WASHINGTON – As the GOP makes crime an election year issue, moderate Democrats like Rep. Angie Craig, running in tough races, are desperate for the U.S. House to approve legislation that would provide more money for police.
These Democrats, which include Rep. Dean Phillips, D-3rd, are eager for a victory they can tout in weeks leading up to November’s election. Yet Craig, D-2nd, Phillips and fellow Democrats who are pressing for more federal help for local police have been thwarted by members of their own party. The policing legislation was supposed to move in July, coupled with a bill that would ban assault weapons in an effort to broaden Democratic support.
But Democratic leaders had to pull the package from consideration because of objections from the progressive wing of the party and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Progressives, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-5th, have strenuously objected to providing more federal money for police instead of programs aimed at helping the poor. And members of the Congressional Black Caucus refuse to support doling out more cash for policing programs without any kind of new accountability standards.
Negotiations on a compromise continued during Congress’ August break. But it’s not clear any progress has been made.
The policing package includes a bill that would increase funding for the federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant program. Another bill called the Invest to Protect Act, co-sponsored by Craig, would allow more flexible use of this money and establish a new grant program for police forces with fewer than 200 law enforcement officers.
“My many conversations with members of local law enforcement across the Second District have made it clear that our law enforcement agencies are facing unprecedented challenges and obstacles,” Craig said. “Congress needs to step up to meet the urgency of this moment and give law enforcement the resources they need to address these critical challenges. Passing bipartisan, commonsense police bills, like my Invest to Protect Act, offers us an important opportunity to do just that.”
Not all bills in the package would increase federal funding to police. One would provide new funds to hire, employ, train, and dispatch mental health professionals to respond to 911 calls or those to any other emergency hotline prompted by someone in a mental health crisis, instead of dispatching a police officer to that emergency. Another aims to help victims of violent crimes in poor neighborhoods who may be more prone to break the law themselves.
Craig and Phillips have also separately introduced their own bills aimed at shoring up local police departments.
Craig has recently introduced the Protect and Serve Act, which would increase federal penalties for anyone who targets law enforcement officers and purposely harms them and a non-binding resolution that would urge every newly elected member the House to attend at least one ride-along with local police within the first year of taking office.
Meanwhile, Phillips, who also co-sponsored some of the legislation in the policing package, is asking House leaders to include his Pathways to Policing Act in the package.
Phillips’ bill would provide $50 million in Justice Department grants that would help state and local law enforcement agencies recruit new officers through a national marketing campaign modeled after the one the Defense Department uses to recruit soldier, sailors and airmen. It would provide another $50 million to police departments that establish Minnesota-styled “Pathway to Policing” programs that provide financial assistance to potential police recruits and local recruiting efforts.
“I meet with chiefs of police and participate in ride-alongs with rank and file officers from our community regularly, and the number one concern I hear about is their inability to recruit and retain the best and the brightest to protect and serve our communities,” Phillips said.
After years of decline, crime rose during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly violent crime. The trend was seen nationwide as well as in Minnesota, where violent crime rose by 21.6 %in 2021, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Republicans say efforts to “defund” and demoralize the police after the murder of George Floyd two years ago are to blame, as are criminal justice reforms implemented by Democrats in certain cities and states.
And Democrats who want to make clear they are not “soft on crime” are under attack.
For instance, Tyler Kistner, the Republican running against Craig, said his Democratic opponent’s support of the police is “shameless election year pandering.”
Kistner has also slammed Craig’s vote for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a series of reforms that included limits to qualified immunity, which protects police officers from civil lawsuits that could arise from actions in the line of duty.
Opposition from police unions to this part of the George Floyd bill stalled the legislation in the Senate, so the reforms, which would increase accountability for law enforcement misconduct and establish best practices and training requirements, have never become law.
Craig said her thinking about qualified immunity has “evolved,” because she said attacks on law enforcement have hurt recruitment and retention. So she believes qualified immunity must remain in place.
In any case, criminologists, who are struggling to determine why violent crime rates have skyrocketed, say Democratic policies are not likely to blame because the property crime rate and rates of other crimes have dropped – in Minnesota and across the nation.
“It is far too soon to say with certainty why crime rose over the last two years,” said Ames Grawert of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Grawert also noted that violent crime rose by nearly equal rates in urban, suburban and rural areas and said “despite politicized claims that this rise was the result of criminal justice reform in liberal-leaning jurisdictions, murders rose roughly equally in cities run by Republicans and cities run by Democrats.”
Some experts do say falling arrest rates for murder, which may be attributable to understaffed and/or less aggressive police forces, might have emboldened those who are prone to violence.
So, saying the federal government must help local police with lagging recruitment and poor retention rates, House leaders hope an end to the stalemate over the policing bills can occur before Congress’s month-long recess in October.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the package would be considered for a vote “whenever work is completed in readying bills for the floor.”
For Democrats like Craig and Phillips, that could not come too soon.