President Trump hardened his law-and-order agenda on Monday in the face of nationwide protests over racial injustice and far-left demands to “defund the police,” while his reelection team accused Democratic rival Joseph R. Biden of failing to oppose what they said were radical anti-police proposals that would lead to lawlessness and anarchy.
The calls for sweeping police reforms has emerged in the wake of the death two weeks ago of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck on the street for nearly nine minutes. The Minneapolis City Council announced its support for defunding its police department and replacing it with a community-based public safety program; the Democratic mayors of Los Angeles and New York City say they’ll cut their police budgets.
In a meeting with law enforcement officials at the White House, Mr. Trump said he opposes any effort to cut funding for local police departments.
“We won’t be defunding our police. We won’t be dismantling our police,” Mr. Trump said. “Sometimes you’ll see some horrible things like we witnessed recently, but 99, I say 99.9, but let’s go with 99% of them are great, great people.”
The White House said Mr. Trump is reviewing proposals to reform criminal justice, but the president said communities cannot allow the “defund” movement to put overall public safety at risk.
“This has been a very strong year for less crime,” the president said. “We have great law enforcement, I’m very proud of them. Our police have been letting us live in peace.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Mr. Trump doesn’t support aspects of a wide-ranging policing bill introduced on Monday by congressional Democrats, including a federal ban on police “chokeholds” and limits on qualified immunity, which shields government officials and officers from being sued for misconduct while acting in their official capacity.
“The world is witnessing the birth of a new movement in our country,” Rep. Karen Bass, the California Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters on Capitol Hill Monday. “A profession where you have the power to kill should be a profession where you have highly trained officers accountable to the public.”
Attorney General William Barr, who attended the president’s meeting with the law enforcement officials, said the administration wants to work with them to develop stronger guidelines.
“I know that there is a lot of interest from police leaders for clarity and guidance on the use of force… making sure the standards are out there, making sure they are trained and making sure they are adhered to,” Mr. Barr said. “The time for waiting is over. It’s now incumbent on us to bring good out of bad.”
But Mr. Barr added, “The other aspect of this is the rule of law, and the need for law and order.”
“It’s the foundation of civilization,” the attorney general said. “It is our responsibility to make sure that our country is ruled by law and not by violence.”
Policy and politics
As a policy matter, it’s not clear how much control the administration can exert quickly over cities’ public safety budgets, which are set at the local level.
But as a political matter, Mr. Trump’s reelection team and the GOP believe they have been handed a potent campaign issue by the anti-police activists with which to attack Mr. Biden. The movement to defund police departments, endorsed by liberals such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, emerged just after scenes of rioting, arson and looting in dozens of cities across the U.S. as some protests over police brutality spun out of control.
Advocates of defunding police say they don’t necessarily want to abolish police departments or cancel all of their funding. They say the movement aims to address chronic problems in policing, and spend more on needs such as housing and education as a way to lower the demand for traditional police services.
But the nuanced definition is a tough sell in a country convulsed by street protests and division.
“It is consuming the entire Democrat Party,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director. “Where has Joe Biden been? By his silence, Joe Biden is endorsing defunding the police.”
Mr. Biden was traveling to Texas on Monday to meet with Mr. Floyd’s family.
Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said the Democratic nominee doesn’t support defunding police, but he does support “the urgent need for reform — including funding for public schools, summer programs, and mental health and substance abuse treatment separate from funding for policing — so that officers can focus on the job of policing.”
He pointed to Mr. Biden’s proposal to spend an additional $300 million on community policing. But Mr. Murtaugh dismissed the proposal as “one line item in the massive federal government.”
The issue is also causing a rift for the labor-friendly Mr. Biden with police unions; the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations has said Mr. Biden “kept moving left and fell off the deep end.”
Republicans also are raising the issue in congressional races. The campaign arm for Senate Republicans on Monday called on Democratic candidates to take a stand on defunding police.
“What once lived on the liberal fringe has now broken through in serious way,” said Jesse Hunt, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Senate Democrats everywhere are going to have to answer to voters about how they plan to keep Americans safe while their party seeks to ‘defund the police.’”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the calls to gut police departments are “outlandish,” and that relying on social workers would not be effective.
“I’m all for social work and mental health,” he said. “But — call me old-fashioned — I think you may actually want a police officer to stop a criminal and arrest him before we try to work through his feelings. I have a feeling the American people are too smart for this.”
The White House emphasized the amount of crime-fighting work that police carry out across the U.S. in a given year, using 2018 as an example: 11,970 arrests for murder, 88,130 arrests for robbery, 395,800 arrests for aggravated assault, and nearly half a million arrests for all types of violent crime.
“That’s police officers who are doing the arresting,” Ms. McEnany said. “You eliminate police officers, you will have chaos, crime, and anarchy in the streets, and that’s something that’s unacceptable to the president.”
Defining and defending
Rev. Al Sharpton on Monday said the “defund the police” slogan is misleading.
The primary goal is not disbanding police forces, but rethinking public safety and the allocation of resources, Mr. Sharpton said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“I’ve heard they’re really talking about adjusting and, in many ways, recommitting the funding toward things like community policing, like mental health, intervention that does not involve policing as we know it and putting a lot into police training,” Mr. Sharpton said. “I don’t think that anyone — other than the far extremes — are saying we don’t want any kind of policing at all, any kind of public safety.”
That viewpoint clashed with the video footage that came out of Minneapolis over the weekend showing activists publicly shaming Democratic Mayor Jacob Frey for refusing to hop aboard the defund bandwagon.
Protestors chanted “Go home Jacob, go home!” and “Shame! Shame! Shame” after he spoke to demonstrators about police reform.
Former Ohio Secretary of State and former Mayor of Cincinnati Ken Blackwell, who supports the president’s reelection, said the proposal to defund police departments “means that folks are willing to put the most vulnerable citizens in their communities at risk.”
“You have to be stuck on stupid to buy into that,” he said.
But Ja’Ron Smith, one of the highest-ranking blacks in the White House as deputy Director of the Office of American Innovation, told law enforcement officials in the meeting with the president that Mr. Floyd’s death “hit me to my core.”
“I’ve lived in Southeast DC and I’ve lived in a paradox where my wife is sometimes scared to go on the streets by herself, and in the same vein … I’ve also had the fear of living in a certain neighborhood or driving certain types of cars, as an African-American, just because of my relationship with the police,” he said. “There are a lot of African-American males across the country that have stories that they can share.”
He said law enforcement “is there to kind of thread the needle and help us and protect us and not to demonize.”
“We can’t let a few bad apples represent something that is the core of everything we do,” Mr. Smith said.
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.
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