cillizza defund the police
Is 'Defund the Police' a major political mistake for Democrats?
06:42 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

In public comments and in advertising, President Donald Trump and his allies have tried to cast Democratic opponent Joe Biden as an anti-police radical.

They have had a hard time. Biden, a lead author of strict crime legislation when he served as a US senator, has explicitly rejected calls to “defund the police.” He has also proposed an increase in funding for a community policing program to which Trump has previously proposed budget cuts.

The Trump team is now attacking Biden over two comments he made in a video conversation with a progressive activist on Wednesday. In both cases, though, the attacks left out critical context.

In the second case, about Biden’s views on police funding, the attacks were aided by the fact that an edited video of the conversation published by a progressive entity, NowThis News, left out some key words from the former vice president.

The “enemy” comment

Vice President Mike Pence claimed in a tweet on Thursday night that Biden “referred to the police (as) ‘the enemy.’” At a police union rally in Pennsylvania earlier in the day, Pence made a slightly longer accusation: “I heard that, just yesterday, Joe Biden said that well-armed police, in his words, ‘become the enemy.’”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted Thursday, “Joe Biden says police have ‘become the ENEMY.’ How disgusting & sad!” The Trump campaign and Donald Trump Jr. also highlighted the “enemy” quote.

All of these comments omitted critical context.

Facts First: Biden was speaking specifically about residents’ perceptions of police who enter communities in armored military vehicles – saying that this looks like “the military invading” and makes police “become the enemy.”

“Vice President Biden has spoken out for years against providing police with equipment that only belongs in war zones, and was highlighting that doing so has the potential to worsen divides between the public servants who put their lives on the line to keep us all safe and the people they serve,” said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates, adding that Biden’s emphasis on improving these relations is why he has long advocated investment in community policing.

Biden made the comment in a video conversation with Ady Barkan, a prominent progressive activist who has ALS and just endorsed Biden.

An edited version of the conversation, which cut out some of Biden’s comments, was posted by NowThis News. (Mike Casca, spokesman for Barkan’s Be a Hero political action committee, said the edits were done collaboratively between NowThis News and Be a Hero.) The Biden campaign provided CNN with an audio clip that included relevant comments the video did not include.

Biden spoke to Barkan about how to improve policing. He called for a focus on community policing – those comments did not appear in the video – and for federal “pattern or practice” investigations into troubled police departments. He also criticized no-knock warrants for drug cases. And Biden said the federal government should have access to records about officers’ misconduct.

Then he touted the Obama-Biden administration’s efforts to reduce the transfer of surplus military equipment to local police departments.

“Surplus military equipment for law enforcement: they don’t need that. The last thing you need is an up-armored Humvee coming into a neighborhood; it’s like the military invading. They don’t know anybody, they become the enemy; they’re supposed to be protecting these people,” he said.

Clearly, the “enemy” comment was not some sort of general assessment of police officers or even a statement about how police officers are generally seen by communities. It was specifically about perceptions of police who use particular equipment in particular circumstances.

Also, when Pence claimed Biden said “well-armed” police become the enemy, he may have created the impression that Biden said that police become the enemy when they carry powerful guns. Biden was talking about surplus military vehicles.

The comment about funding

Pence claimed in his Thursday tweet that Biden had just called for police “to be defunded.”

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh, like Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, suggested Biden had changed his position under pressure. Murtaugh tweeted: “It didn’t take Biden long to cave in to the extreme left and agree to Defund the Police.”

This Biden comment about funding was more ambiguous than the “enemy” remark, so the claims of Trump’s allies are, in our view, less egregious. But the context the Trump allies haven’t highlighted – some of which was missing from the video – casts Biden’s words in a different light.

Facts First: Biden explicitly told Barkan that he opposes defunding or abolishing the police; this comment was omitted from the video. Biden did say he “absolutely” agrees that some funding can be redirected, but it was not exactly clear what he meant – and he immediately transitioned to his previous proposal to deny federal funding to specific police departments that do not meet certain standards. Contrary to suggestions of a recent flip-flop, Biden said in early June that it makes sense for some local communities to reduce police funding.

“Though Ady would have loved Joe Biden to announce in this interview that he is in favor of defunding the police, the Vice President never said it,” Liz Jaff, president of Be a Hero, said in a statement.

Here’s the context.

In June, when calls to “defund the police” gained prominence on the left amid the national protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, Biden said, “No, I don’t support defunding the police.” Rather, he said, he supports conditioning federal money to police “based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness.”

Biden also said in early June that it “makes sense” for “some places” to reallocate some funding away from their police departments, since some places do not have enough officers but others “have a lot more than they need.” He said the decision depends on the particular community.

Still, Biden has drawn criticism from some defunding advocates for his campaign proposal to make a “$300 million investment” in the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to which Trump has previously proposed budget cuts.

Trump has nonetheless accused Biden of wanting to defund the police. And Trump’s allies have renewed their criticism based on something Biden told Barkan.

Barkan asked Biden if he is “open” to the kind of reform in which “we can reduce the responsibilities assigned to the police and redirect some of the funding for police into social services, mental health counseling, and affordable housing.” Barkan said that Rayshard Brooks, who was killed by an Atlanta police officer, would be still alive if a “wellness counselor and a tow truck,” instead of two officers with guns, had been dispatched to the parking lot where Brooks had fallen asleep in a car.

According to the audio provided by the Biden campaign, Biden responded, in comments that were not included in the video, “I’ve proposed that kind of reform. And by the way, the idea though – that’s not the same as getting rid of or defunding all the police.” He said you could not just send his daughter Ashley, who has a master’s degree in social work, to the site of a domestic dispute; instead, he said, “you can send along a social worker with a police officer. We need significantly more help.”

Biden continued by calling for the series of changes we outlined in our above fact check on the “enemy” remark, including a focus on community policing and more investigations of police departments. After Biden criticized the police use of military vehicles, Barkan interjected, “But do we agree that we can redirect some of the funding?”

Biden said, “Yes, absolutely.”

The video omits the comments Biden made immediately after that. But those comments are important.

After his “absolutely,” Biden immediately returned to his previous proposal about putting conditions on federal funding to police funding.

“And by the way, not just redirect – condition them. If they don’t eliminate chokeholds, they don’t get Byrne grants. If they don’t do the following, they don’t get any help.” Noting that most police funding comes from local and state governments, Biden continued, “It’s only the federal government comes in on top of that, and so it says, ‘You want help? You have to do the following reforms: you have to make sure you have no-knock warrants eliminated, if you have them, you don’t get Byrne grants. If you have them, boom.’”

In summary: Biden did say he is open to redirecting some funding. But he followed that comment by simply reiterating his previous proposal to reject federal funding for departments that do not meet certain conditions, not by taking a new stance. And a Biden campaign official said that Biden endorsing the idea of redirecting “some of the funding” is in line with his June comments about how it makes sense to reduce police budgets in “some places.”

Bates, the Biden spokesman, said Trump is “desperate to run against a fictitious opponent instead of Joe Biden.”