Anti-police candidates and a policing overhaul referendum were rejected on Election Day in Seattle, Minneapolis and Buffalo, continuing a trend of voters and public officials choosing moderate and measured approaches to policing over sweeping or radical changes.
The debate over every issue related to law enforcement has played out in city councils and state legislatures across the country since George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer last spring, setting off the largest protest movement in American history.
Protests and unrest in response to Floyd’s death have shaped local and national politics since. A policy favored by protesters was cutting spending on law enforcement, with proposals that ranged from gradual shift of law enforcement funding to social services to outright abolition of police departments and the role police play in America.
In cities where “defunding the police” was up for discussion on Tuesday, voters rejected the notion. Since Floyd’s murder, reform to law enforcement has been more tailored to local concerns.
The set of circumstances Tuesday and the role of safety in the election reflected a “hierarchy of needs situation,” said Mark A. Smith, professor of politics at the University of Washington.
Without dependable public safety, “it’s hard to have a lot of the other things,” he said. “When you don’t have it or feel it slipping away, you’re probably going to leap there as a first response.”
Election results continue a trend
In Buffalo, the sitting mayor was reelected by a write-in campaign after he lost the Democratic primary to a “defund the police” socialist, and Seattle voters elected a mayor who pressed for more officers over a candidate who pledged to slash police spending in half.
In Minneapolis voters rejected a plan that would have opened the door to a sweeping law enforcement overhaul by eliminating the city police minimum staffing requirement and giving the city council greater control of law enforcement efforts. They also reelected the city’s mayor, who refused to commit to abolishing the police. Instead, he said he wanted to ensure an integrated approach to public safety, hire more community-oriented officers, build safety beyond policing, and get serious about reform on a “multi-jurisdictional level.”
Republicans used “defund” to paint Democrats as soft on crime, and President Joe Biden told Georgia Democrats that Republicans used “defund the police” to “beat the living hell” out of Democrats in November elections last year. Prominent Democrats have since called “defund the police” a mistake.
“That sentiment has proven to be pretty unpopular across the country,” Smith said. “Even in Minneapolis, the site of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd, it couldn’t even pass there.
“You could tell even in 2020 some of the disorder, homelessness, rising murder rates, people were noticing that and looking for an outlet in how to express it,” he said. “In a situation of rising disorder and crime and other associated problems, the more law-and-order-ish candidate is going to probably have an advantage.”
In cities and states all over, elected officials have taken slower or less sweeping steps that don’t drastically alter the role of law enforcement in America since Floyd’s death. Tuesday’s election results were a continuation of that trend.
In some states, attorneys general are conducting investigations into local police departments modeled after federal pattern-and-practice investigations that look for ways to reform policing. Some cities are looking to alter or limit the role of police in calls relating to mental health or substance abuse.
Mayors, city councils, governors, and state legislatures have all had opportunity to dismantle, defund, or otherwise overhaul policing through budgets or other normal government deliberations. Few public officials were as vocal as those in Minneapolis, where nine of the city’s 13 city councilors pledged to dismantle the police department last summer after a week of protests and unrest in the city.
Voters there had their first chance to weigh in on a concrete policing proposal on Tuesday: a ballot measure that would have made it easier for the city council to overhaul policing by eliminating a staffing requirement and giving the council executive control of the police.
Minneapolis residents rejected the measure by a 12-point margin and reelected Jacob Frey, the city’s mayor, who opposed the plan to dismantle the police department. The ballot measure itself was the product of more than a year of litigation and other bureaucratic fighting and didn’t go as far as elected officials had promised. That was a city where there was wide agreement among city officials that policing needed some change.
“I think part of it is some reality testing,” said Chuck Wexler, director of the non-partisan Police Executive Research Forum. “People are saying look, we want to change the police, but you know we also got a violent crime issue, we have a domestic violence issue … then there’s a need to reform American police departments. I think you can do that, but I think what people are saying is, let’s do it in a responsible way, let’s involve the community, let’s educate the police, let’s hire better, let’s train better, let’s supervise better, but at the same time you’ve got a significant crime issue and you can’t ignore that.”
Seattle voters send a ‘pretty clear’ message
The mayoral race in Seattle was between two candidates who were both city councilors, were both racial minorities, had similar funding, and had s