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With Public Slow To Embrace Defunding Police, Officials Distance Themselves

A demonstrator marches in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland on June 4. The demonstrations continued for days after the May 30 protest in Downtown Cleveland. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]
photo of protester

After the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement swept across the country. Thousands marched through Downtown Cleveland on May 30, facing off with police outside the Justice Center – where Cleveland police, the county courts and jail are all housed.

Kareem Henton of Black Lives Matter Cleveland said the video of Floyd’s death opened an old wound for many Clevelanders.

“That instance where you had so many people coming together on a single issue, on a single wavelength, showing solidarity is something that is not going anywhere anytime soon,” Henton said.

He pointed to the recent killing of Desmond Franklin by a Cleveland police officer, then back to Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams as evidence that Clevelanders had several local reasons to be out that day.

Black Lives Matter’s focus on moving money from the police department budget – which, in Cleveland, is about one-third of the city’s annual spending from the $675 million general fund – comes out of years of waiting for promised reforms.

“Now we’re saying ‘defund the police’ and the very people who have been ignoring our words, ignoring our pleas, ignoring our demands are now the very ones that are being forced to address it,” Henton said.

In Minneapolis, a majority of city council members came out in support of disbanding the police department and building something new. In New York City, the police budget was slashed by $1 billion.

But since the public pledges by council members in Minneapolis, many have softened their original stances. In New York, the police cuts were met with opposition from many on council.

“Defund the Police” has also become a target of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign – one ad starts with an unanswered 911 call. Playing along with the audio are images of riots, looting, and former Vice President Joe Biden’s face superimposed over the image of fires burning in the street.

But Biden is opposed to defunding police. He said so right after the nationwide protests ignited and again at the debate in Cleveland.

“Look, what I support is the police having the opportunity to deal with the problems they face. I’m totally opposed to defunding the police offices,” Biden said at the Sept. 29 debate.

The effort isn’t gaining traction among Ohioans either.

A June poll of likely voters in Ohio by Quinnipiac University found a majority opposed moving funding out of the police department and into social services. Eight out of 10 surveyed opposed the idea of disbanding police departments.

“So defunding, whatever that really means, didn't have a lot of traction,” said Quinnipiac University pollster Tim Malloy.

The idea of police reform in general also fell far down the list of voters’ concerns by the end of the summer, he added.

“Once coronavirus kicked in at its worst and we became really in the throes of it, almost every other issue was eclipsed,” Malloy said.

But the same poll also found majority support for Black Lives Matter.

Rashawn Ray, a sociology professor and fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said those two results – support for BLM and opposition to defunding the police – shows some social progress.

“What people are saying is the same beneficial experiences that people have in predominately white neighborhoods, particularly those that are in the suburbs, are the same type of experiences that people who live in predominately black neighborhoods, regardless of social class, should be able to have,” Ray said.

So far, the movement isn’t persuading those who control Cleveland’s purse strings.

Mayor Frank Jackson quickly condemned the idea in June.

“If it means on its face what it implies, that you just defund, we are not going to do that. That is not going to happen,” Jackson said, arguing the 2015 Consent Decree between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice guaranteed the reforms that activists are seeking.

Basheer Jones was the one city councilmember who initially expressed an openness to the idea of defunding police.

“But since then after sitting down with police, sitting down with community activists, sitting down with community members said that you know what this may not be the right wording,” Jones said.

Brookings’ Ray said reallocating police resources might be a more effective framing to gain support.

But either way, without the political pressure of the election, he said even more mobilization will be needed after November to get the reforms activists are seeking.

“Politicians come out in the moment, they say something, and then when there is a slight shift in public opinion or in public attention, they fall back,” Ray said. “Particularly when they realize what it's going to take to implement this.”

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.