The Politics of “Defunding the Police”

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Many activists protesting the treatment of Blacks have expressed a policy to “defund the police.” By that statement, some protestors actually mean it. Cut police funding either drastically or all together and send the funds to build up Black and downtrodden communities. Other protestors use the term as a way of saying re-order how public safety funds are used, or as a way to re-imagine policing. 

If this slogan carries prominently through the coming elections, how do voters react to candidates who wholly or tacitly support the catchphrase? 

Much will depend on the constituency of a candidate, but as a major plank in a campaign platform the notion of defunding the police is a wobbly board that could trip up some candidates with voters. 

Former San Francisco Mayor and California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown was blunt in his Sunday San Francisco Chronicle column. “The call to “defund the police” as part of the anti-racism, anti-police-brutality movement is either one of the dumbest ideas of all time or the hands-down winner of the worst slogan ever.” 

Brown went on to write that the concept of defunding police is a “nonstarter.” By using the term, Brown admitted many are saying its time to re-think how we use police. 

But as Claremont McKenna College political science professor John J. Pitney Jr. pointed out, by using the refrain “defunding the police,” what protestors mean by it will be lost because of the slogan itself.  “In politics, it doesn’t matter what you mean to say.  What matters is what people hear.  When activists talk about “defunding the police,” they mean the reallocation of some money from police to social services.  But many people will think that the phrase means “abolish the police.”  Yes, the advocates have a rational explanation, but the old saying holds here: if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” 

If defunding police equates to reduced public safety in the minds of voters who may share sympathy and even empathy with the protestors, the catchphrase will cost candidates who embrace the slogan.

Many elected officials find themselves between a rock and a hard place on the issue of policing. The vocal protestors have made points and got supportive edicts from California’s elected officials, especially the state’s mayors. At the same time, mayors appear to be offering less support for police, which troubles or even angers supporters of police as essential to achieving a safe society. 

If mayors decide to remove money from police departments to dedicate to social services and risk the reduction of public safety, they face a potential backlash from voters. 

A solution promoted by the mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles to cover shifting of police funding while finding new funding for social services is also based on the will of voters, which is clearly uncertain: raising taxes. 

Both San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti have endorsed the property tax increase on commercial property destined for the November ballot. Polls have not been friendly to the idea that taxes be raised during the current economic crisis. 

You get the sense the mayors are walking a tightrope, trying to satisfy protestors while reassuring concerned citizens about changing policing. The idea of managing the tightrope crossing with the ballast provided by new taxes is fraught with its own problems.

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