When crime numbers are up, it’s always a hot button political issue. It tends not to matter much why, or what the right solutions might be. Donald Trump, in 2016, tried to make “rising crime” an issue, when crime was not rising. That is not why he won. He rode a populist fervor opposed to immigration and free trade. But the fact that crime becomes a major factor in elections when crime rises is indisputable. Republicans are working hard to paint Democrats as “defunders” of the police, a term that is wildly unpopular outside of some activist quarters. Many Democrats, for their part, fighting to retain control of the House and also the Senate, are fighting to push back on the portrayal as “defunders.” Democrats have a perception problem. But do they have a policy problem?
Two bills are moving through the House to fund hiring and retention of police without any accountability measures to ensure fairer and safer policing. The House had passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act last year only to see it die in the Senate. This year, funding police comes with no committee process or protections. The reason? Vulnerable Democrats.
Democrats have reason for concern about their prospects in November. Between gerrymandering and President Biden’s low approval ratings, the House is predicted to swing Republican, while the Senate remains too close to call (although the Kansas referendum results give some reason for hope). Republicans have spent decades painting Democrats as “soft on crime,” and it has stuck. Republicans are perceived by most voters of both parties as more effective crime-fighters.
It is with this backdrop that Biden announced a set of initiatives, as part of his fiscal year 2023 budget proposal, that he believes will increase public safety. He proposes funding local police departments to hire 100,000 new police officers over five years to the tune of $13 billion. Importantly, the proposal would also funnel significantly more money into criminal justice reform strategies. His proposals for criminal justice reform are meaningful and significant. His plans for policing are, in some important ways, at odds with his reform agenda, and he has not publicly justified the number of new hires. We do not need 100,000 new police officers.
That is not helpful for Democrats who can, and should, be focused on exciting and engaging the base of their vote: people of color, young and women voters of all races. His proposal muddles the message that would galvanize younger voters and, with no real accountability, lead to a replication of abused Black and brown communities. Millennials are a diverse group and want a very different vision of public safety that focuses on prevention and fairness. Democrats need these demographics to turn out. Voters of color who are more likely to live in communities with higher homicide rates want sufficient police presence but also want police to treat residents with respect and oppose the lack of accountability.
When I ran for mayor of New York City last year, it was clear that we did not need more police. We had 36,000 uniformed officers. What we didn’t have was significant mental health crisis response, mental health services and social workers in every school, and enough resources for violence interrupters—people who returned to communities from prisons after being part of the problem and who become part of the solution, preventing crime before the police need to be called. We also have a successful experiment that shows, even in one of our most dangerous crime corridors in a low-income Black neighborhood, that asking the police to step back and allow the community violence interrupters to intervene actually produced lower crime rates and higher feelings of safety. The great thing about this model is that it relies on and supports something many Black voters want: better relationships with their police officers.
Biden’s proposal has very important plans to fund more violence interruption, more mental health crisis response, and other important steps to prevent bad things from happening to people or to have the right responders to a problem that may not require the police. Police-community relationships and violence prevention, in my experience, are very important to Black voters, who were also disillusioned with the failure of the Senate to pass police accountability reforms last year. Supporting retention where needed, shared with real accountability for safe, fair policing, seems to be a way to talk about smarter public safety.
The current proposal would fund these new police officers to support “community policing.” That sounds good, but it is undefined. In fact, the grants program that funnels the money, run by the Department of Justice, called the Community Oriented Policing Services program, has not had sufficient oversight or accountability. There are real questions about the effectiveness of the COPS program. Cities with COPS grants have also had serious cases of police misconduct, like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Charleston. The civil rights community has been raising concerns about accountability. The intention is good, but we have to focus on the impact.
The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress have made clear that they are not “defunders” because, as Biden taunts in his announcement about the 100,000 more police, they increased funding for public safety by $10 billion last year as part of the American Rescue Plan. The administration said it was “among the largest single-year commitments of federal resources for state and local law enforcement and public safety on record” and this year pushed states to spend more on law enforcement. There are some localities that appear to be in need of more hiring and more retention strategies for police officers. But Biden’s proposal is not explicitly tailored to the need.
Running well should not include running reactively to the other side’s attacks, but running on real and sound and resonant realities. Everyone should ensure that residents are safe from crime. I know of no disagreement on this point. And safety from violent crime means confronting the reality that there are violent people who commit them. But we don’t address that by arbitrarily throwing money at more policing that we do not need and that is not guaranteed to keep Black and Latino communities safe from police violence. Real solutions are balanced and accountable solutions. We’ve got them. Democrats should be clear about what they have done and challenge right-wing fearmongering with real solutions that keep people safe.