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'Defund the police' is dead

·2 min read
A protestor.
A protestor. Illustrated | iStock

"Defund the police" is dead in the Democratic Party, at least for now. The party isn't going to let itself get beat on the crime issue.

That much should be clear from events in recent days. President Biden on Wednesday announced that state and local governments will be allowed to use their billions of dollars in COVID relief money to bolster their police departments — hiring new officers, paying for overtime, and buying gunshot detection systems to quickly detect and respond to acts of violence — part of a broader effort to address a rising wave of violent crime in the nation's big cities.

"We're taking on the bad actors doing bad and dangerous things to our communities and to our country," Biden told reporters.

Crime is a local issue, and it is affecting party politics at the local level, too. Eric Adams, a former police captain who has told New Yorkers that "the prerequisite for prosperity is public safety," appears to be leading in that city's Democratic primary election. The voters, it appears, are speaking out in favor of their own safety.

"Defund the police" is — at best — a confusing, complicated label for a diverse set of ideas: Some advocates truly do want to radically pare back police departments, while others simply want to reshape and reimagine policing so that armed agents of the state aren't required to handle situations better left to, say, mental health professionals. As a slogan, though, "defund" is easily demagogued, particularly when violence legitimately is a growing concern.

But Democrats don't seem in a rush to revert to the habits that produced the now-controversial 1994 crime bill and its resulting wave of mass incarceration. While announcing police funding on Wednesday, Biden also said COVID relief funds can be used to pay for substance abuse and mental health services, as well as summer jobs programs, in a bid to "resolve issues before they escalate into crimes."

And funding police doesn't necessarily mean relaxing efforts to reform police departments. Public safety and accountability shouldn't be at odds with each other. The key, as Jonathan Chait points out today in New York magazine, is "to change the conversation from the quantity of policing to the quality." The police aren't going anywhere. Instead, Democrats will be challenged to make them better.

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