Last Wednesday, on the second anniversary of George Floyd’s death, President Biden unveiled a long-awaited executive order to overhaul police work in the United States.
As my colleagues noted at the time, the final text of the order reflected “the balancing act the president is trying to navigate in policing” – between progressive activists demanding greater restrictions on the use of force, police groups seeking to limit the scope of change and Republicans who see rising crime as a winning political issue. It was the product of delicate coalition politics — more than 120 meetings over more than 100 hours, according to the White House.
But all that balancing work, praised by groups like the NAACP, the ACLU and the Fraternal Order of Police, masked an enduring division among Democrats that reversed the massacre of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas: America invest more in its police or spend money and attention elsewhere?
Where the consensus on the left breaks down
When it comes to protecting children in schools, the national debate bears many hallmarks of the country’s disagreements over police enforcement, and falls into many of the same ruts.
After the Texas shooting, there were immediate calls from Democrats to ban military-style guns and high-capacity magazines, tempered by pessimism that few, if any, Republicans would support anything beyond improved background checks and red flag laws. Most Democrats agree on that.
Democrats also made universally ridiculous arguments from Republicans, who in recent days have been led by… Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, that the answer to mass school shootings is “armed good guys stopping armed bad guys” — not banning AR-15s.
“Why those kinds of weapons are available to civilians is beyond me,” said Michael Nutter, a former mayor of Philadelphia. “And no one has ever been able to give a legitimate reason or reason for that.”
But then the consensus among Democrats begins to crumble.
Speaking to many on the left, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, noted in a tweet that the school district in Uvalde had “its own police force” but could not stop the massacre. “After decades of mass shootings, there is still 0 evidence that the police have the ability to stop them,” she wrote. “Conflict safety and other policies can do that.”
That’s not what the White House said. Centrist Democrats, led by Biden, have since pushed for power to give police forces more resources — and have loudly distanced themselves from calls after George Floyd’s murder to relieve police forces.
The president’s pandemic aid package, the American Rescue Plan, led to $10 billion in federal public safety spending. During his State of the Union address in March, the president slammed the lectern as he declared, “We should all agree that the answer is not to punish the police. It is to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.”
The federal government has also invested millions in strengthening the defenses of schools. In April, the Justice Department announced $53 million in new funding for improved safety in schools across the country, on top of nearly $64.7 million for proposals to prevent and respond to violent episodes.
‘We are going to see more police officers in schools’
Just in case there was any doubt, the president’s comments during the executive order signing ceremony made it clear which side he is on. He criticized “those who try to drive a wedge between law enforcement and the people they serve.” And he praised “brave local officers and border patrol officers,” who he said “had intervened to save as many children as possible” in Texas.
Days later, as details emerged about the mishandling of the Uvalde massacre by local police, the Justice Department announced a review of the actions of law enforcement agencies.
In an indicator of the passion for policing on the left, David Axelrod, a former political adviser to Barack Obama, faced an onslaught of criticism after he tweeted that Uvalde had shown that the police were “indispensable”.
“My point was not to praise the indefensible decisions the police made that day in Uvalde,” Axelrod explained in an email. “It was that their inactivity for 90 minutes showed the indispensability of good, quick police action in tragic situations like this. Those kids needed the police that day. They came into action much too late.”
“There is little doubt that this will allow us to see more cops in schools,” said Adam Gelb, the director of the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan policy and research organization based in Atlanta. “And also louder and louder arguments that more police is not the solution.”
Hollowed out schools
Among those in attendance when Biden signed the executive order was Udi Ofer, the ACLU’s deputy national political director and leader of the group’s criminal justice work. The ACLU has been one of the most vocal advocates of a reform of policing.
In an interview, Ofer praised the executive order as a “first step” that incorporates some of the ACLU’s priorities, such as calling on cabinet officials to pool guidelines and resources to promote alternative ways to respond to “persons in crisis.” – for example, sending a mental health professional to respond to someone going through a psychological crisis, rather than a police officer.
Left-wing groups argue that increasing counseling and mental health resources is critical to identifying and stopping potential mass shooters, including in schools.
A 2019 ACLU report argued that the United States had invested too much in police officers in schools while under-invested in mental health resources. For example, it found that 14 million students went to school with police officers, but without counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers.
Ofer pointed to research, in the form of a working paper published in March, that showed investing in early childhood education pays off by reducing the chances of students being arrested as adults.
“When a tragedy like this happens, the reflexive response is to put more police in schools,” Ofer said. “But the police are actually not doing the right thing to stop mass shootings.”
‘The problem is better police’
For Marc Morial, the chief executive of the National Urban League, the ideological debate about policing in America is a source of endless frustration.
“The problem is not more or less police work,” Morial said in an interview. “The problem is better police and better police.”
As mayor of New Orleans for eight years, Morial has revamped the city’s police force and tripled investment in community programs. Now he worries that the return of “hard crime” reports could herald a regression to the failed police strategies of the past.
“I have a very, very strong feeling that we could take a wrong turn and go back to yesterday,” Morial said. “There’s a lot of empty, hollow political rhetoric in this space.”
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