Top congressional Democrats are steering clear of the growing calls by activists to “defund the police,” saying they sympathize with the intent behind the movement but are concerned that the rhetoric could undercut efforts at the federal level to overhaul policing practices nationwide.
“I think it can be used as a distraction – and that’s my concern,” said Rep. Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and a lead sponsor of the Democrats’ new bill to impose national policing standards. “Because what I said is what I believe is the real intent, which is to address the root causes of crime.”
The sentiment was echoed by top Democrats on Monday after calls to cut funding for local law enforcement picked up steam at protests across the country sparked by the death of George Floyd after a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck.
The city council there announced it would seek to dismantle the police department, though the city’s mayor, Jacob Frey, later said he wouldn’t seek “to abolish the police.”
“Defunding police departments are not the answer,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat of Maryland, told CNN on Monday. “We need police departments; we need to keep peace and order. This effort is about making sure that those who we give the authority to exercise that authority in a way that’s positive and expected by the American people.”
On a private caucus call Monday afternoon, senior House Democrats raised concerns, with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn warning that talk about “defunding the police” could “hijack” efforts on police reform. Other Democrats, including Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline and Bass, also spoke out about the phrase, according to a source on the call.
“There are a lot of slogans out there that aren’t helpful. People can use that if they want to,” Clyburn told CNN earlier in the day. But, he added, “they need to restructure,” referring to police.
After Clyburn warned against it, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has previously spoken out in favor of slashing the NYPD budget, discussed the defunding issue, according to two sources on call.
She urged her colleagues to try to understand the debate and not to mock it, the sources said.
The fear among Democrats is that the phrase “defund the police” may be seen by many as a stark and dangerous proposition, one that would leave communities without law enforcement. While there is a wide spectrum of views about what exactly supporters are seeking through the movement, many proponents describe it something more than just police reforms, but something less than getting rid of police departments altogether.
“That’s not the term I would use,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts told CNN when asked if she’s supportive of the talk to defund the police. “But I think it’s important for all of us to listen to the pain and lived experiences of the people who are protesting, who have created a movement for real change. … We need to put more resources responding to mental health issues and substance abuse. We need to demilitarize our police forces. There are a lot of things we need to do.”
Others were more blunt. “That’s stupid. OK, that’s crazy and anyone that talks about that is nuts,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative West Virginia Democrat.
Supporters of the movement say the effort should include a dramatic shifting of resources and responsibilities away from police to other government entities better suited to address longstanding problems facing communities.
But while Democrats agree with the activists that police tactics must change immediately, they also recognize the rhetoric could make voters uncomfortable in a high-stakes election year. And already President Donald Trump and top Republicans have used the slogan to paint Democrats as embracing reckless actions that could endanger public safety.
“No one is talking about eliminating all police or anything like that; it sounds at first glance like they are,” said House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, who plans to hold a committee vote on his new policing bill as soon as next week. “But you know saying we are going to devote more resources to all kinds of things like mental health and community services and social things and the fact that some of these police budgets are bloated at the local level – those are basically all local decisions – but there’s a lot of validity to it.”
And Democrats in potentially difficult reelection races pushed back on the talk on Monday evening.
“I do not support defunding the police,” said Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat facing voters in the fall. “The police departments are out there protecting citizens, and the overwhelming majority of law enforcement and police are protecting citizens.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Sen. Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat facing a tough road to reelection. “Defunding and disbanding is not something I would ever, ever support.”
The comments come after Democrats offered their sweeping new policing bill on Monday, something that is already backed by more than 200 House and Senate Democrats but has yet to garner a GOP co-sponsor. The bill, the Justice in Policing Act, would ban police use of chokeholds, mandate training on racial bias, make it easier to sue police in civil court, mandate federal law enforcement’s use of body cameras, create a national database tracking the history of police misconduct and limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local police.
Republicans have yet to embrace the bill, but some GOP senators didn’t rule it out of hand. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Monday that “I’m keeping an open mind” on several ideas, including banning choke holds and creating a national registry.
But many Republicans are pushing back hard on the defund-the-police talk – and trying to characterize Democrats as the ones behind that talk.
Asked if she backs the “defund the police” movement, Pelosi said people should “have those debates at the local level.”
“That is a local decision,” she said at a news conference, adding: “That doesn’t say we’re going to pile more money on to further militarize the police.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer didn’t address the matter at a news conference and declined to respond to a question later about it.
But a fellow New York Democrat, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee and is a member of the CBC, stopped short of saying he supports defunding the police.
“The issue as it relates to police funding needs to be evaluated at the state and local level on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Democrats say after the brutal deaths of black Americans at the hands of police they understand the growing anger and fury with police tactics – and empathize with calls to defund the police, even if they have yet to fully embrace the slogan.
“It shows the extreme frustration that our young people have about the current state of policing in America in so far as how it relates to black people in urban areas, and this is their response,” said Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson, a CBC member who sits on House Judiciary. “I certainly am not going to blame them for having that extreme view because things have gotten extreme.”
This story has been updated with further comments from lawmakers.
CNN’s Ted Barrett and Dominic Torres contributed to this report.