The Morning Jolt

Law & the Courts

The Failure of ‘Defund the Police’

Security forces stand guard during a protest in Minneapolis, Minn., May 30, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

On the menu today: The arguments in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who put his knee on the neck and back of George Floyd, are complete, and jury deliberations begin Monday. With Minneapolis — and the rest of the country — holding its breath in tense anticipation of a verdict, it seems like a good time to take a deep dive into the angry national debate about policing — and why the blame game doesn’t follow the simple partisan lines some would prefer.

The Failure of ‘Defund the Police’ and Trying to Enforce Laws in the Biden Era

The issue of policing in America shouldn’t be such an angry and contentious one. In theory, no one wants to see 13-year-olds shot and killed by police. Yes, citizens should obey a police order to stop. But no citizen deserves to die over it, and certainly no one who is just starting out in life — especially not one who is obeying a police order when he’s shot and killed.

No one wants to see a police officer mix up her firearm and her Taser and accidentally use lethal force when she intended to use electricity. There is a jaw-dropping assertion in a piece from Jack Dunphy, the pen name of a 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department:

I am aware of 16 prior shootings in the United States over the last 20 years in which a police officer intended to use a Taser but instead fired a pistol and injured someone. (There may have been other incidents in which no one was injured, but I have no data on such cases.) Three of these shootings resulted in deaths, and in two of those cases the officers were charged, convicted, and imprisoned.

Perhaps, when Donald Trump was president, Democrats saw value in positioning themselves as being on the side of the political aisle that stood with young African-American men against the police — harkening back to the 1960s and placing Baby Boomer and subsequent Boomer-influenced Democrats in their familiar anti-establishment, anti-authority role. In a battle between Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley and the anti-war protesters outside the 1968 Democratic Convention, Democrats knew which side they saw as morally right and vindicated.

But as many of us have pointed out in the past few years, America’s major cities, particularly the ones that have tense relationships between black communities and heavily white police forces, are almost entirely Democratic run. Their city councils are Democratic. Their mayors are Democratic. In many cases, the governors of the states are Democratic. In the majority of these circumstances, there are no Republicans to blame. And for a little while, some non-conservative media institutions started asking the uncomfortable question of why Democrats, who insisted they always opposed racism, ran cities where African Americans perceived the police forces as irredeemably racist. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells put it in The New Yorker, “A whole generation of Democratic mayors have seen their reputations defined by their inability to manage the aftermath of police killings: Rawlings-Blake in Baltimore, Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, Bill de Blasio in New York, Pete Buttigieg in South Bend.”

(Running a city well is hard, and I think some of the media-celebrated cases of urban renewal over the past few decades have put too much emphasis on big, glamorous downtown projects and not enough emphasis on the basics of governance and quality of life — good schools, reasonable cost of living, and safe streets.)

Sometimes, this desire by Democratic officials to distance themselves from the police forces they oversee reaches absurd heights. Back in June, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy violated his own executive order banning gathering in large groups by walking an anti-police-brutality march in Hillside. Who does he think the New Jersey State Police answer to? Why is he marching like an outsider when he’s the ultimate insider, in a position of authority over the police forces being protested?

Perhaps in the Trump years, Democrats saw some sort of political strategy in demonizing police, or certainly appearing much more critical of police departments than in the past. Joe Biden didn’t embrace “defund the police,” and tried to walk a tightrope, offering the most anodyne and bland assessment: “Most cops are good, but the fact is, the bad ones need to be identified and prosecuted.” But you didn’t have to look too hard to find progressive Democrats who disagreed strongly with the assertion that most cops were good.

A few cities tried to go ahead with “abolish the police” or “defund the police” proposals, and to the surprise of no one with any functioning neurons, quickly realized they were utterly unworkable. After an initial announcement that generated headlines across the country, Minneapolis quietly dropped the idea. Oakland restored police funding that had been initially cut and police positions that had been eliminated. The mayor of Philadelphia “proposed funneling additional money for police-related reforms and programs through the Managing Director’s Office. And it set aside funding for expected raises as a result of upcoming contract negotiations with municipal unions, including the police.”

When push came to shove, city officials were willing to shift some money around here and there, but few made significant changes to the overall funding for police forces. Bloomberg noticed that, “Even as the 50 largest U.S. cities reduced their 2021 police budgets by 5.2 percent in aggregate — often as part of broader pandemic cost-cutting initiatives — law enforcement spending as a share of general expenditures rose slightly to 13.7 percent from 13.6 percent.”

Rising crime rates are one good reason for the lack of follow-through on abolishing the police, or even making significant reductions in police budgets. The Capitol Hill riot, and the sight of what happens when police can’t control a situation, was another vivid reminder of the necessity of law enforcement.

But we shouldn’t dismiss that after Election Day, when expected Democratic gains didn’t appear, more than a few members of the party concluded they had blown a golden opportunity by embracing a nutty idea: “Many lawmakers, including the influential Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), have argued that the movement hurt Democratic congressional candidates.”

And there’s no getting around the fact that “defunding the police” is deeply unpopular. A USA Today survey in early March found that “only 18% of respondents supported the movement known as ‘defund the police,’ and 58% said they opposed it.” Most supporters of abolishing or defunding the police walk around utterly deluded about public opinion, convinced that their ideas are much more popular and mainstream than they actually are.

(In related news, on Tuesday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called America’s justice system “an indefensible system that grants impunity for state violence, rewards it w/ endlessly growing budgets at the cost of community investment, & targets those who question that order.”)

On August 26, I wrote, “I suspect that quite a few Democrats believe — or want to believe — that once Biden is in office, racial tensions will just naturally calm down, various police reform initiatives will go into effect, and American cities will stop being tinderboxes of rage.” It’s still early, but that scenario is not looking so likely. Brooklyn Center, Minn., has seen three nights of rioting, dozens arrested, and the now-familiar images of smashed shop windows. And lots of cities have good reason to be nervous, depending upon the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial.

Our Andy McCarthy — former assistant U.S. attorney, the guy who put the Blind Sheik behind bars — is watching the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who put his knee on the neck and back of George Floyd. Chauvin faces charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.

Andy’s not in the prediction business, but he sees an initially stumbling defense of Chauvin in that courtroom, but an effort that recovered somewhat after the testimony of forensic pathologist David Fowler:

The jury will have to decide if Floyd’s resistance, and the seemingly remote possibility that he could have come to and assaulted police (while he was handcuffed from behind, unconscious, and pulseless), made the police restraint reasonable. Even if the form of restraint was not as egregious as prosecutors have portrayed it to be, police are still trained to de-escalate force when a subject has stopped resisting, and to roll him into a sideway recovery position to facilitate breathing. Chauvin and the other cops did not do those things.

The jury begins its deliberations Monday. Perhaps they’ll come back with a guilty verdict. If they come back with a not-guilty verdict . . . many people fear and expect that angry protestors will return to the streets and riot.

One last thought: In that Dunphy piece above, he asserts that:

For all the talk of enhanced training and emphasis on de-escalation by the police, it is an inescapable fact that some small number of police encounters with the public will result in a use of force, and some small fraction of those will go very, very wrong. When officers seek to arrest a man who would go to great lengths not to be arrested, there is abundant room for error. But in the current social and political climate, only the police are held accountable for their errors.

True, but police are trained to arrest people; citizens are not trained in being arrested. Arresting a suspect is a huge part of a cop’s job. Being arrested is, hopefully, not a common experience for a citizen, and one that everyone, innocent and guilty, wishes to avoid. I don’t think you can divide the responsibility for the outcome of an arrest evenly between the police officer and the suspect.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday, despite a wave of good news about the COVID-19 pandemic, our leaders appear to have been inoculated against any symptoms of optimism or celebrating any progress.

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