Black voters in two of America's most liberal cities sour on 'defund the police'

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Marques Warren got a late-night phone call at his Seattle home last year during racial justice riots and it turned him against the idea of “defund the police.” 

The call came from the security alarm company for the liquor store he owns downtown. A break-in was in progress.

Amid the mayhem of protests over the killing of George Floyd, sensors on the store’s plate-glass windows detected the repeated blows of people trying to smash their way in. Mr. Warren quickly answered “yes” when the security company asked if he wanted them to call the police. 

A few minutes later the company called back. “They basically said the police said they wouldn’t be responding,” he recalled in an interview.

The episode, he said, was central to his decision to vote for pro-police candidate Bruce Harrell in Seattle’s mayoral election next week.

Mr. Harrell, a former city councilman whose father is Black and whose mother is Japanese, is leading in the race and knocking the defund-the-police stance of his opponent, City Council President Lorena Gonzalez.

A little more than a year after Floyd’s death sparked calls to “defund the police” as a step toward racial justice, Democratic voters — especially Black voters — have soured on the idea. In two of the nation’s most liberal cities, Seattle and Minneapolis, polls show voters rejecting defunding-the-police candidates and ballot questions.

The two cities were epicenters of the racial justice protests, riots and calls for dismantling police departments that erupted after Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. 

The about-face from the left’s defund-the-police movement also follows a crime wave that swept across the U.S.

Polls show that much of the opposition to reducing the number of police is coming from Black people such as Mr. Warren.

Mr. Harrell led Ms.Gonzalez, 48% to 32% with 18% undecided, according to a Northwest Progressive Institute poll last week.

The findings tracked another poll in September that found Mr. Harrell leading Ms. Gonzalez, 42% to 27%, though a quarter of voters were undecided in the poll done by Elway Research, a leading pollster in the region, for the non-profit news site Crosscut. 

It showed that Mr. Harrell led Ms. Gonzalez among minorities 29% to 22%, with nearly a third of the voters saying they were undecided.

The poll also found that a majority in liberal Seattle, 54%, want the city to hire more cops, while 38% advocated shifting money away from the police budget to fund ways to address “root causes of crime” like increasing spending on mental health services.

Among people of color, 57% wanted more cops, while only 35% wanted to shift money away from the police.

In Minneapolis, a recent poll by multiple news outlets including the Minneapolis Star-Tribune found that voters supported a ballot measure reconfiguring the police department by 49% to 41%.

However, the support is mostly coming from the city’s White voters, who supported the idea 51% to 40%. Support among Black voters drops to 42% with 47% opposing the plan.

Under the proposal, the police department would become the Department of Public Safety — a change is meant to signal a new approach to crime by adding increasing mental health and substance abuse services to traditional law enforcement.

Black respondents overwhelmingly oppose reducing the police force, with 75% opposed to that idea.

“The voters who give conflicting answers are largely African-American,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, which conducted the survey. “On one hand they want the department reformed, but on the other, they tend to live in higher crime areas and don’t want a reduction of police on their own streets,” he said.

Sharon Sayles Belton, who was elected Minneapolis’ first Black and first woman mayor in 1993, said Black voters want racial justice but they also want safe neighborhoods and police on the beat.

“Citizens, even those most traumatized by the police, still want police in our community. We want good policing and we will need reform to get it,” she said.

The fading enthusiasm for defunding the police highlights the tension in minority communities between fearing the police and needing police, particularly as crime worsens.

“I think most black people in the United States have complex critiques and relationships with policing,” said Ben Yisrael, an expert in racial equity issues in policing at Texas Southern University’s Center for Justice Research. 

Mr. Yisrael was not surprised to see Black people opposed to reducing the size of police departments. 

“Black Americans in high-poverty areas want the perceived security of good policing. There is no contradiction in protesting police brutality and desiring to be kept safe from violent crime,” said Mr. Yisrael, who has worked with the Seattle city government on equity issues. “The idea of completely changing the policing system is new to the mainstream. So the gap between Black people that think the police are racist and those who think we should abolish the police may be highlighting generational differences.”

Mr. Warren, the liquor store owner, said Mr. Harrell’s approach finds that balance.

“He understands the nuances of what needs to occur,” Mr. Warren said. “He understands the importance of having a police force that’s free of bias, while not necessarily abandoning public safety and security especially for the people of color who are often the most victimized in the community.”

Ms. Gonzalez’s campaign has not focused on defunding the police. Instead, she has attacked Mr. Harrell’s support from the city’s business community including a business leader who supported former President Donald Trump.

At a recent debate, Ms. Gonzalez acknowledged she’d “made a commitment to look at shifting dollars away from the police department in direct response to the murder of George Floyd and the action we saw in our city.”

She said, “there are deep cultural reform issues that cannot be simply fixed by asking them to watch videos of someone being murdered or making them sign a pledge after they watch that video.” 

Her campaign did not comment on whether she still supports reducing funding for traditional policing. 

Mr. Harrell’s campaign also did not respond to inquiries about the policing issues. He said during the debate that he supports efforts to reduce police bias against minorities, but he stressed that the city’s residents and businesses are afraid of crime.

“They want 7 minute response times. They want an effective police department. That’s why I don’t subscribe to the defund narrative my opponent and others subscribe to,” he said. 

In Minneapolis, the recent poll isn’t the only indication of the split among liberal Democrats over the issue. 

Top Democrats, including Gov. Tim Walz and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the state’s senior U.S. senator, have opposed the ballot question.

However, the measure retains support from far-left Democrats such as Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose district includes Minneapolis.

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