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About-face: Democrats scramble to embrace law and order after police defunding backfires

Amid surging violent crime rates, Democratic leaders in progressive cities are seeking to bolster law enforcement's ranks after pledging major cuts to police budgets.

Published: June 7, 2022 7:46pm

Updated: June 10, 2022 11:37pm

Two years after George Floyd's death, liberal cities that became hubs of the "defund the police" movement in the wake of the infamous 2020 killing have done a virtual 180, with many Democrat mayors and mayoral candidates now embracing comparatively pro-police and tough-on-crime policies and rhetoric.

This shift at the local level comes as violent crime continues to rise in major cities across the country following 2020's historic spike in murders and another rise in homicides and shootings last year.

One of the more striking changes occurred in Los Angeles, where the top two vote-getters in Tuesday's mayoral race — Democratic Rep. Karen Bass and pro-business billionaire Rick Caruso — have both spoken out in support of law enforcement.

When it comes to making L.A.'s streets safer, "I think the right answer is to be smart on crime," Bass told Fox News on Monday. "My plan calls for getting officers on the beat immediately in neighborhoods that want to see an increased police presence. But I believe the quickest way to get officers on the beat is to get them from behind the desk."

Bass, who has upset progressives with her platform on crime and policing, added she's "calling for hiring some 200-400 officers" and believes in "making a serious investment in crime prevention."

Caruso, meanwhile, is running a law-and-order campaign as violent crimes surges in L.A. and voters demand change. The Republican-turned-Democrat is promising to expand significantly the city's police department to reduce crime.

Because neither Bass nor Caruso received 50% of the vote, they will face each other in a runoff election in November. But regardless of who wins, they will represent a stark contrast to incumbent Mayor Eric Garcetti (D), who can't seek reelection due to term limits.

Garcetti referred to police as "killers" and pledged to cut $150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department budget in June 2020 as protesters flooded the streets demanding leaders defund the police.

But as both crime and political backlash rose, Garcetti and the city council changed tack and sought a slight police budget increase last year. However, the rhetoric and proposals of both Bass and Caruso would still signal a major shift in L.A. City Hall's approach to law and order.

L.A. isn't the only soft-on-crime hub in California undergoing change. Progressive San Francisco pushed similar priorities after Floyd's death, embracing the Black Lives Matter and defund the police movements.

In July 2020, San Francisco Democratic Mayor London Breed announced her plan to cut $120 million from law enforcement and redirect the funds to social programs.

Crime subsequently skyrocketed as city District Attorney Chesa Boudin prosecuted significantly fewer felonies and misdemeanors than his predecessors. The crime wave led Breed to change course late last year, making an emergency request to the city Board of Supervisors for more money for the police to support a crackdown on crime.

"It's time the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end," she said. "And it comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement. More aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerant of all the bulls**t that has destroyed our city."

Breed has continued her shift into this year, saying just last month she will fight for more police officers and calling for more policing.

Boudin, however, who has said he wants to abolish cash bail and end "mass incarceration," hasn't gone along with Breed, earning him a recall election to oust him from office on Tuesday.

The recall effort succeeded: Fed-up San Francisco voters ousted Boudin from office in a recall focused on his soft-on-crime policies.

Since Boudin took office in January 2020, overall crime has fallen, but burglaries have gone up 45% in the past two years, and homicides rose by 37%. What received the most criticism, however, were the surge in rampant organized shoplifting, public defecation, car break-ins, open-air drug dealing, and similar crimes that led to a growing city-wide sense of disorder.

Outside of California, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) adopted a strikingly tough-on-crime tone in remarks during a press conference on Monday.

"But given the exacting standards the state's attorney has before charging a case, which is prove beyond a reasonable doubt when those charges are brought, these people are guilty," she said. "Of course, they are entitled to a presumption of innocence. Of course, they are entitled to their day in court. But residents in our community are also entitled to safety from dangerous people. We need to keep pressing the criminal courts to lock up dangerous people and not put them out on bail or electronic monitoring back in the same communities that brave souls are mustering courage to say, 'This is the person that is responsible.'  It undermines safety and tells the victims there is no justice for them."

Lightfoot later clarified she believes in the presumption of innocence but added Chicago would see a major drop in violent crime if violent offenders are held accountable and those accused of violent crimes aren't back on the street in a day or two.

"When someone has a rap sheet as long as my arm and they commit another act of violence, they are a danger to the community and should be held pretrial," said Lightfoot. "I'm going to keep talking about that because that is essential to bring peace to our community."

Lightfoot had proposed slashing $80 million from Chicago's police budget in 2020 (the proposal was later scaled back to $59 million) and saw 660 officers retire last year on her watch. Months after the massive budget cuts, the murder rate jumped to a 25-year high, and Lightfoot asked the federal government for additional law enforcement resources to combat rampant crime. She also slightly increased the police budget.

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser authorized the creation of "Black Lives Matter" plaza in downtown Washington at the height of the unrest following Floyd's death. At a mayoral debate last week, she touted herself as the only only candidate pushing to increase the number of police officers, while trying to tie her opponents to the defund the police movement.

"I'm going to make the tough calls when it comes to violent crime, including making sure we have the police that we need," she said. "We have faced two years of defunding our police force. We know what [Democratic Councilmembers Robert White and Trayon White] chose to do was serve ideology and not the residents of the District of Columbia and making sure that we have the police officers that we need."

Although Bowser never actually pushed to defund the D.C. police, her tone at the debate was a noticeable departure from a politician who just two years ago publicly embraced the Black Lives Matter movement and sought to appeal to social justice activists.

During last week's debate, Bowser said that the degradation of families was a key cause of D.C. crime, much of which has been caused by juveniles, and that government can't "do it all" in terms of raising children — points often made by Republicans when discussing root causes of rampant crime and how to combat it.

These shifts in left-leaning city halls across the country come after New Yorkers last year voted Eric Adams (D) as mayor of New York City. Adams, a former police officer, defended law enforcement during his campaign and ran on a platform of being tough on crime.

Adams' predecessor, Bill de Blasio, shifted about $1 billion in funding away from the New York Police Department (NYPD) before later reversing course amid backlash. During de Blasio's tenure, the NYPD had an unusually high surge in retirements.

While some liberal cities are undergoing major changes in tone if not substantive policy toward crime and policing, others are undergoing smaller but still significant shifts

In Portland, for example, Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler, who pledged to cut the city's police budget by millions in 2020 before backtracking a year later, said in March he plans to hire 200 new police officers.

Portland has been the target of Antifa riots for years, leading critics to charge Wheeler didn't do enough with his authority to stop the violence.

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