Do election failures mark the end for 'defund the police'?

·Senior Editor
·5 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

After George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, the city became the epicenter of a nationwide movement pushing for police reform and racial justice. Within two weeks, the Minneapolis City Council vowed to disband its police department and become the first major city to “defund the police.” But, when given the chance to take a major step toward that goal on Tuesday, Minneapolis voters chose to maintain the status quo.

A ballot measure that would have moved law enforcement duties under a new Department of Safety was rejected by 56 percent of voters in the city. Three council members who supported the resolution were ousted by challengers who opposed it. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey — who supports police reform but is against dismantling the department — comfortably won his bid for reelection.

In races across the country on Tuesday, voters showed they’re skeptical of some of the more aggressive plans to reduce the role of police, even in some of America’s bluest cities. High-profile mayoral races in New York City, Seattle and Buffalo, N.Y., were all won by candidates who have rejected cutting police budgets.

Reform efforts did have some incremental successes, however. Voters in Austin, Texas, overwhelmingly opposed a measure that would have increased the size of the city’s police force. Cleveland and Albany, N.Y., both voted to increase independent police oversight. Boston’s mayor-elect, Michelle Wu, is a staunch reform advocate, though her plans stop short of defunding the police.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of many political analysts, Tuesday’s results were a clear sign that voters have no appetite for radical plans to transform policing in the U.S. They argue that if defunding the police can’t even gain traction in Minneapolis, a city that’s become synonymous with the movement since Floyd’s murder, the idea is all but doomed in the rest of the country. Support for police reform surged during the protests last summer, but has steadily waned amid fierce Republican opposition, inaction in Congress, pushback from moderate Democrats and — perhaps most significantly — a spike in violent crime over the past year.

Advocates, on the other hand, see the votes as a sign that the country is gradually moving in the direction of fundamentally reimagining the role of police. Some argue that, despite the measure’s failure in Minneapolis, the idea that nearly 44 percent of voters in a major city would back a proposal to dismantle the police department would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Others point out that many of the races that have been painted as a rejection of the defund movement were won by candidates who supported reforms that once would have been considered radical in a previous era.

What’s next

Debates about police reform are certain to remain part of the political conversation over the next year. Reform advocates say they will continue to push for change at local and federal levels. Meanwhile, candidates from both parties have identified public safety as one of the pivotal issues for next year’s midterm elections.

Perspectives

If defunding can’t happen in Minneapolis, it won’t happen anywhere

“If residents of the heavily Democratic city where George Floyd was murdered by former police officer Derek Chauvin won't back a radical reimagination of law enforcement, who will? Almost nobody.” — Joel Mathis, The Week

The movement to fix policing is still moving forward

“No one … should take the rejection of the amendment as a vote for the status quo. There is hunger for real change that will finally rid the Police Department of the toxic culture that was on full display with the murder of George Floyd.” — Editorial, Star Tribune

Minneapolis showed how much the desire for radical change has grown in a short time

“[44] percent of Minneapolis voters wanted the measure to pass. This was not a resounding defeat for an idea that would have been politically inconceivable two years ago.” — Molly Osberg, New Republic

Voters want to fix policing, not eliminate it

“The overall message voters sent on Tuesday night was that when it comes to policing, voters prefer mending it to ending it. While most people support reforms, they do not support large cuts to police budgets or staffing.” — Zaid Jilani, Daily Beast

The defund movement has created space for less drastic reforms to pass

“You need to reckon with the fact that the protests that gave rise to the slogan have brought the most significant police reforms in … probably ever. Maybe the practical effect of ‘defund’ was that it was a radical opening bid that made other reforms possible.” — Washington Post columnist Radley Balko

Unless real reforms are enacted, cities will start to defund the police

“If Minneapolis does not make fast and far-reaching changes to its police force, this kind of ballot will pass in the future.” — Larry Jacobs, University of Minnesota political scientist, to Associated Press

Support for aggressive reforms, both politically and in the public, has dwindled

“Talk of curbing police departments by cutting or limiting their resources has run into a countervailing wall of concern over public safety and waning support from early allies — including leading Democrats who largely view ‘defund the police’ messaging as political poison.” — Peter Nickeas and Omar Jimenez, CNN

Backlash to ‘defund the police’ makes more sensible reforms harder

“While most Democratic candidates stopped using the toxic phrase, they didn’t have to — the Republicans used it for them. … The lesson here? Drop ‘defund the police.’” — Elaine Kamarck, Brookings

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

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