How 'Defund the Police' Killed Police Reform

The collapse of a bipartisan push is a sign of the ever-growing split in the Democratic Party

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April 1, 2021

In a little-remarked vote in early March, House Democrats passed—again—the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, their signature proposal to "reform" policing in the wake of last summer's widespread protests.

Two weeks later, the Movement for Black Lives came out against it. The coalition of more than 150 groups including the Black Lives Matter network blasted the bill, in a letter to congressional leadership, as a recapitulation of "incrementalist reforms." 

This condemnation is a departure from the atmosphere of unity nine months ago, when Republicans and Democrats alike were floating proposals to overhaul policing nationwide. At the time, 95 percent of Americans endorsed the idea of at least minor changes to the criminal justice system, according to a poll conducted by the Associated Press and National Opinion Research Center.

The bills put forward last June offered a similar slate of proposals: mandatory use-of-force reporting, more money for body cameras, a ban on chokeholds—or, in Sen. Tim Scott’s (R., S.C.) bill, a ban on funding police departments that don't ban chokeholds—and a ban on no-knock raids. The two bills differed primarily over changes to the legal doctrine known as "qualified immunity," which protects police officers from prosecution in certain circumstances.

With all of that popular energy, what happened? 

The two sides have blamed each other, and the usual partisan gridlock. But the loss of a major organizing backer suggests another challenge to Democrats' reform agenda: the party’s activist base. This dynamic not only challenges the possibility of effective reform—it could also cost Democrats much-needed voters as, evidence suggests, it already did in the surprisingly tight 2020 presidential race.

While Democratic leaders assiduously avoided growing calls from the party’s left flank to defund the police, activists embraced it. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) backed the push to defund the police department in Minneapolis, where violent crime has since soared, while fellow congressional "democratic socialists" Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.), Cori Bush (D., Mo.), and Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) endorsed the idea on social media.

"We're going to defund the police and refund our social services," Bush, then a candidate for Congress, wrote. "Don’t like this idea? Well, we don’t like dead Black & Brown bodies & broken families at the hands of those sworn to protect us. The police have failed at fixing themselves—so we're going to do it."

It’s from sentiments like these that an alternative to the mainstream Democratic and Republican proposals for police reform emerged: the BREATHE Act, a set of policies endorsed by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) and Pressley. Though not yet formally drafted, the proposed effects of the bill would include abolishing ICE and the DEA, decriminalizing border crossings, ending mandatory minimum and life sentences, and pressuring states to repeal statutes implementing juvenile crimes.

Division over how far to go on criminal justice reform has fueled a broader divide in the Democratic caucus. In a widely leaked caucus call, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D., Va.) blamed the push to defund the police for nearly costing her a hotly contested seat, while top Florida Democrats have said the movement helped hand President Donald Trump the state. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) fired back at Spanberger, suggesting it was a failure of campaigning, not of message, that cost Democrats valuable seats in the House.

The activist push is a response to the belief, common among the most liberal Americans, that police violence is an urgent problem. Polling from the Skeptic Research Center reveals that the further to the left one’s political beliefs, the more one overestimated the number of unarmed black men killed by police. 

Misapprehensions like this help explain the urgency with which many liberals have called for radical change. A collective certainty that the criminal justice system is beyond repair animates a demand to not merely "reform" the system but tear it down altogether.

The party is still debating the impact that anti-police radicalism had on their electoral performance, but the signs are grim. Left-leaning analyst David Shor has found that the biggest predictor of a voter's switch from Hillary Clinton in 2016 to Trump in 2020 is having "conservative views" on crime and public safety—as anti-police radicalism grew, Shor has argued, support for President Joe Biden, particularly among Hispanics, fell. Resurgent crime, political scientist Steven Teles has written, could even endanger Democrats’ ironclad grip on America’s big-city mayoralties, as voters back tough-on-crime GOP alternatives.

Congressional talks over a police reform bill are still ongoing, with no resolution in sight. Last year's pushback against policing, meanwhile, still appears to be driving a spike in homicide that has persisted into early 2021. Top Democratic leaders, including Biden, seem to understand that the "defund the police" movement is electorally poisonous. But its continued presence—among the activist base and among certain hardline elements of the party—will likely continue to weigh down efforts at more staid reform, long after popular enthusiasm has fizzled.