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Why national Republicans love talking about ‘defund the police’

As the 2022 midterm elections approach, expect to hear “defund” a lot from Republicans, especially in competitive races.

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

“Defund the police” has been a rallying cry among protest movements for years, but lately voters have been hearing it more and more from a new source: Republicans.

That’s because, as campaigns for the 2022 midterms elections ramp up and as major cities in the U.S. face an increase in violent crime, Republicans are eager to pin “defund the police” on Democrats — whether they actually have come out in support of removing funding for police departments or not.

And that may prove to be good politics for Republicans: A national survey taken in March, by market research firm Ipsos and USA Today, found that only 18 percent of respondents supported “the movement known as ‘defund the police.’” And a recent MinnPost/Change Research poll asking Minnesota voters about whether they support a ballot amendment that would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety, 29 percent of respondents supported the change, but 58 percent were opposed — with 49 percent strongly opposed.

Even though defunding the police isn’t a policy Congress is likely to take up in this session or the next — police budgets are set at the local level — Republicans are already using the issue to hammer Democrats, and forcing those in competitive districts, like Rep. Angie Craig in Minnesota’s Second, to take strong stands against the policy.

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Republicans embrace ‘defund’

An example of just such an attack against Craig came in a March 2021 press release from the National Republican Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of U.S. House Republicans (which is currently chaired by Minnesota Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer). The release is headlined “Angie Craig stands with the Defund the Police movement” and was based on a party line vote (every Democrat voted against it) on an amendment to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that would explicitly condemn “defund the police.” Craig is one of the NRCC’s top priorities to unseat in the 2022 election.

But one doesn’t have to look far to find Republicans eagerly talking about “defund the police.” The Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus of House Republicans, released a video in July featuring a series of comments from progressive House Democrats calling for defunding the police and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Though the video focused on statements from members of the “Squad,” a progressive group of lawmakers including Rep. Ilhan Omar, Republican leaders have latched onto the strategy as a way to oust Democrats from their majority in Congress.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California tweeted in June: “The ‘Defund the Police’ campaign — endorsed by Democrats — has decimated our law enforcement. … When Republicans are in the majority, we will FUND the police.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who with McCarthy’s help ousted Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming as Republican Conference chair, tweeted in June: “Dems’ manta [sic] ‘Defund the Police’ was one of their top policy messaging points in 2020.… GOP has always supported increasing funding for police!”

That rhetoric is not limited to national Republicans, either. “Defund” ended up being a major point of contention at the Minnesota Legislature last summer — even though there were no proposals being considered that would actually remove funding from police departments.

Democrats respond

Lost, perhaps, in all the Republican claims about “defund the police” is that mainstream Democrats have never really embraced defunding police departments. President Joe Biden rejected the idea during his 2020 campaign, even as he supported calls for reforms to address excessive force and racial inequities in policing. After major American cities saw an over 30% increase in homicides in 2020, Biden announced a new anti-crime plan that includes using federal funding to support police officers.

During a marathon amendment process in August, Senate Republicans attempted to embarrass Democrats on the issue. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker sarcastically thanked them for a political “gift.”

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“Finally, once and for all, we can put to bed the scurrilous accusations that somebody in this great esteemed body would want to defund the police,” Booker said.

Craig has also responded to Republican claims that she supports defunding the police. In late August, Craig, whose district covers Eagan and southern St. Paul suburbs in addition to more rural areas like Zumbrota and Plainview — and notably does not include the city of Minneapolis — issued a statement opposing the ballot question in Minneapolis to replace the police department there with a department of public safety.

(It is worth noting that the amendment itself does not remove funding for police officers in Minneapolis, but in creating the new department of public safety and removing certain requirements around police staffing and funding from the city charter, the City Council and mayor would have more flexibility on deciding future funding for police and other public safety measures.)

In the statement, Craig said, “There is much shared consensus around many police reforms across our communities and much work to do before all of our communities feel safe for everyone. However, I am strongly opposed to the Minneapolis Ballot Initiative, which I believe would jeopardize public safety and diminish accountability.

“Given the gravity of this situation and the implications that it could have on our great state and region, I feel a responsibility to speak out against this initiative, which would create confusion and uncertainty around public safety in the largest city in our state – while potentially undermining the safety and security of our communities.”

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Not all Democrats oppose

Complicating matters for moderate Democrats like Craig who would, perhaps, rather not be talking about “defund the police,” is that not all Democrats are opposed to reconsidering police funding. Exactly one week after Craig issued her statement opposing the Minneapolis ballot question, Rep. Ilhan Omar, who represents Minnesota’s Fifth District that includes Minneapolis and is from the city, wrote an op-ed in the Star Tribune supporting the change.

Omar wrote, “[t]he truth is the current system hasn’t been serving our city for a long time.”

“Right now, we expect the MPD to respond to all types of emergencies, from mental health crises, to domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and simple noise complaints and traffic stops,” Omar wrote. “But the department simply is not equipped to deal with all these issues, which can lead to escalating tensions and even violence at the hands of police.”

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison joined Omar in publicly stating his support for the amendment, tweeting, “as a resident of Mpls where George Floyd’s murder sparked a national call for real reform, I will vote Yes for greater public safety & more human rights for all.”