Photo by Jon Tyson / Unsplash

'Defund the police' meets the voters.

On Tuesday, voters got their say.
Isaac Saul Nov 4, 2021

Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're diving into the state of the "defund the police" movement. Plus, a reader question about constitutional amendments.

Photo by Jon Tyson / Unsplash

See you tomorrow?

Tomorrow, we are going to be taking a look at the supply chain chaos that’s rocking the global economy right now. What exactly is going on? And why? How can we fix it? This is one of the most-requested topics I've ever gotten and tomorrow we're going to break it down in layman’s terms. As always, Friday editions are for subscribers only. They typically include reader-requested content, personal essays, deep dives, interviews and original reporting — if you're not yet a member, you can subscribe below!


Diwali.

Today is the first day of Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. For those of you taking part, I hope you have a happy and safe Diwali (and hope it is a lot more festive than last year's!)


Quick hits.

  1. The Biden administration set a January 4 deadline for private employers with over 100 employees to comply with its Covid-19 policy that calls for weekly testing or vaccination. (The deadline)
  2. Republicans blocked the Senate from beginning debate on a voting rights bill named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). (The vote)
  3. The Federal Reserve says it will ease its pandemic-era asset purchasing, a widely expected first step in slowing down its stimulus efforts. (The easing)
  4. A recount in Florida's Democratic primary, which resulted in a 31 vote victory for Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick to replace Rep. Alcee Hastings, could begin today. (The count)
  5. The Pentagon issued a report that China is planning to quadruple its nuclear stockpile to at least 1,000 warheads by 2030. China criticized the report. (The report)

Today's topic.

Defunding the police. On Tuesday night, 18 months after the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis voters went to the polls to vote on a ballot amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new public safety organization. The ballot measure was rejected by voters by a 12-point margin. Question 2 asked voters:

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove the Police Department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety that employs a comprehensive public health approach to the delivery of functions by the Department of Public Safety, with those specific functions to be determined by the Mayor and City Council by ordinance; which will not be subject to exclusive mayoral power over its establishment, maintenance, and command; and which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety, with the general nature of the amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot?

While that was happening in Minneapolis, voters in Cleveland cast ballots to approve a civilian commission to oversee the police department. Voters in Austin, Texas, voted to reject a proposal that called for expanding the police force, which would have mandated that there be two officers for every 1,000 residents.

The police-centric ballot initiatives follow a larger trend over the last year and a half of cities considering ways to reform their police departments. It also set off a wave of commentary before Tuesday's elections, and since, about the state of the "defund the police" movement and other progressive pushes to overhaul policing — and what it means that Minneapolis, the city where much of the "defund the police" movement got its initial momentum, failed to pass this amendment.

Below, we'll take a look at some of that commentary from the right and left, then my take.


What the right is saying.

The right was vehemently opposed to Minneapolis overhauling its police department.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said "If you’re a criminal, you’ll love Question 2 on Tuesday’s ballot."

"The ballot measure would eliminate from the city charter all requirements for a chief of police and minimum levels of police funding. A commissioner nominated by the mayor and approved by the City Council would lead the new department," the board wrote. "Criminals won’t be unhappy. Violent crime in the city is up nearly 30% this year compared to the first 10 months of 2019. The city has had 78 homicides this year, compared to 48 in the entirety of 2019.

"The police department has lost about a third of its sworn officers," the board wrote. "It now takes about 15 minutes to respond to a 911 call, and Mr. Arradondo says the department is in triage mode. Question 2 would make it even harder to recruit new officers. We’ll see on Tuesday whether the city’s voters are ready to play criminal roulette."

In the St. Cloud Times, Dan Johnson said "we need more police, and lots of them."

“We have lost our minds," Johnson wrote. "Last Friday night, six carjackings happened in one evening in Minneapolis. Overall, per Minnpost, carjackings are up 38% in the city in 2021. Additionally, last weekend on Sunday Minneapolis recorded its 79th homicide. The murder puts the city within striking distance of last year’s 84 total homicides. In the past, such a spike in violent crime would result in a bipartisan call for more policing. But this year is not like most years.

“Instead, Minneapolis is voting on a measure to effectively abolish its police department," Johnson said. "The fact such a ridiculous idea is getting serious enough attention that it even became a ballot question is a sign of how outrageous some of the left’s demands have become. They argue we should abolish the police, yet also implement more strict measures of gun control. Exactly how do they intend we protect our families if we will have no law enforcement to call for help or gun to protect us?... If someone is trying to break into my house during the night, should I call a social worker to come reason with the mentally disturbed individual? Will social workers get lights and sirens on their cars to get to my house quickly?”

The National Review editorial board pointed out that Star Tribune polling "shows that only 14 percent of black voters believe Minneapolis should reduce the size of its police force."

"Seventy-five percent say it should not. Among black voters, the current police chief (who is black and has been in office since 2017, i.e., before, during, and after George Floyd’s murder) is extremely popular — 75 percent favorable, 9 percent unfavorable. White voters’ approval is much lower, at 56-23. On the ballot measure, black support trails white support by nine percentage points — 51 percent of whites want the new Department of Public Safety, but only 42 percent of blacks do," the board wrote. "Those numbers indicate that this vote could be very close. It shouldn’t be... By rejecting City Question 2, Minneapolis voters have a chance to send a message to the country. Anti-police progressives are on the defensive. Much of the Democratic Party in Minnesota wants nothing to do with this ballot measure. Most black voters, whom the progressives claim to want to help, overwhelmingly reject many of their views."


What the left is saying.

The left has been supportive of police reform, but has mixed feelings about the Minneapolis ballot measure and "defunding the police" more generally.

In USA Today, Maurice Mitchell said that win or lose, activists are making ground.

"When grassroots organizers were in the streets protesting, skeptics dared them to come up with a policy solution," Mitchell wrote. "When organizers called for a reallocation of funding from police into community services, skeptics said that position wasn’t popular. When Minneapolis organizers collected more than 20,000 signatures to get Question 2 on the ballot, the fear mongering about getting rid of police officers began.

"The Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition – the group that organized this ballot initiative and which I have publicly supported – is pushing an investment in non police responses to emergencies," Mitchell wrote. "The proposal means creating a department where trained professionals in mental health services, homeless outreach, social work and other community services offer wide-ranging solutions to harms. And yes, wide-ranging solutions will also include the presence of a trained police officer. We’ve seen what can happen when communities come together to look for alternatives to policing to solve safety issues. Violence interruption programs, in which unarmed members of the community mediate conflicts before they turn deadly, have curbed gun violence in Baltimore, Maryland, and Richmond, California."

In his newsletter, Noah Smith wrote that "defund the police is dead."

"A new Pew survey shows that support for defunding the police is falling rapidly, and that support for increasing police funding has risen," he wrote. "Nor is this just a function of Republicans, or White people, or old people getting freaked out by reports of crime on Fox News or Facebook. Among Democrats, Black people, and young people, the balance of opinion has shifted substantially in the direction of more police funding.

"In fact, support for increasing police funding outweighs support for cutting police funding among Black Democrats and Hispanic Democrats even more than among White Democrats — though for all three, 'increase' outweighs 'decrease.' To be blunt, this means that 'Defund the police' is dead. Stick a fork in it," Smith wrote. "Some cities will cut their police budget (especially if their tax revenues are doing really badly due to economic circumstances), but in general the police will not be defunded. This was probably inevitable. The slogan was always one that required a tortuous exegesis to use in public — normal people aghast at the notion of abolishing the police had to be reassured that 'defund' just meant shifting some police functions to unarmed responders, while activists had to be reassured that yes, the ultimate goal really was police abolition."

In The Star Tribune, the editorial board told voters to vote "no" on the ballot measure, but called for widespread police reforms.

"The ballot question that would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety has major failings that make it a dangerous and unacceptable gamble for the city. What Minneapolis wants and needs is actual police reform," the board said. "Minneapolis needs police — good ones. The ones who welcome accountability and transparency. Who want, as much as anyone, to be rid of the rogue cops in their midst, who have the training and ability to curb the current surge of violent crime.

"Changing a toxic culture is hard work that requires patience and persistence," the board said. "Similar reforms have benefited St. Paul, where, as described in an editorial last week, officers for the last five years have been trained to work in teams instead of performing 'lone takedowns,' to de-escalate, and to rely less on 'pain compliance.' The results are compelling: a 37% reduction in use of force; an 86% drop in officers striking suspects. These are the kind of changes that make for better, more humane policing that makes the entire community safer."


My take.

It's unsurprising to me that the ballot measure failed — and even less surprising that defunding the police more broadly is losing popularity.

I've written a lot about police reform, abolishing the police, and the "defund the police" movement. From the beginning, I've said that "defund the police" was a bad slogan — something akin to "build the wall" except for a policy that had much less public support. A rise in violent crime has only exacerbated the shortcomings of the activists’ language, and if progressives in Minneapolis can't pass this ballot measure you can guarantee it's not going to happen in any other major U.S. city anytime soon.

One rule in politics that some very smart pollsters have pointed out is that you typically need at least 60% support for a piece of legislation or a ballot measure in order to expect to win a vote on it (or win the public's support when it becomes law). Legislation is not the same as a political candidacy. People say they want something until that thing is written down on paper, gets put through the ringer of criticism and left-right polarization, and gets spit out in campaign ads and mailers. By the time the 60% supportive segment goes to vote, it's often possible that support has dwindled to below 50%.

In this case, there is a clear divide between progressive activists and the communities they claim to be speaking for — whether it's communities of color or low-income, working communities. Polling seems to indicate that if you were to pick any random upper-middle class white progressive on Twitter, they are more likely to call for defunding the police than any random urbanite living on subsistence wages. That's because the people experiencing crime in their neighborhoods aren't fans of seeing police disappear; what they seem to want is better trained police who won’t treat every poor person, person of color or homeless person as if they're a criminal by default. They want good, accountable cops — not no cops at all.

In the long term, I like to imagine a world where we don't have armed officers of the state patrolling the streets and acting with near-impunity. I'm probably as far "left" or “Libertarian” on this issue as any other, and witnessing how policing works in cities like New York has only made those feelings stronger. There is plenty to love about the “abolish the police” movement if you focus hard on imagining a future of peaceful resolutions and violent criminals getting help rather than 20-year sentences that harden them further in prison. But that societal shift is not something that can be turned on or off like a switch.

Better ideas on public safety abound. To address the fact that a huge chunk of 911 calls involve someone who is homeless or having a mental health crisis, we should spend larger portions of police budgets on re-training social workers and other mental health experts to respond to those calls. Many cities are already seeing marked success with plans like that. Requiring longer training, or simply requiring police to have a college degree, is another proven way to reduce police violence. I've advocated forcefully for abolishing qualified immunity and banning no-knock warrants and chokeholds as well.

Much as we need to change how we view politicians, we also need to rethink how we view police. They work for us. They are civil servants, our tax dollars pay their salaries, and the laws of our country are supposed to regulate their actions and behavior. National databases to track police misconduct, more transparency in local police jurisdictions, and civilian boards to ensure police aren't left to self regulate are all strong steps we can take, too.

I don't blame activists for pursuing a police-free future or taking a swing at tearing the whole thing down in Minneapolis. But if you're going to come forward with a radical plan like that, the bare minimum you need is a fleshed out plan to show voters how you're going to map the policing strategy going forward. They didn't have that. They weren't even close. Which is why they couldn't even get all those friendly to the idea on board. It's an opportunity missed, but only if that lesson isn't learned.



Your questions, answered.

Q: Will the US ever amend the US constitution again? It seems unlikely that we will ever see the Senate or House have enough agreement to reach the 2/3 threshold.

— Max, Boston, Massachusetts

Tangle: It seems very unlikely to me, too. The last amendment to the Constitution was the 27th amendment, which prohibited any law that would increase or decrease the salary of members of Congress from taking effect until after the next election of the House of Representatives occurred. The amendment was designed to discourage members of Congress from constantly giving themselves pay raises — it passed in 1992 and has largely done its job.

What's fascinating about the 27th amendment is that it was basically a one-man crusade, and the guy who practically willed it into existence had no official political power to speak of. Which, I think, is a good reminder of how unpredictable something like this can be.

There are two ways I see another amendment ever happening: One, Republicans absolutely crush Democrats over the next 10 years and retake more than 60% of the House and Senate, which puts them right at the edge of the 66% needed to pass an amendment with a party line vote, plus a few Democrats.

Two, something very politically dangerous to vote against is brought up as an amendment. The most obvious one there is The Equal Rights Amendment, which would explicitly grant women equality under the law, and has already passed with two-thirds of the House and Senate in 1972. Once an amendment passes the House and Senate, though, it needs to also be ratified by 38 states — the Equal Rights Amendment only got 35 (for all sorts of quirky reasons and the way amendments expire, this would likely have to be brought up for a vote all over again with new language).

Republicans have proposed amendments like bans on flag burning or mandating a balanced budget, but they don't have nearly enough support. One other potentially viable option is some kind of reform of campaign financing, but it's hard to imagine a majority of politicians supporting that, even if the public was overwhelmingly behind it. While 12,000 amendments have been proposed, just 27 have been adopted in our nation's history, and I've got a bad feeling the 27th is probably the last one we'll see for a long time.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

On Tuesday, voters in Maine approved an amendment to the state constitution that enshrines their "right to food" — becoming the first state in the U.S. to approve such a measure. The amendment declares all people have a “natural, inherent and unalienable right” to grow, raise, produce and consume food of their own choosing. It may sound silly — do we really not have that right? — but advocates for the bill say it is a major step toward producers re-taking control from corporations in the food supply. Opponents of the bill said it was too vaguely worded and could have unintended consequences, like small and mid-size farms skirting government food safety regulations and the weakening of animal cruelty protections. The Washington Post has a fascinating story about the amendment.


Numbers.

  • 47%. The percentage of all adults who said net funding on police in their area should be increased, according to a September 2021 Pew poll.
  • 15%. The percentage of all adults who said net funding on police in their area should be decreased, according to a September 2021 Pew poll.
  • 37%. The percentage of all adults who said net funding on police in their area should stay the same, according to a September 2021 Pew poll.
  • 38%. The percentage of Black adults who said net funding on police in their area should be increased, according to a September 2021 Pew poll.
  • 23%. The percentage of Black adults who said net funding on police in their area should be decreased, according to a September 2021 Pew poll.
  • 38%. The percentage of Black adults who said net funding on police in their area should stay the same, according to a September 2021 Pew poll.

Have a nice day.

A new study conducted by Cancer Research UK says the first real-world data on the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine shows a reduction in cases of cervical cancer of nearly 90%. Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by viruses, and researchers hope vaccination can practically eliminate the disease. More than 100 countries have already started using the vaccine, and this study followed what happened in England after the vaccine was introduced to adolescent girls in 2008. The study showed a reduction in both pre-cancerous growths and an 87% reduction in cervical cancer. Overall, the study estimated the HPV program has prevented about 450 cancers and 17,200 pre-cancers, according to BBC News.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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