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We need a better slogan than ‘defund the police’

Ever since the slogan “defund the police” was coined, it has been making the discussion about what to do with the issues of crime and policing less coherent or meaningful, and has made it much easier for those who favor the unsatisfactory status quo.

Demonstrators hold a sign reading "Defund the police" during a protest in Rochester, New York, over the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, after police put a spit hood over his head during an arrest on March 23, 2020.
A protester holding a sign reading "Defund police" during a protest in Rochester, New York, over the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, after police put a spit hood over his head during an arrest on March 23, 2020.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

NBC News was out yesterday with a new poll on the qualities and issue positions that voters say they most want, and don’t want, in candidates for the upcoming election.

By a HUGE margin, the quality/issue position that voters overwhelmingly say they DON’T want is a candidate who favors “defunding the police.” Seventeen percent of those surveyed said they would be more likely to support a candidate who favored “defunding the police.” (73 percent said “less likely” to support a defunding candidate.) That leaves about 10 percent who didn’t answer. I’m with them. If offered a choice of awful answers, don’t pick either.

The crowd of analysts from politics-obsessed website fivethirtyeight.com has a favorite question that goes: “Good use of polling or bad use of polling?”

The poll result above strikes me as a very, very bad use of polling, at least if the goal is to educate the public about police policy issues. It is mostly a follow-on to the minor disaster those who favor reforming the police are suffering by the use of the slogan “defund the police.”

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Slogans can be better or worse. I suppose they are necessary in a short-attention-span society. But for those who want to improve public safety, “defund the police” is a disastrous shorthand for what they favor, as the poll result above illustrates.

Polls likewise can be ridiculously blunt instruments, especially issue polls (as opposed to the horse race polls that ask, if the election were held today, would you vote for Candidate A or Candidate B?). Issue poll questions leave a lot of room for the respondent to fill in blanks from their own imaginations, but the result of the poll, when reported, won’t reflect the filled-in blanks. The case summarized above strikes me as a pretty great example of the problem/difficulty of that aspect of issue polling.

Does “defund the police” mean “do away with the police?” I just looked up an online definition of “defund.” It goes: “prevent from continuing to receive funds.” If you were to literally “defund the police,” you would be doing away with the entire police force except maybe for those independently-wealthy few willing to work for no pay.

Unsurprisingly, given the prior result, the most popular attribute the public favors according to the NBC poll, by a margin of 75 to 11, was: “A candidate who supports funding the police and providing them the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”

Ever since the slogan “defund the police” was coined, it has been making the discussion about what to do with the issues of crime and policing less coherent or meaningful, and has made it much easier for those who favor the unsatisfactory status quo.

If we are to have the collective discussion we need to have about the issue being labeled “defund the police,” we need a better label. Feel free to suggest some.

By the way, the same poll asked whether you would be more or less likely to vote for “a candidate who supports funding the police and providing them the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”

“More likely” won by 75-11. Of course, a lot of blanks about “the resources and training they need” would have to be filled in. But, hey, it’s just a poll.

By the way, the same poll asked whether you would be more or less likely to vote in November for a candidate who says that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Less likely won by 54-20 percent.

The full results of the NBC poll from which both questions were taken is viewable via this link.