In his State of the Union address last week, President Joe Biden took a hard line against his own party’s activist wing, stating, “The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.”
The line drew Republican applause, but all over the country, police reform advocates felt demoralized, discouraged and brushed aside.
It’s not hard to see how we got here. After the George Floyd protests in 2020, when millions nationwide marched against police violence, support for police reforms was at or near an all-time high. Some of the reforms that activists pushed for included moving funding from police to other community services, but conservatives seized on the slogan “Defund the Police” and used it as a club to hammer vulnerable Democrats. And now, as the likely midterm shellacking of Democrats draws nearer, the party’s moderates want to try and defuse Republican attacks by jettisoning their left wing.
That’s a desperation move. It’s very much like the 1990s, when centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton responded to Republican pressure by embracing tough-on-crime, pro-police policies. The end result of that, of course, was Democrats retaking the House, keeping the White House in 2000, and firming up the party’s support nationwide.
… Oh, sorry, no, the exact opposite happened. Democrats didn’t retake the House until 2006 after losing it in 1994, and their 2000 presidential nominee couldn’t put away an oaf from Texas who couldn’t find his rear end with both hands. It’s possible to argue the losses would have been greater if Democrats hadn’t tracked to the middle, but there’s no real evidence of that.
Democrats always walk a very fine line between making their liberal activist base happy and keeping up their support among the moderate, white middle-class voters who often swing elections. Republicans, on the other hand, have preferred tracking hard to the right and demanding everyone else come along with them. Such is the state of our national politics.
Does that mean that police reform efforts are well and truly dead? Well, on the federal level, they never really got started. Police reforms, such as they are, have been implemented by a smattering of cities and states.
That includes Connecticut. Our 2021 police reform law was one of the strongest in the country, setting up an independent inspector general to review cases where police used deadly force and putting an end to guaranteed qualified immunity, among other things. This law is already being used by Republicans who have an eye on 2022 to whip up support against Democrats. Bob Stefanowski, who right now looks to be the favorite for the GOP gubernatorial nod, loves trotting out the law as the cause of a crime wave in the state.
Whether the law has had any impact on crime rates – or whether there is even a crime wave in Connecticut at all – is beside the point. Republicans are betting those white middle-class voters who often swing elections still have the same kind of visceral fear of crime that they did 20 years ago, and that they’ll run to the GOP for safety without questioning their arguments too much. If this cynical plan works, that could put the final nail in the coffin of police reform in Connecticut.
One way to judge how much appetite Democrats have for further police reforms is a bill that would make it harder for police departments to hire officers who have been fired for malfeasance/serious misconduct or who have quit while under investigation. The bill is backed by the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, and it expands the definition of what constitutes misconduct to include things like intimidation, discrimination, unjustified violence and failing to stop another officer from engaging in unjustified violence. This all seems pretty sensible, and so far the sticking point seems to be about providing ways for fired officers to rehabilitate or exonerate themselves.
But if Democrats in the legislature start to feel the pressure of the 2022 elections, they may take one look at a bill like this and decide that they’ve had enough police reform for now, thank you. If that does happen and Democrats think it has bought them a little breathing room with voters, expect police reforms to be off the table for a good long time.
That’s unfortunate. Policing in this country has a long way to go to make sure there are no more George Floyds. Democrats should muster the political will to continue this important fight, both nationally and here at home in Connecticut. The alternative is losing all of the fragile progress we’ve made.