as a sign that voters were done with anti-police rhetoric.

Two years after Democratic officials across the country aligned themselves with protesters demanding the police be reined in and progressives backed the elections of reformist prosecutors, the mayors of many of the nation's largest cities are now reversing course and leading calls for a tougher stance on crime.

Nutter, who is Black, has been on something of a crusade against Philadelphia’s reformist district attorney, Larry Krassner, who is white, after the top prosecutor said at a December news conference that “We don’t have a crisis of lawlessness, we don’t have a crisis of crime, we don’t have a crisis of violence.”

In a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, Nutter wrote that “it takes a certain audacity of ignorance and white privilege to say that right now,” noting that people of color living in struggling parts of the city were often the ones most victimized by crime.

“We have to disabuse people of this flawed premise that Black and brown people are against the police. Black and brown people are against police abuse,” Nutter said. “As Democrats we have to do two complicated things at the same time. We have to ensure public safety and reform the abuses of the criminal justice system.”

Conservatives have for decades exploited fears — often racialized — of crime for political benefit.

Only 46 percent of Americans approved of Biden’s handling of crime in December, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll, while 56 percent of voters in a January Fox News survey said Republicans would do a better job on the issue.

Democrats acknowledge their answers on crime — stopping the flow of illegal guns, addressing poverty, reimagining law enforcement, treating addiction  — are more difficult to convey in a campaign.

But James Carville, the veteran Democratic strategist who in the 1990s helped Bill Clinton overcome concerns that Democrats were “soft on crime,” said the party would be wise to follow the lead of its Black mayors who are responding to their constituents’ concerns.

“If you cede something that your voters in particular encounter every day, then you’ve given up,” he said. “You’ve got to own this or this is going to own you.”

Carville said a “fringe” element in the party had cowed the rest into a fear of talking about crime, but that its influence had waned. He said Democrats had a good case to make by arguing Republicans were the party of cop-beating Jan. 6 insurrectionists and former President Donald Trump’s lawlessness.

“The spike we had in crime took place in the fourth year of a Republican presidency, not a Democratic one,” he said, referring to the Trump era. 

Data show violent crime did indeed rise during the pandemic, though the causes are disputed.

And the ubiquity of Internet-connected cameras has allowed images of carjackings and homicides and even brazen train heists to enter the political bloodstream — just as video of police brutality did for the racial justice movement two years ago.

Still, national crime rates are nowhere near what they were in the 1990s. And crime ranks low on the list of priorities for most voters.

But the public’s confidence in police has recovered from the low it hit after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police officers in 2020, and a growing share of Americans want to increase spending on law enforcement. A December CNN poll found 76 percent of Americans said the federal government was not doing enough to address violent crime.

Republicans are looking to once again run law-and-order campaigns and crime has already appeared in GOP TV ads in such key contests as Wisconsin’s Senate race.

“Democrats’ soft-on-crime policies have emboldened criminals in Democrat-run cities,” said Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel.

The playing field has become so tilted toward conservatives on the issue that Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, has had some success trying to outflank his Democratic opponent on who supports the police most — even though his opponent, Rep. Val Demings, is herself a former police chief.

Democrats, led by Biden, have begun focusing more on reining in crime in a progressive way.

“Voters want illegal guns off the streets and strong, commonsense gun safety laws proven to save lives. That’s policy that will save lives and win elections,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun safety group.

Rep. Tom Suozzi, a centrist Democrat, sees an opening in New York's crowded gubernatorial primary for a candidate focused on crime and is running a TV ad criticizing the incumbent Democratic governor and Manhattan’s progressive district attorney for being too soft on the issue.

“Fear of rising crime is a real life issue and Democrats need to focus on real life issues,” said Suozzi.

Some Democrats privately acknowledge that law-and-order messaging still feels unnatural to some in the party, whose views and temperaments are more aligned with activists than officers.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has accused several Republican candidates of choosing "lawlessness over law and order” by tying them to the Jan. 6 insurrection. But a senior adviser to the group made headlines in conservative media for tweeting that “police ... are coordinating with journalists to falsely manufacture ‘crime waves'" and push "copaganda."

Gun laws have little hope of passing in Congress, of course. But Carville noted there’s always something Biden could dust off — the controversial 1994 crime bill he disowned as a "mistake" two years ago during the Democratic presidential primary.

“You can say whatever you want about the crime bill, but from the time the crime bill was passed until 2019, there was a significant drop in crime,” Carville said. “Now, you can argue causation, but you can’t argue correlation.”