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Democrats are running on the most progressive police reform agenda in modern American history

Democrats may not want to defund the police, but they are more open than ever to reimagining public safety.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris raise their held hands in front of a wall-sized American flag backdrop.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris greet supporters outside the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, at the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention on August 20, 2020.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

If you’re confused about where Democrats stand on policing reform, you have good reason to be.

On the one hand, protesters, activists, and professional athletes are demanding that Democrats at both a local and national level do more to address police brutality against Black Americans. On the other, several speakers at the Republican National Convention claimed that Joe Biden and Democrats are radical police abolitionists who, as Trump himself put it, will “defund police departments all across America” if given power.

So what’s the truth? The short answer is that while Democrats’ policing agenda is not nearly as ambitious as either defund activists or Republican politicians would like them to be, it is by far the most progressive in modern American history. The 2020 Democratic Party’s views on policing make the party of 2016 look regressive and the party of 2012 look almost unrecognizably backward.

“The first thing my colleagues wanted to do to address police violence was focus on accountability,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) tells me. “But the more of these videos that come out, the more they are realizing that just holding a few bad cops accountable isn’t enough — this is about an entire system. I think that’s a huge change.”

The most recent indication of where Democrats stand on policing is the criminal justice section of the 2020 Democratic Party platform. As my colleague Andrew Prokop explains, party platforms are consensus documents: They use inputs from a wide range of coalition actors within the party to provide a broad summary of what the party stands for and the direction it wants to move the country toward. And research has shown that, in 25 years, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Congress voted in accordance with their platforms more than 80 percent of the time.

The first thing that stands out about the Democrats’ 2020 criminal justice platform is its framing, which is unequivocal about the state of policing in America:

Democrats believe we need to overhaul the criminal justice system from top to bottom. Police brutality is a stain on the soul of our nation. It is unacceptable that millions of people in our country have good reason to fear they may lose their lives in a routine traffic stop, or while standing on a street corner, or while playing with a toy in a public park. It is unacceptable that Black parents must have “the talk” with their children, to try to protect them from the very police officers who are supposed to be sworn to protect and serve them. It is unacceptable that more than 1,000 people, a quarter of them Black, have been killed by police every year since 2015.

In terms of concrete policy proposals, the bulk of the platform’s policing agenda focuses on preventing officers from abusing their power and holding them accountable when they do. Drawing on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 — which received unanimous support among House Democrats but has since been stymied in the Senate — it proposes policies like reining in qualified immunity, banning chokeholds, developing stricter use-of-force standards, creating a national registry of officer misconduct, and limiting no-knock warrants.

It also outlines specific mechanisms for holding state and local departments accountable to these reforms, namely tying federal law enforcement funding to implementation of these measures and strengthening the Department of Justice’s ability to investigate police misconduct in individual departments (which can often result in concrete reforms).

“The Democratic Party is a big tent, which means that different coalitions tend to differ on most issues,” says Ed Chung, vice president for criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress. “But what Democrats of all stripes tend to agree on is police accountability as well as improving and bettering police officers through things like better training.”

But the bigger ideological change in the Democratic Party is the openness to a new approach to public safety: moving away from criminalization and toward a model focused more on investment and public health interventions. The 2020 platform specifically calls for “reorienting our public safety approach toward prevention and away from over-policing” in order to “prevent law enforcement from becoming unnecessarily entangled in the everyday lives of Americans.”

Democrats propose two ways of doing this: First, by decriminalizing marijuana use and diverting those struggling with substance abuse away from the criminal justice system and into treatment-based interventions. Second, by investing more resources into underserved communities to prevent the problems typically associated with law enforcement from arising in the first place.

While Biden has consistently rejected the “defund the police” label, he has been supportive of a more investment-focused approach to public safety. “We need to prevent 911 calls in scenarios where police should not be our first responders,” he wrote in June. “This requires making serious investments in mental health services, drug treatment and prevention programs, and services for people experiencing homelessness.”

Biden has proposed policies like investing an ambitious $125 billion over 10 years to address the opioid epidemic, making housing vouchers a universal entitlement (a proposal that would help an additional 11 million low-income families get housing and would cut poverty by almost a quarter), tripling Title I funding for low-income schools, and doubling the number of school guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists so that schools don’t have to turn to police to resolve issues.

Some Democrats are beginning to rethink a police-centric model of public safety in other ways as well. Biden has proposed additional funding for “co-response” teams, whereby mental health clinicians and social workers would respond to relevant calls alongside police officers. And some high-level congressional Democrats are even starting to support federal funding to create civilian first response units that would send unarmed professionals to deal with certain nonviolent emergencies (more on that later).

“The point is, Democrats have moved,” says Chiraag Bains, co-chair of the Biden-Sanders unity task force on criminal justice and director of legal strategies at Demos, “and if given the chance to govern, they’ll be much more open to dialogue and influence than the regressive, reactionary Trump administration. The way things are going, we can break the mold of mass incarceration being a bipartisan enterprise.”

The Overton Window on policing has shifted, quickly

The Democratic Party’s stances on policing have been routinely criticized by activists, experts, and progressive politicians who don’t believe they go nearly far enough. At the same time, the party has moved faster on policing than perhaps any other issue in recent years.

For instance, take the opening paragraph of the 2012 Democratic platform’s section on “Public Safety, Justice, and Crime Prevention”:

In the last four years, rates of serious crimes, like murder, rape, and robbery, have reached 50-year lows, but there is more work to do. President Obama and Democrats are fighting for new funding that will help keep cops on the street and support our police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians. Republicans and Mitt Romney have opposed and even ridiculed these proposals, but we believe we should support our first responders. We support efforts to ensure our courageous police officers and first responders are equipped with the best technology, equipment, and innovative strategies to prevent and fight crimes.

It goes on to assert:

We must help state, local, territorial, and tribal law enforcement work together to combat and prevent drug crime and drug and alcohol abuse, which are blights on our communities.

From today’s vantage point, these statements — which came during the second term of the most liberal president in decades — read like versions of a slightly more restrained Trump speech (and even Trump has supported less punitive ways of dealing with substance abuse). The only policing-related policy recommendations in the whole platform involves putting more officers on the streets; there is no mention of police misconduct of any kind, let alone policies to combat it.

But we don’t even have to go back that far to see how much Democrats have shifted. This is how the party’s 2016 platform — which at the time was lauded as an important departure from the party’s “tough on crime” days — described the party’s views on policing:

We will rebuild the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Across the country, there are police officers inspiring trust and confidence, honorably doing their duty, deploying creative and effective strategies, and demonstrating that it is possible to prevent crime without relying on unnecessary force. They deserve our respect and support, and we should learn from those examples and build on what works.

That’s a still far cry from calling police brutality a “stain on the soul of our nation.” You have to read in between the lines of the platform just to find recognition that there’s a problem with policing at all. But unlike its 2012 counterpart, the 2016 platform does suggest reforms like better officer training, use of force guidelines, national data collection, limiting military weapons, and requiring body cameras (all policies that the 2020 platform also supports).

However, unlike the 2020 platform, it contains no mechanisms to hold police departments accountable to those changes besides saying that Democrats will “work with police chiefs” to do so. It doesn’t even mention proposals like reforming qualified immunity, banning chokeholds, limiting no-knock warrants, or decriminalizing marijuana use. And it doesn’t call for nearly as bold of investments in issues like homelessness and substance abuse or link those investments to public safety.

In fact, the closest contemporary parallel to the 2016 Democratic platform’s policing recommendations is neither the 2020 platform nor the more limited Justice in Policing Act; it is the JUSTICE Act, a bill spearheaded by Republican Sen. Tim Scott in June. On issues like deescalation training guidelines, data collection, and body cameras, the bill’s policies read as though they were taken directly from the Democrats’ 2016 platform. In some areas, like limiting the use of chokeholds, it goes even further than the Democrats did in 2016.

“The Democratic 2016 criminal justice plan is eerily similar to the current Republican plan being pushed by Senator Scott,” says Arthur Rizer, director of the criminal justice program at the center-right R Street Institute. “It reminds me of how Obamacare was a total rip-off of the Republican Bob Dole plan.”

That makes what happened next even more surprising. When the JUSTICE Act came to the floor for a vote, every single Senate Republican, including staunch law-and-order advocates like Sens. Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, voted for it. But the legislation still didn’t make it through the Senate because all but three Senate Democrats voted against it, arguing the bill lacked concrete accountability mechanisms and failed to address key reforms like ending qualified immunity.

It’s important not to underestimate the significance of this sequence of events: In 2020, Republicans put forward a policing bill that looked a lot like Democrats’ police reform wish list in 2016, and made the 2012 Democratic platform look harsh and regressive by comparison. Yet, Democrats almost unanimously rejected that bill for failing to include provisions that the majority of them did not support in 2016.

“The center of gravity in the country has changed a lot,” says Chung. “Five years ago, I don’t think anyone could have imagined a Republican senator would offer something like the JUSTICE Act and get Republican support, or that House Democrats would unanimously support a bill that ended qualified immunity.”

Of course, these shifts didn’t happen because Democratic and Republican politicians had a sudden awakening about the problems of police brutality — they are responding to massive changes in public opinion around policing that have remained strong, even months after the peak of the nationwide protest movement.

According to Sean McElwee, executive director of the progressive polling outfit Data for Progress, the speed of this shift will only be accelerated by demographic trends. “Across every poll we’ve conducted, we find that young people are most skeptical of police,” he tells me. “Police have lost credibility with an entire generation that’s increasingly having kids and voting. So the shift we’ve seen over the last few months is only going to continue.”

Pew Research Center

This shift will likely have a profound impact on criminal justice politics in America. In previous decades, Democrats moved sharply to the right on criminal justice issues to win over the majority of voters; in coming decades, it is possible the opposite will happen.

Republicans aged 18-29, for instance, overwhelmingly support reforms like ending qualified immunity, and do so at almost double the rates of older Republicans.

“The Democratic Party has taken a really important step over the last few months,” says McElwee. “They’ve ended the Republican ownership of this law-and-order framework. This militarization of cities like Portland is not working. Republicans are being forced to move left on criminal justice issues. That means there is room for Democrats to be more ambitious — it will be interesting to see what they will do.”

The “next frontier” of criminal justice policy for Democrats

The fact that the ground is shifting so quickly on policing issues raises some important questions: What’s next for Democrats? Are there any policies currently absent from the party platform that could potentially become part of policing legislation in a future Biden administration?

When I put these questions to experts close to the party, I got back a fairly uniform answer: federal funding that would support local governments’ efforts to create unarmed civilian first response units to handle nonviolent emergencies.

“This idea is supported by a wide range of Democrats and the criminal justice movement as a whole,” says Chung. “Virtually every conversation I hear about policing and the criminal justice system involves a variation of this provision.”

The basic idea behind this proposal is simple. Police officers spend an overwhelming majority of their time responding to nonviolent emergencies, from mental health crises to traffic accidents to domestic disputes — situations that could be dealt with much more effectively, and with far less potential for unnecessary violence, by non-police professionals. If there’s anything that the police shooting of Jacob Blake and the police killings of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and countless others have in common is that they would never have occurred if someone other than an armed police officer was the chosen first responder to a clearly nonviolent situation.

According to Data for Progress polling, 68 percent of likely voters support the creation of non-law enforcement emergency responders programs. And solid majorities support non-police responses for a variety of situations, including substance abuse, homelessness, and mental health crises. Already, cities across the country are developing their own civilian first responder programs.

Data for Progress

However, while likely voters tend to support investing in non-police responders, they are much more hesitant to dip into local police budgets to do so. Only about half of likely voters support reducing police budgets to invest in social programs, and direct questions about defunding the police are often opposed by majorities.

That’s where the federal government could play a significant role. Federal grants could help cities, states, and localities set up civilian first response units to address issues like mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, and low-level disputes without having to first slash police budgets. Cities could take the time to set up these programs with proper resources, present them as a win-win for police and civilians alike, and give them ample opportunity to demonstrate success — all without having to worry about drawn-out fights with police unions or police work slowdowns that could put the effort in jeopardy.

“The federal government’s role is generally limited on criminal justice issues, but this is one area where federal support could have a real impact,” says Emily Galvin-Almanza, founder and executive director of Partners for Justice. “Establishing successful models for non-police response can really help this idea spread to places that might initially be skeptical.”

In the wake of the nationwide protests against police brutality, this kind of idea is becoming increasingly mainstream for Democrats. The Biden-Sanders unity task force on criminal justice — which included establishment figures like Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor — decided to include this as one of its policy recommendations:

Federal funding to create a civilian corps of unarmed first responders such as social workers, EMTs, and trained mental health professionals, who can handle nonviolent emergencies including order maintenance violations, mental health emergencies, and low-level conflicts outside the criminal justice system, freeing police officers to concentrate on the most serious crimes.

And earlier this month, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) proposed the CAHOOTS Act — named after the much-applauded initiative in Eugene, Oregon, that sends unarmed crisis specialists instead of police to address noncriminal 911 calls — which would provide startup grants and a 95 percent federal funding match through Medicaid to states and localities that decided to pilot non-police crisis response units with a mental health component.

“It’s long past time to reimagine policing in ways that reduce violence and structural racism, and health care can play a key role in that effort,” Wyden said during the bill’s unveiling. “Americans struggling with mental illness don’t always require law enforcement to be dispatched when they are experiencing a crisis — CAHOOTS is proof positive there is another way.”

Like many members of the Biden-Sanders unity task force, Wyden and Cortez Masto are not police abolitionists or even avowed progressives. Most ideological scorecards tend to place them squarely in the middle of the Democratic Party. Wyden in particular is one of the influential Democrats in the Senate to date — he is slated to chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee if Democrats retake the chamber in 2021.

And they aren’t the only ones who are pushing for legislation in this area. In a recent interview, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) announced that he and Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) would soon be introducing a bill that would establish a $100 million-per-year grant program to fund an even wider range of community-based alternatives to police.

“If we’re talking about investing in alternative first responders, the party is already there,” says Stacey Walker, a Sanders appointee to the Biden-Sanders unity task force on criminal justice. “Criminal justice advocates on both sides of the aisle understand the wisdom behind it. This can be the next frontier for criminal justice reform come 2021 if the Biden administration takes it seriously.”

However, federal funding for alternative first responders is one of the only policy recommendations from the Biden-Sanders criminal justice unity task force that is not referenced at all in the 2020 party platform. And while Biden has explicitly called for bigger investments toward issues like homelessness and substance abuse and federal funding for police “co-response” models, he has not done the same for civilian first response teams. (After publication of this story, the Biden campaign pointed out that the candidate does support the broader idea that police shouldn’t be the go-to first responder in every situation.)

That’s probably intentional on the campaign’s part. Republicans have already tried, with limited success, to pin the unpopular “defund the police” label on Biden — namely by using a deceptively-edited clip of Biden approving of the broad idea of redirecting some police funding to priorities like mental health and social services. So while federal funding for civilian first responders wouldn’t necessarily reduce police budgets, it isn’t hard to imagine how Republicans could manipulate the idea to convince voters that Biden has a secret defund-the-police agenda.

Still, the experts I spoke with were confident that the Biden-Harris ticket will be open to progressive ideas like this one once it is no longer in the midst of an intense election. “I think right now the calculation is: Why create talking points for Trump at this point?” says Galvin-Almanza. “But I truly believe Biden and Harris are open to hearing from progressives on these issues and will do so once in office.”

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