By James Oliphant and Nathan Layne
WASHINGTON, Aug 17 (Reuters) - Last summer, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser played a high-profile role in the protests sweeping America over police killings of Black suspects. She renamed a street Black Lives Matter Plaza and joined thousands of demonstrators there, many shouting what had become the movement's slogan: "Defund the police!"
Earlier this year, the mayor, a Democrat, proposed cutting the police budget and redirecting money to social services.
Now, however, Bowser and many other Democratic city leaders are scrambling to boost police budgets and hire more officers amid the deadliest crime wave in two decades. Local and national Democrats are distancing themselves from "defund" politics and policies, a reflection of how deeply unpopular the concept has become among most voters - and how effective a weapon it can be for Republican candidates.
The crime wave has laid bare tensions between progressive Democrats, who still aim to overhaul U.S. policing, and mainstream Democrats now pushing traditional enforcement to combat crime.
The division has chilled efforts to reshape police departments and hold officers more accountable for excessive force. In New York, Atlanta and Seattle, Democratic city politicians have abandoned or scaled back police budget-cutting efforts and other proposals they touted amid the uproar over the 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis. In Congress, a policing bill named after Floyd - sponsored by Vice President Kamala Harris when she was still a senator - remains stalled more than a year later.
New York pivoted from slashing almost $1 billion in police funds last year to adding $200 million this year. Oakland, California, boosted its police budget in June by $38 million after last year setting a goal to cut it by $150 million. Austin, a liberal bastion in conservative Texas, this year passed its largest-ever police budget under pressure from state Republicans over rising crime. Last year, Austin had diverted $150 million in police funds to other priorities.
In Washington, Bowser asked the city council last month for $11 million to hire 170 new police officers after a series of shootings. The council agreed to fund 40 officers.
Bowser, who declined to comment for this story, has defended her reversal on police funding by saying she is responding to a crime wave and pleas for money from the city's police chief.
"I am outraged. The chief is outraged. The community should be outraged," she told reporters on July 22, after a shooting on an affluent restaurant row near downtown that left two wounded. The incident followed the July 16 shooting of 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney, who was killed on her scooter by a stray bullet. A day later, a shootout outside the Washington Nationals baseball park left three wounded, including two shooting suspects.
Violence nationally has upended the dynamics in key mayoral races. Centrist Democrats campaigning on their support for police have won or emerged as favorites in party primary elections. In New York, former police officer Eric Adams captured the Democratic nomination for mayor in June, defeating more progressive candidates by vowing to hire more officers and support aggressive tactics.
In advance of next year's midterm Congressional elections, Republican party officials are making crime a central issue - and casting all Democrats as enemies of law enforcement.
"Every voter knows that Democrats are the party of Defund the Police," said Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Most mainstream Democrats, however, never embraced the defunding movement pushed by party progressives. Democratic President Joe Biden rejected the idea during the 2020 campaign, even as he supported calls for reforms to address racial inequities and excessive force.
Voters reject cutting police budgets by large margins, polls show. A USA Today/Ipsos survey last month found that about two-thirds of respondents believe crime is worsening and that 7 in 10 support bigger police budgets. Only 22% said they support defunding police.
Advocates for diverting police funds to social services concede they now face long odds. Christy Lopez, a former U.S. Justice Department official, chairs the police reform commission formed last year by the Washington city council. She still believes spending on mental health and other programs would control crime better than more officers. But she acknowledged that advocates have not convinced voters.
"That is a failure of us educating the public," she said.
Such efforts have been hobbled in part by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, say academics who study policing. The pandemic destabilized communities, emptied downtowns, strained municipal budgets and limited police patrols, all factors contributing to the surging violence, said Wesley Skogan, a policing expert at Northwestern University.
Atlanta was among many cities that last summer saw massive protests demanding racial justice and police accountability. Its city council was poised last year to slash $73 million in police funds. The measure failed by one vote, in favor of a proposal of giving the mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms - who opposed cutting police budgets - time to develop a new policing model.
Atlanta has since become one of America's deadliest cities. Murders are up 58% so far this year, compared to the same period in 2019. Talk of reinventing the police department has quieted, and the council added 7%, or about $15 million, to this year's police budget. Last month, Bottoms said she wanted to hire 250 more officers.
Bottoms is not seeking re-election. Two leading candidates to replace her have both vowed to add more cops. One of them, Felicia Moore, said the city doesn't have to defund the police to fund social and mental health services. It should do both to fight crime.
"I don't think they are mutually exclusive," she said.
'PEACE OFFICERS' IN MINNEAPOLIS
In Minneapolis - where George Floyd was killed - the movement to overhaul policing retains momentum despite a murder rate this year that could break a record.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, a member of the city's dominant Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (DFL), has opposed cutting police budgets. Fewer officers, he told Reuters, is "not a realistic solution given the circumstances our city is facing - all cities are facing."
Frey, however, has lost support among the party's progressive base in the mayoral race to candidate Sheila Nezhad, a community activist who backs a radical overhaul of policing. A recent caucus of party voters showed Nezhad with a solid lead.
When voters choose a mayor on Nov. 2, they will also vote on a citizen-led referendum that would abolish the police department and replace it with a "department of public safety" employing "peace officers" and taking a "comprehensive public health approach." Nezhad backs the measure; Frey opposes it.
"We need to shift the conversation from policing to safety," Nezhad said. "Violence prevention requires investment in the community."
Republicans labeled most Democrats as police-defunders in the 2020 Congressional elections. It worked, according to voter interviews and polling data reviewed by Democratic political groups.
Democrats are looking to limit the damage. In July, President Joe Biden invited Bowser, New York's Adams and other urban leaders to the White House for a summit on gun violence, urging cities to use federal stimulus money to hire new officers.
In the nation's capital, homicides rose 20% in 2020 to a 16-year-high and remain on that pace this year. The rising violence followed the city council's decision last year to cut police funding by 5%, or $15 million.
Bowser's shifting stances on funding illustrate how Democrats are struggling to appease both progressives and mainstream voters. Last year, Bowser - a two-term mayor with strong business-community support - had unsuccessfully opposed the council's move to cut the police budget. Then in May of this year, she proposed slicing $36 million from the department in her budget proposal for 2022. She reversed herself after the July shootings, pivoting to a request for more funding to hire officers.
Charles Allen, the council member who led the effort to cut police budgets, said the council compromised in recognition of the rising violence, giving a portion of the policing funds she requested.
"We have to be able to step into the middle" on policing issues, he said. (Reporting by James Oliphant and Nathan Layne; editing by Soyoung Kim and Brian Thevenot)
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