Last Wednesday, on the second anniversary of George Floyd’s death, President Biden unveiled a long-awaited executive order to overhaul the police in the United States.
As my colleagues noted at the time, the final text of the order reflected “the balancing act the president is trying to navigate on policing” — between progressive activists demanding greater constraints on the use of force, police groups seeking to limit the scope of change, and Republicans who see rising crime as a winning political issue. It was the product of delicate coalition politics — more than 120 meetings over more than 100 hours, according to the White House.
But all that balancing work, which has won praise from groups as disparate as the NAACP, the ACLU and the Fraternal Order of Police, has masked an enduring divide between Democrats that the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, tore. open: Should America invest more in its police or redirect funding and attention elsewhere?
Where the consensus on the left is collapsing
When it comes to how to protect children in schools, the national debate bears many hallmarks of the country’s disagreements over policing and falls into many of the same ruts.
After the Texas shooting, Democrats immediately called for a ban on military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, tempered by pessimism that few or no Republicans would support anything beyond enhanced background checks and red flag laws. Most Democrats agree on that.
Democrats have also universally ridiculed Republican arguments, led in recent days by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, that the answer to mass school shootings is “gunned good guys stopping gunned bad guys” – not a ban on AR-15s.
“Why these types of weapons are available to citizens is beyond me,” said former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter. “And no one has ever been able to give a legitimate reason or rationale for that.”
But then the consensus among Democrats begins to crumble.
Speaking on behalf of many on the left, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, noted in a Tweeter that the Uvalde School District had “its own police force” but failed to stop the massacre. “After decades of mass shootings, there is still no evidence that the police have the ability to stop them from happening,” she wrote. “Gun safety and other policies can.”
That’s not what the White House says. Centrist Democrats, led by Biden, have pushed since taking power to give more resources to police departments – and have distanced themselves sharply from calls after the killing of George Floyd to defund police departments.
The president’s pandemic relief plan, the US Bailout, directed $10 billion in federal spending toward public safety. During his State of the Union address in March, the President pounded on the lectern, saying, “We should all agree that the answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.
The federal government has also invested millions in strengthening school defenses. In April, the Department of Justice announced $53 million in new funding to improve school safety across the country, in addition to nearly $64.7 million for proposals to prevent and respond to violent episodes.
“We are going to see more cops in the schools”
If in doubt, the president’s remarks at the executive order signing ceremony made it clear which side he is on. He criticized “those who seek to drive a wedge between law enforcement and the people they serve.” And he praised the “brave local officers and Border Patrol agents”, who he said had “stepped in to save as many children as possible” in Texas.
Days later, as details emerged of local police mishandling of the Uvalde massacre, the Justice Department announced a review of law enforcement actions.
In an indicator of the passion around the police on the left, David Axelrod, a former political adviser to Barack Obama, faced a wave of criticism after he tweeted that Uvalde had shown that the police were “indispensable”.
“My purpose was not to praise the indefensible decisions taken by the police in Uvalde that day,” Axelrod explained in an email. “It is that their inaction for 90 minutes revealed the indispensability of proper and prompt policing in tragic situations such as this. These kids needed the police that day. They acted much too late.
“There’s no question we’re going to see more cops in schools because of this,” said Adam Gelb, chief executive of the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan policy and research organization in Atlanta. “And also louder, louder arguments that more cops aren’t the answer.”
One of those present when Biden signed the executive order was Udi Ofer, the ACLU’s deputy national political director and head of the group’s work on criminal justice. The ACLU has been one of the most vocal proponents of policing overhaul.
In an interview, Ofer hailed the executive order as a “first step” that incorporated some of the ACLU’s priorities, such as its call for cabinet officials to pull together advice and resources promoting alternative ways to respond to “people in crisis” – for example, by sending a social worker to investigate a domestic dispute instead of an armed policeman.
Left-wing groups argue that increased resources for counseling and mental health are essential to identify and arrest potential mass shooters, including in schools.
A 2019 report by the ACLU argued that the United States had overinvested in police in schools while underinvesting in mental health resources. He found, for example, that 14 million students attended schools with police but no counsellors, nurses, psychologists or social workers.
Ofer pointed to research, in the form of a working paper released in March, indicating that investments in early childhood education pay off by reducing the likelihood that students will be arrested as adults.
“When a tragedy like this happens, the reflexive response is to put more police in the schools,” Ofer said. “But the police aren’t doing a good job of stopping the mass shootings.”
“The problem is a better police”
For Marc Morial, executive director of the National Urban League, the ideological debate over policing America is a never-ending source of frustration.
“The problem is not more policing or less policing,” Morial said in an interview. “The problem is better policing and better policing.”
As mayor of New Orleans for eight years, Morial revamped the city’s police department and tripled investments in community programs. Now, he fears that the return of “tough on crime” messages heralds a regression to the failed policing strategies of the past.
“I think very, very strongly that we could take a wrong turn and go back to yesterday,” Morial said. “There’s a lot of empty, hollow political rhetoric in this space.”
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