WASHINGTON — With the battle lines beginning to form before next year’s midterm elections, President Joe Biden and Democrats have launched a counteroffensive against Republican attempts to cast all Democrats as embracing calls to "defund the police."
Biden’s message at a town hall forum hosted by CNN on Wednesday: "We need more police officers, not fewer police officers."
The president and White House in recent weeks have stepped up rebuttals of Republican claims that Biden and Democrats wholly endorse the "defund the police" movement supported by the left flank of the party.
"That is not the Democratic Party's position," Biden told reporters on the White House South Lawn Thursday when asked about those within the party who support defunding the police. "I'm the Democratic Party; I am president. So is the speaker of the House [Nancy Pelosi], and so is the majority leader [Chuck Schumer.] We are not defunding the police."
In the past month Biden had laid out his administration’s plan to combat an uptick in violent crimes over the past year, has held a roundtable with local leaders from across the country, including New York City Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams, to discuss crime prevention strategies, and at public events has dispelled the notion that he supports defunding police. Biden said the $1.9 trillion stimulus package backed by the White House and congressional Democrats included $350 billion to aid state and local governments reeling from the pandemic.
"That funding has been used to keep cops on the beat," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki at a June press briefing, after noting that the stimulus package did not garner Republican support.
The "defund the police" movement — which gained prominence last summer after a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis — urges local governments to rethink their policing strategies and redirect some of the money used for policing to initiatives that address the underlying causes of crime, such as mental health or unemployment. Proponents of the plan argue police officers are often sent to respond to incidents that could be best handled by mental health professionals or social workers.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, former President Donald Trump sought to tie Biden to the movement, but Biden repeatedly said he did not support any efforts to cut funding for police departments, and instead called for an increase in federal funding to support local departments. Biden’s 2022 budget request calls for $651 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services program — or COPS — that helps municipalities hire more officers. The request is a $265 million increase from Trump’s budget request for the program.
The issue of policing reform has exposed rifts within the Democratic Party between moderates and the left-of-center progressive wing of the party, which includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx), who have defended the demands of "defund the police" advocates. Given Democrats’ narrow majority in the House and evenly split Senate, Biden has been faced with building consensus among the caucus’ factions.
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said Biden’s tone on policing "represents the mainstream of the Democratic Party and reflects the president’s desire not to have Republicans define Democrats’ position on such an important issue."
Heading into the decisive midterm elections, Republican lawmakers have continued to cast Democrats as widely supportive of the "defund the police" movement, citing cuts in police funding in liberal cities such as Seattle and Minneapolis.
"Violent crime is on the rise across major U.S. cities like New York, where far-left Democrats are undermining and stripping resources from police departments," Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said in a statement. Zeldin, a staunch Trump supporter, is making a New York gubernatorial bid.
Homicides in the United States increased by 25% in 2020 compared with the previous year, according to preliminary data released by the FBI this month. Law enforcement experts widely peg the increase in violent crimes to the pandemic and the economic stresses that came with last year’s shutdowns.
Biden has argued that lawmakers can address both the calls for policing reforms and the calls for increased policing in communities grappling with an increase in crime. The president has urged lawmakers to pass legislation named in Floyd’s honor aimed at combating police misconduct, but has also urged municipalities to use stimulus money to beef up their police ranks.
"What we want to do, is when we know we utilize trusted community members, and encourage more community policing, we can intervene before the violence erupts," Biden said during a July meeting with law enforcement officials and mayors at the White House.
Adams, a former NYPD captain who broke through a crowded Democratic primary field by vowing to fight crime, told reporters after the meeting that Biden is "going to redefine the ecosystem of public safety."
Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district includes parts of northeast Queens and who endorsed Adams during the primary, said Biden's and Adams’ rhetoric represents where the majority of Democrats fall on matters of policing.
"You can be pro-cop, and also be pro-police reform. They're not exclusive of each other," Suozzi said in an interview with Newsday.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D- Garden City) said in a statement that aside from a boost in funding to police, Congress must act on gun control legislation to "meaningfully address a major cause of violent crime — too many guns in our neighborhoods."
On Long Island, both Democratic county executives have said they do not support calls to defund the police.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, in her state of the county address in March, said: "We should never be afraid to talk about ways to improve policing — but there will be no defunding the police in Nassau County."
Nassau has approved a plan that calls for using $62.9 million of the $191 million stimulus funds allocated to the county for economic recovery. Under the plan put forward by Curran, and approved by the county legislature, $14.8 million of that money would be directed toward "programs that address root causes of crime, such as untreated mental health illness, trauma, and substance abuse."
Curran is running for reelection against Republican Bruce Blakeman, who serves on the Hempstead Town Council.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has repeatedly said he does not support calls to defund the police, and questioned the effectiveness of the "defund the police" slogan, arguing it does not properly convey the calls for reform behind the movement.
"We certainly understand the pain and the anger and frustration people are expressing and the work that needs to be done, but this notion of defunding the police and what it implies, that somehow we don't need the police, doesn't make sense," Bellone said in a June 2020 interview with Fox News. "It may make for a catchy slogan at a protest, but as a matter of public policy, it just doesn't work."
Bellone’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Biden’s latest push to use stimulus money for crime fighting, but he has previously said that Suffolk’s $286 million in stimulus funding would help avert layoffs and budget cuts that would have resulted in the cancellation of new police recruitment.