Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
the national interest

Defunding the Police Is Dead, But Reform Lives On

How Democrats can fight crime and police abuse at once.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

At a New York City mayoral debate last week, the moderator asked the candidates to name their opponents’ worst idea. Kathryn Garcia, the candidate of bien-pensant, educated, socially liberal Democrats, offered up as her target defunding the police. “These are complicated times, and several of my opponents are using hashtags: #DefundThePolice. I just don’t think that’s the right approach,” she scolded. “You need to sit down and really think through these things.”

Every election has multiple causes, but the New York mayoral primary had one exceptionally clear result: a decisive rout of police defunding as a viable progressive strategy. It was not just that the leading (and likely winning) candidate, Eric Adams, built a base among working-class Black New Yorkers on a relentlessly anti-crime platform. The race demonstrated the unpopularity of the concept among Democrats, roughly 70 percent of whom rejected defunding. By the end, even the most progressive candidates in the field were fleeing the label. “I have never called for defunding the Police Department,” insisted Maya Wiley, who had previously embraced the label.

The fad for defunding the police was driven by a relatively small cadre of left-wing activists who briefly seized the attention of a much broader center-left community in the wake of the racial-justice protests that sprang up after George Floyd’s murder was recorded on video. If New York’s election has shown anything, it is that this slogan and its attendant policy implications are a dead end.

This has unfolded in an atmosphere of conservative glee and panic within the Democratic Party. “Democrats, in private and public, are warning that rising crime — and the old and new progressive calls to defund the police — represent the single biggest threat to their electoral chances in 2022,” Axios notes. On the other end of the party, many activists express fear that “this reaction to the surge in crime is going to end up in mass incarceration, is going to end up in overpolicing in Black communities,” reports Yamiche Alcindor.

It is natural to fear that rising violent crime will have the same effect it did in the 1970s and ’80s, feeding political reaction and draconian criminal-justice policy. But Democrats can learn from the mistakes of both the era of mass incarceration and the defunding fad and produce a better policy response that meets the needs of their constituents.

The era of cell-phone cameras has made abusive policing an issue that not only cannot be denied but is capable of compelling the attention of even right-wing Americans. Even many Republicans realize that simplistic law-and-order sloganeering is an inadequate position and risks leaving their party exposed every time a cop is caught in the act of brutality.

Rather than surrender to the fatalistic assumption that anti-crime politics favors the right, Democrats can create a better kind of criminal-justice politics that acknowledges the terrible cost of crime and the need to rein in the discriminatory and violent excesses of the cops. Adams himself is the perfect embodiment of this duality: His career was launched on the abscess of his experience as a victim of a police beating and driven by his desire to reform and diversify the system from within.

The outlines of that kind of policy response are already evident. Some of the most effective policy response to increased gun crime is natural Democratic Party territory. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a crackdown on the trafficking of illegal firearms. As Biden has noted, the hundreds of billions of dollars in economic relief he signed, and which passed on a party-line basis, includes funds that state and local governments can use to replenish their police forces.

Meanwhile, Congress is working on a bipartisan criminal-justice reform that will presumably curtail some of the cruelest forms of abuse. (Senators have said they expect an agreement soon.) And now that the Justice Department is back in Democratic Party hands, it can resume the federal oversight of abusive or out-of-control local police forces that was bearing fruit under the Obama administration until Donald Trump froze it.

The hardest task will be to crack the power of police unions, the strongest bulwark against police accountability. As long as departments have labor agreements that place onerous burdens on any investigation or discipline of cops who abuse their power, the authoritarian culture of violent policing will remain in place. But there is some hope here, too. The backlash against police unions has gained adherents on the right as well as the left. The movement to curtail cop-union authority may be embryonic, but such movements can grew quickly under the right circumstances — look at how the coalition to loosen urban zoning, which barely existed at all a few years ago, has spread nationally.

The key to a Democratic Party response on crime and policing is to change the conversation from the quantity of policing to the quality. Democrats in New York and elsewhere want to be protected from crime. They also want protection from abusive police. Democrats are steering away from the box canyon of defunding, which pitted their activist base against the vast majority of their own voters. Now, they can take vigorous action and set the debate on completely different terms.

Defunding the Police Is Dead, But Reform Lives On