But elections in solidly Democratic cities where Republicans are a non-factor also dealt setbacks to radical criminal justice reformers, even as voters affirmed their support for more moderate reforms.
In Seattle, Minneapolis, and Buffalo, New York, voters either directly rejected proposals to reduce police funding, or voted down candidates who advocated for police funding cuts.
“Even in the bluest of blue cities, you’re not going to see people coming out for ‘defund the police’ anymore,” said Ian Russell, a former political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who now consults Democratic candidates. “And if it’s not playing in the bluest of blue cities, it sure as hell isn’t going to play in Peoria.”
At the same time, Cleveland voters approved a ballot measure adopting greater civilian oversight of police misconduct cases, and Austin, Texas, residents rejected a plan to mandate higher levels of police funding.
“The message of police accountability and oversight resonates,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution, whose members volunteered in the Buffalo, Cleveland and Austin elections. “That’s clear.”
However, he added, “in those places where the activist slogan [‘defund the police’] got misappropriated and manipulated by the opponents, and created a lot of confusion about what was happening,” it undermined reform efforts.
The results in Buffalo were perhaps least surprising. Four-term Mayor Byron Brown has all but officially defeated Democratic nominee India Walton, a supporter of police funding cuts, in an unusual write-in campaign. The results will not be certified for another two weeks after the deadline for overseas and military ballots passes, but more than 58% of voters wrote a name on their ballots rather than selecting one of the printed options ― and those votes are believed to be for Brown.
“That initial activist rallying cry got confused for the policy in Minneapolis.”
While Buffalo is heavily Democratic, even its Democratic electorate is much more centrist than that of, say, Austin. In a general election where Brown sought the votes of the city’s Republicans and conservative independents as well as its moderate Democrats, he emphasized Walton’s left-wing views on policing more than virtually any other issue. On the stump and in TV ads, Brown attacked Walton, in sometimes misleading ways, for her proposed reduction of the police budget by $7.5 million.
Walton abandoned the “defund the police” rhetoric she had used as an activist, emphasized her plans to refocus police resources on violent crime, and denied that she would achieve her savings by firing officers. A public pre-election poll showed that while just 19% of Buffalo voters supported reducing the police budget, more than 47% of voters supported “redirecting police funding” toward funding social workers, mental health response teams and other non-police services.
But Walton’s efforts to adopt the latter framing weren’t enough to assuage many voters’ fears about the impact of her plans.
Walton “has a very nuanced position on policing. And it’s one I don’t think people have the stomach for,” Jacob Neiheisel, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo, said before the election. “It absolutely is an albatross.”
In the far more left-leaning cities of Minneapolis and Seattle, voters’ rejection of police funding cuts ― or of efforts to reimagine policing entirely ― was more telling.
In Minneapolis, where the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked a nationwide protest movement against racism and police misconduct, voters rejected a ballot measure on Tuesday to replace the police department with a department of public safety, 56% to 44%. Two Minneapolis city council members who supported the ballot measure lost their reelection bids. Mayor Jacob Frey, by contrast, opposed the police overhaul and kept his seat.
The referendum, Question 2, would have created a new department of public safety charged with treating crime as a holistic, public-health problem. This department’s approach could have included the use of police officers, as well as social workers and other professionals, but it would not have been bound by the minimum police staffing requirements that are currently in the city charter. The ballot measure would have also given the city council greater control over this new entity than it currently has over the police department.
The umbrella group in favor of passing Question 2 actually raised more money ― $1.8 million ― than the main group opposed to the measure, which raised $1.6 million. Supporters of Question 2 used that fundraising advantage to conduct a massive field campaign aimed at dispelling concerns that the new department of public safety would necessarily result in the presence of fewer police officers.
But there are factors at play in Minneapolis that make residents especially suspicious of efforts to reimagine traditional policing. Nearly a quarter of the Minneapolis police force quit in the year after Floyd’s death, creating a shortage of officers during a historic rise in shootings. And many of the elected officials and activists supporting Question 2 had called explicitly for defunding the police department a year earlier.
Indeed, try as they might, proponents of Question 2 could not shake their association with the “defund the police” slogan.
“That initial activist rallying cry got confused for the policy in Minneapolis,” said Geevarghese, who supervised volunteer efforts in support of Question 2. “In these places where there’s a lot of activism, it became harder to distinguish the sloganeering from real substantive change.”
In Seattle, a similar set of interlocking factors converged to thwart the gains of the “defund the police” movement at the ballot box.
Following Floyd’s death, Seattle became a hotbed of anti-police activism and a laboratory for radical policymaking that ultimately provoked a public backlash.
The Seattle Police Department abused its power during this period in a way that bolstered the approach of left-wing reformers seeking to reduce its funding. The department used excessive force, including tear gas canisters, against demonstrators, even after Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered police to stop doing so.
But the city council’s dramatic efforts to diminish the police force have sparked controversy among critics who say the local lawmakers went too far.
In August 2020, Seattle’s city council moved to reduce the salaries of top police officials, including then-Chief Carmen Best, the first Black woman to lead the Seattle Police Department. Despite many Black leaders’ protestations of the city’s treatment of Best, she resigned.
Then, in November 2020, the Seattle city council slashed the overall police budget by nearly 20%. The city has subsequently struggled to fill even the positions that are fully funded, replacing just 100 out of 300 officers who have left the force.
“This election was a very clear repudiation of radical 'abolition' and 'defund' ideas.”
Even as Seattle suffers from the same uptick in gun violence sweeping other cities, residents have begun complaining about slower police response times due to the staffing shortage.
“They made cuts without having a plan,” said Victoria Beach, chair of the Seattle Police Department’s African-American Advisory Council. “They did it in a way that hurt our city.”
Durkan, apparently overwhelmed by the numerous crises facing the city, announced in December 2020 that she wouldn’t run for reelection. Her impending departure sparked a race to succeed her that doubled as a kind of civil war over the future of law enforcement in Seattle.
On Tuesday, it was clear which side won that war. Candidates for public office in Seattle who ran on restoring a more moderate approach to policing and criminal justice reform crushed their opponents. In the race for mayor, former City Councilman Bruce Harrell defeated City Councilwoman M. Lorena González, who voted for police funding cuts, by a massive margin. Harrell, who is Black and Japanese-American, combined calls for non-police alternatives where possible, and better guardrails against police bias, with support for hiring more police officers.
In the race for Seattle city attorney, or prosecutor, Ann Davison, a Republican backed by Washington state’s most prominent Democrats, handily defeated Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, a policing and incarceration abolitionist. Thomas-Kennedy, who had made numerous disparaging comments about law enforcement officers, had promised not to prosecute almost all misdemeanor crimes, including low-level domestic abuse allegations.
“This election was a very clear repudiation of radical ‘abolition’ and ‘defund’ ideas,” said Sandeep Kaushik, a Democratic strategist in Seattle who consulted for a pro-Davison super PAC. “In some sense, reform won over abolition.”
Democratic consultants who advise candidates in less liberal parts of the country feel vindicated and relieved that a cause they saw as a millstone around the party’s neck is finally losing some of its luster.
“I’m glad that this diversion that we took has come to an end,” said Russell, whose clients include some Democratic mayors. “The conversation about how to make policing just and fair has to continue, but it’s not going to continue in the absurdly phrased ‘defund the police’ frame or anything that sounds like it.”
But supporters of reducing police funding, who hope to replace some police functions with nonviolent alternatives, see reasons for optimism.
In Austin, for example, more than two-thirds of voters rejected Proposition A, a referendum that would have forced the city to hire hundreds more police officers by mandating a higher ratio of police officers per capita.
The referendum was a response to the progressive Austin city government’s efforts to reduce its police budget in 2020. The city restored the funding cuts this past summer, after the Texas state legislature passed a law fining cities that reduce police department funding.
But Austin’s decision to cancel multiple police cadet classes in 2020 has led to police staffing shortfalls that Prop A’s proponents argued undermine the city’s response to the rise in violent crime.
That argument came up against unlikely adversaries, however. The coalition seeking to defeat Prop A benefited from the opposition of the city’s firefighters and paramedics unions, which warned that the proposals would cause Austin to bleed spending on other city services to make the new policing math work.
“There are some very deep-seated changes that need to happen, and they are not going to happen overnight.”
And reformers elsewhere were paying close attention to the dynamics in Austin.
“Part of the conversation that we have had trouble landing as a movement ... is that every dollar we spend on police is a dollar that can’t go somewhere else,” said New York City Councilwoman-elect Tiffany Cabán (D), a prominent police abolitionist and former public defender. “What happened in Austin is that there was a very clear connection” thanks to firefighters’ opposition to Prop A.
The policymaking fight is not over in Seattle either. Seattle City Councilwoman Tammy Morales, who supported the losing candidates on Tuesday, vows that progressive stalwarts on the city council will try to lock in more police funding reductions during the budget fight this month.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s a setback,” Morales said of the election results. “What we realized in the last 18 months or so is that there are some very deep-seated changes that need to happen, and they are not going to happen overnight.”
Left-wing reformers are even taking heart in the percentage of Minneapolis residents who voted “yes” on Question 2 as a foundation on which to build.
More than 40% is “a wild number when you consider what they set out to do and the opposition they were up against,” Cabán said. “To see the paradigm shift about how the masses are viewing public safety, we are on the path to winning some really exciting fights.”
Asked whether, given public wariness of police funding cuts, radical reformers might not stick to proposing police alternatives alongside traditional policing, rather than as a substitute for such policing, Cabán reached for a bold analogy.
“The people who fought for the abolition of slavery ― that was not the overwhelming position of folks,” said Cabán, who noted that there were many people who proposed reforming slavery to make it more humane. “They went out and fought for it almost under the same climate [as today], where they were stepping out ahead of where other folks were to push the bounds of the movement.”