Talking Points

'Defund the police' is dead. Long live police reform.

"Defund the police" is a dead idea. That's actually been true for some months now, but any doubts about the notion's viability should be ended entirely after Tuesday's election results in Minneapolis, where voters rejected an opportunity to replace the police department with a Department of Public Safety. For good measure, two Minneapolis City Council members who supported the swap also lost their seats.

If residents of the heavily Democratic city where George Floyd was murdered by former police officer Derek Chauvin won't back a radical reimagination of law enforcement, who will? Almost nobody.

And the results from Minneapolis should be unsurprising. The national outpouring of grief and anger after Floyd's death did change the way Americans thought about police. A poll by Pew Research Center taken during the summer of 2020 showed only about a third of respondents believed officers tend to use the "right amount" of force in tricky situations, down 10 points from an earlier survey. Just about a third of Americans believed police treat racial and ethnic groups fairly, also a sizable drop. But even in that heated moment, most people — 58 percent — said they thought the police do a "good" or "excellent" job of protecting the public. Just a quarter favored reducing police budgets. Those results may seem contradictory, but it was clear from the first moments "defund the police" became prominent that there just wasn't much electoral appetite for it.

These days, moreover, fear of crime has returned; almost two thirds of Americans now believe crime is a "very big problem." Pew finds nearly half want police funding increased — and, notably, Black and Hispanic Democrats are more likely to back that funding bump than their white counterparts. Places like Austin, Texas — where voters on Tuesday rejected a measure to increase the budget of the local police department — are the exception, not the rule.

So what's next for reformers, then? For one thing, they should drop the "defund the police" slogan entirely. It was always a sloppy way to refer to a varying set of ideas that only occasionally involved defunding. And there are plenty of other paths to pursue: An April poll by Data for Progress suggests voters will support candidates who would end qualified immunity want to fund non-police interventions in emergencies involving substance abuse or mental illness.

"Defund the police" might be dead, but the possibilities for reform are still very much alive.