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From defund to refund: Why Democrats are shifting their tone on policing two years after George Floyd’s murder

From municipal government to the statewide midterm elections, an increasing number of Democrats are backing proposals to provide more resources to police.

Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker, 9th District, talks about her Philadelphia Neighborhood Safety and Community Policing Plan in March. Today, more Democrats are embracing plans that provide more resources to police amid a rise in gun violence.
Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker, 9th District, talks about her Philadelphia Neighborhood Safety and Community Policing Plan in March. Today, more Democrats are embracing plans that provide more resources to police amid a rise in gun violence.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia is poised to approve a $24 million budget increase to its Police Department, and its legislative leadership has backed a plan to add hundreds more officers to the force.

The Democratic nominee for governor, who is currently the state’s chief law enforcement officer, wants to give “hero pay” bonuses to cops.

And the Democrat seeking to unseat an incumbent Republican in a critical suburban swing district flew Apache helicopters in the Army and is positioning herself as the pro-law enforcement choice.

From municipal government to the statewide midterm elections, an increasing number of Democrats are backing proposals to provide more resources to police and are racing to prove to constituents that it is responsive to historic rates of community gun violence.

Two years after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police set off a nationwide racial justice movement that changed the politics of criminal justice in America, the party that aligned with the progressive activists who cried out to “defund the police” is now trying to fend off attacks that they’re anti-law enforcement.

A handful of high-profile Democrats are employing a newly tough-on-crime posture. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams — a former police captain — has likened himself to a “general” and staked his success as mayor on fighting crime. San Francisco Mayor London Breed is touting a crackdown on drug-related crime and promised to be “more aggressive with law enforcement.”

The tone shift has some liberal activists worried that significant criminal justice reforms — many of which were implemented before Floyd’s death — could unravel.

Evolving public opinion

Most Democrats still support police accountability measures, and public polling shows overwhelming support for policies that address racial profiling in policing. Just this week, President Joe Biden signed an executive order establishing a national database of police misconduct, and in Philadelphia, a new police oversight board with subpoena power is activating.

Now, some Democrats are simultaneously embracing accountability for police alongside a message of more: more training, more funding, more boots on the ground.

“When I talk to people in my district, they are taking me to task,” said Philadelphia City Councilmember Cherelle Parker, who has proposed a public safety plan that includes adding 300 officers to the force. “They say: ‘Where are the beat officers and the bike patrol? They’re gone, and what are you doing to make sure they’re back?’”

Her plan came alongside Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget proposal, which includes a spending hike that would mainly pay for contractually obligated raises for officers. It would be the city’s first notable new investment in policing since 2020, when a majority of Council rejected a proposed increase to the police budget and the department was flat-funded.

Parker, the Council majority leader seen as likely to run for mayor next year, said she’s trying to balance safety with justice and is “not going to allow anyone to put me in a box, and Philadelphians should not either.”

Attorney General Josh Shapiro is taking a similar tack as he runs for governor. He’s touting reforms he advocated for, including a statewide database of police officer disciplinary records and updates to his office’s use-of-force policy and training. But he’s also advocating for hiring 2,000 more cops statewide and has proposed signing and retention bonuses for police amid a shortage of recruits.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia lifts residency requirement for police and correctional officers amid staffing shortages

Much of the shift is in messaging. Few elected Democrats are still using the post-Floyd rallying cry “defund the police,” even if they still support versions of what it aims to do: divert funding away from policing and invest it in safety initiatives outside traditional law enforcement, or rethink who responds to 911 calls for people in crisis.

Many in the party think GOP attacks branding them as antipolice in 2020 led to losses in dozens of congressional and state legislative races.

In an interview, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter called “defund the police” the “worst message ever,” saying most people want to end brutality, but not have fewer police.

“Philly and a whole bunch of other cities, they are reinvesting in public safety,” he said. “Because the public is not trying to live by slogans. They’re trying to live.”

Attitudes about police funding have shifted significantly since 2020, according to Pew, which last fall reported that national polling showed a higher share of Americans compared with 2020 said they want to see more police spending in their area.

An overwhelming majority of Philadelphians see public safety as the biggest issue facing the city, according to a separate Pew Charitable Trusts survey conducted in January. More than 60% of respondents said the city needs more police, a spike from 45% in August 2020. Just 8% said the size of the police force should be reduced.

Philadelphia last year saw a historic level of gun violence, with 562 people killed, the vast majority with guns. In recent years, thousands more have survived gunshot injuries and live with the physical and emotional scars.

‘Fund the police’ or a ‘failed strategy’?

Some progressives caution against responding with a heavy-handed approach and say the policy reforms of the last decade should not be abandoned amid a spike in gun violence.

District Attorney Larry Krasner — a criminal justice reformer who says he’s no fan of the “defund the police” slogan — said in an interview that Democrats tying progressive prosecutors to gun violence and moving toward a tough-on-crime message are employing a “failed strategy.” He says constituents want more investments in violence prevention, period, including in community-based organizations outside law enforcement.

“Centrist Democrats have a long and sad history of trying to win by being Republican light,” he said. “This is Richard Nixon’s solution: Drown police forces in money in a way that is not strategic or careful. They need to start listening to people and not pundits.”

Last year, Krasner was portrayed as soft on crime in the Democratic primary and faced an opponent who was backed by the police union. But Krasner won decisively — generally performing well in neighborhoods that experienced the highest levels of gun violence — and cruised to reelection.

Today, he argues his brand of progressivism is how the Democratic Party should reach new voters, who tend to be younger and more diverse, pointing to a trio of incumbent Democrats who this year faced more moderate challengers backed by the party’s establishment.

Each of the state House members were targeted with mailers that had their picture alongside an image of someone aiming a handgun. The ads read “gun violence is tearing our city apart” and connected the candidates to the “defund” movement — even though state lawmakers don’t control most local police funding.

All three won.

“I really try to focus on supporting young people, [and] those mailers tried to paint me as not tackling gun violence because of my desire to focus on a different angle of the approach,” said State Rep. Rick Krajewski of West Philadelphia, one of the incumbents. “Yes, I have also called for police accountability and transparency, but I don’t think that has to be at the expense of reimagining how we think about addressing this crisis.”

The politics are even more complicated outside the city.

Antonetta Stancu knows well. She ran last year for Bucks County district attorney against a Republican incumbent who was her former boss, and she and the Democrat running for sheriff anticipated that they’d be described as hostile to police. So they appeared in a television ad saying: “We know to fight crime we must fund the police.”

Both lost to Republicans. Stancu, now a criminal defense attorney at Schatz & Stancu, said that in the minds of voters, she was lumped in with Democrats she didn’t agree with.

“My election was very much about how you identify. Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” she said. “They didn’t want to hear anything further than that.”

Today’s Democratic candidates trying to appeal to the center are portraying themselves as not only against “defund,” but as for “refund.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick won a third term in 2020 after his Democratic challenger — as much as she tried to distance herself from “defund the police” — was relentlessly connected to the mantra in ads.

Today, Ashley Ehasz, the Army veteran running this year in a bid to flip the seat, is firmly staking her position.

“Something I make clear up front is I do not support defunding of the police,” she said in an interview. “I instead advocate for greater funding for local enforcement to put better trained officers on the street.”