The Democrat’s Dilemma – Law and Order…or Disorder

There is no magic wand when it comes to dealing with the criminal element among us. Most hold it to be true that a crime is a crime is a crime. Others believe some crimes aren’t really crimes. Innocent until proven guilty, but “no milk and cookies in the meantime”, as one sheriff put it. The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police Officer has become the catalyst for a movement that on the one hand is being labelled ‘modern day policing’ and on the other hand labelled as a ‘recipe for disaster’.

The battle cry of “Defund Police” is a political activist’s dream chant. “Defang Police” may be its ultimate objective, but to what end? There’s a growing group of dissenters who believe Americans can survive without law enforcement as we know it, and that the solution to police brutality and racial inequalities in policing is simple, supporters say: Just defund police.

Is it as straightforward as it sounds? Instead of funding a police department, a sizable chunk of a city’s budget is invested in communities, especially marginalized ones where much of the policing of crime occurs. The concept’s been around for years, particularly following the protests against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, though it seemed improbable back in 2014. But it’s becoming a cause. With the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police and nationwide protests demanding reform, Minneapolis officials announced their intent to defund and disband the city’s police force altogether, thus ending what some believe is “the culture of punishment” in the criminal justice system.

Most of those advocating for the ‘defunding’ or ‘divestment’ are Democrats and it is fast becoming a litmus test for those seeking election. President Trump has rejected the idea and arguably has the political advantage as he is considered the candidate of law and order. He can rally law enforcement around his message while at the same time characterize the Democrats as the radical leftists who “want to defund the police”.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign put out a statement that Biden also opposes calls to defund police, stating that he “doesn’t believe that police should be defunded” and that “he supports the urgent need for reform by directing funds to public schools, summer programs, and mental health and substance abuse  treatment separate from funding for policing so that officers can focus on the job of policing”.

In their recent debate, US Senator Ed Markey and US Representative Joe Kennedy both supported defunding police. While, neither of them support eliminating the police, their proposals are far left of many national Democrats. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced a legislative package that would limit the sale of military weapons to police, ban the use of chokeholds and establish a national database to track police misconduct.

The political dilemma for the Democrats is in the messaging. Trump sticks to a law and order theme. Biden layers his message with multiple themes. For, Biden, the need to modify his message dilutes his opposition to defunding and leaves him open to criticism from his progressive voters. Legislative leaders are all over the anti-police spectrum.

Locally, District Attorney Rachael Rollins is locked in policy and political battles with the Boston and County police departments with her characterizations of the tactics of police as well as her prioritizing of criminal offenses for prosecution.  Mayor Martin Walsh said recently on WCVB’s “On the Record” that he wants to have “real, serious conversations about some of the reforms that took place” when he became mayor and said there’s an opportunity to move money in the police budget toward “training, or into community involvement. We are going to look at the police budget, certainly, and reallocate some of it,” Walsh said.

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, has said that the defunding the police means reallocating those funds to support people and services in marginalized communities. Defunding law enforcement “means that we are reducing the ability for law enforcement to have resources that harm our communities,” Cullors said in an interview with WBUR. “It’s about reinvesting those dollars into black communities, communities that have been deeply divested from.”

Disbanding police altogether falls on the more radical end of the anti-police spectrum, but it’s gaining traction. MPD150, a community advocacy organization in Minneapolis, focuses on abolishing local police. Its work has been spotlighted since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police custody. It argues that law and order isn’t abetted by law enforcement, but through education, jobs and mental health services that low-income communities are often denied. MPD150 and other police abolition organizations want wider access to all three.

Defunding is simpler than disbanding, though, and at least one mayor has already taken that step. After Californians decried a proposal to increase the Los Angeles Police Department budget to $1.86 billion, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti agreed to slash between $100 million to $150 million from the proposed funding.

All over the country people are calling for police reform, and Somerville is no different. The petition called on the Mayor and City Council to fund public services before police. By the next morning, the petition had over 1,000 signatures. The Petition reads – “Like so many cities, Somerville’s failings include reliance on lethally armed police to solve community problems and funding our police force at the expense of programs that strengthen our community and reduce crime. To fix these failings, we must disarm the police and shrink the $17,000,000 Police Department budget. Our needs must be addressed by the provision of care, and not the threat of violence. We must invest in public services that build towards ‘a free and fair society’ rather than an armed force that endangers us.” As a result,  Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone is pledging to establish independent, civilian-led oversight of the city’s police department.

The momentum is building and there is no end in sight of the protest movement. A long , hot summer is ahead and a changing political landscape id sure to follow.