Two weeks ago, Redfield & Wilton Strategies undertook a country-wide poll which found that the majority of Americans supporting the protests that have occurred throughout the nation since the death of George Floyd. Within these demonstrations, a call to ‘defund the police’ has become a rallying cry.
There has, however, been significant debate around what it means to ‘defund the police.’ Some activist groups genuinely want to see police departments completely dismantled, yet more moderate supporters have simply called for a reduction (or transfer) of funding. Calls to defund the police have begun to gain traction in certain cities: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would move funding from the NYPD to youth initiatives and social services, while Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to cut as much as $150 million from a planned increase in the LAPD budget. Nevertheless, critics, including the D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, have warned that underfunding police departments could backfire and result in less comprehensive training and hiring processes for officers. Similarly, opponents have also argued that police defunding could result in increased crime.
Across six swing states polled by Redfield & Wilton Strategies last week, the public’s opinion on defunding the police is remarkably consistent across these six states. Just a quarter of the public in the swing states agree with ’defunding the police’ (Arizona: 23%, Florida: 24%, Michigan: 24%, North Carolina: 26%, Pennsylvania: 25%, Wisconsin: 24%, North Carolina: 26%). By contrast, around half of the public expressly disagree with the calls to ‘defund the police’ (Arizona: 50%, Florida: 49%, Michigan: 50%, North Carolina: 47%, Pennsylvania: 51%, Wisconsin: 50%, Ultimately, around twice as many members of the public in swing-states disagree with the idea of defunding the police as agree with it.
Since the civil unrest has erupted across the USA, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, Joe Biden, has advocated for reforming police departments over defunding them. His campaign spokesman, Andrew Bates, stated that Biden was opposed to cutting police funding and believed in fact more spending was necessary to help improve law enforcement and community. Nevertheless, respondents who are likely to vote for Biden in November are sharply divided on the issue of whether police forces should be de-funded. In four of the states, the difference between likely Biden voters who support and oppose defunding the police ranges between 0% and 2%, suggesting a virtual tie. Only in two states (North Carolina and Michigan) does a notably greater proportion of likely Biden voters (5% and 9%, respectively) disagree rather than agree with defunding the police. As such, ‘defund the police’ will present itself as a challenging issue for the Biden camp, where one set of supporters will be keen to see a strong, ‘progressive’ stand and another set of supporters will hope for a more nuanced, moderate approach.
In contrast to Democrats, this poll indicates that Trump voters are relatively united in their opposition to defunding of police services. Across six states, a clear majority of those who voted for Trump in 2016 disagree with the calls to ‘defund the police’ (Arizona: 72%, Florida: 68%, Michigan: 74%, North Carolina: 72%, Pennsylvania: 71%, Wisconsin: 74%). Trump’s team and senior Republicans clearly recognise that this issue is one which can potentially rally support. The White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany stated on Monday 8th June that Trump was ‘appalled’ by calls to ‘defund the police’ while Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called the suggestion “outlandish.”
The city of Minneapolis, where unarmed black man George Floyd was killed by a member of the local police force, has been at the centre of the debate around whether to defund the police. A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis Council recently committed to disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a ‘community-led’ public safety program, despite Mayor Jacob Frey’s calls for reform of the police rather than dismantling the department. Across six states polled by Redfield & Wilton Strategies last week, a strong plurality of respondents expressed a degree of disapproval with this decision (Arizona: 46%, Florida: 45%, Michigan: 44%, North Carolina: 44%, Pennsylvania: 46%, Wisconsin: 48%). In all six states, less than 30% of the public approve this decision (Arizona: 28%, Florida: 29%, Michigan: 27%, North Carolina: 26%, Pennsylvania: 27%, Wisconsin: 25%).
The limited support for de-funding the police or replacing police services with community led programs may be linked somewhat to the perspectives that most of the American public hold of the police. In all six states, a significant majority of respondents stated that they believed that the behaviour of Police Officer Derek Chauvin and the three other Minneapolis police officers exhibited during the arrest and death of George Floyd was not largely representative of the police in their state. (Arizona: 59%, Florida: 54%, Michigan: 60%, Wisconsin: 61%, North Carolina: 58%).
Despite clear overall majorities in all six states, sizable minorities of between 20% and 27% of respondents across the six states (Arizona: 23%, Florida: 27%, Michigan: 22%, North Carolina: 23%, Pennsylvania: 25%, Wisconsin: 20%) believe that the extremely violent actions of Chauvin, and his colleagues’ tacit acceptance of his behaviour, is typical of law enforcement in their state.
At the same time, we found narrow pluralities of respondents in five of the six swing states approving of the protests that have followed the death of George Floyd. Roughly 37% to 41% of respondents approve of the protests, while 30% to 38% disapprove. This breakdown, though close to even, differs significantly from that on our questions on de-funding the police, which may suggest that the public does not fully associate the protests taking place with the specific call to de-fund the police or with polices as the disbanding of the Minneapolis Police Department.
As such, this difference in association may make the Trump campaign’s stance against ‘defund the police’ less of a unifying issue than initially appears. A plurality of respondents in all six states agree that President Trump has not handled the crisis well. Nearly half of respondents in each swing state disapproves of how Trump has reacted to the protests following the death of George Floyd. 46% of North Carolinians, 48% of Floridians, 45% of Michiganders, 48% of Wisconsinites, 48% of Pennsylvanians, and 50% of Arizonans disapprove of Trump’s response.
At the same time, nearly half of respondents (41-50%) in these six states also believe Donald Trump was correct to suggest state governors bring in the National Guard to handle protests if necessary. Their general disapproval of Trump’s response to the protest may thus be a complicated matter. Some may disapprove, because they feel that President Trump did not do enough while others may disapprove with other aspects of his performance, such as his rhetoric or the way protestors outside the White House were handled.
By contrast, at least 40%, of respondents in these swing states believe that a President Joe Biden would have done a better job handling the crisis. In all states, this figure amounts to a plurality of respondents.
This unusual contrast is interesting. The public appears somewhat more in line with the views of Donald Trump on ‘defund the police’ and on the police, broadly speaking, in the United States, and yet the public does not approve of his handling of the protests and believes a President Joe Biden would have responded to these protests better. It could be that members of the public are aware of the former Vice President’s more nuanced argument on de-funding the police and on policing in the United States. More likely, the public does not yet fully associate the protests, which may appear somewhat similar to other protests on different subjects during the Trump Administration, to specific policies as de-funding the police and so forth.
In the run up to November’s election, the lack of substantial public support for disbanding police departments makes it seem unlikely that the Democratic Party leadership will back calls from some key figures on the left for defunding the police. Moreover, it is clear that most Americans also believe that the officers who have been charged in relation to the killing of George Floyd do not represent police as a whole, although there is clearly a minority of respondents that disagrees with this view. As such, the broader controversies surrounding policing in the United States, safety, and race will continue to reverberate until November.