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

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 plate-glass windows detected the repeated blows of people trying to smash their way inside the store. Mr. Warren quickly answered “yes” when the security company asked whether 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 Council member 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, Democrats, especially Black voters, have soured on the idea. In two of the nation’s most liberal cities, Seattle and Minneapolis, polls show voters rejecting candidates and ballot questions in favor of defunding police departments.

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

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 from Black people such as Mr. Warren.

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

The findings tracked a poll in September that found Mr. Harrell leading Ms. Gonzalez, 42% to 27%, though a quarter of voters were undecided. Elway Research, a leading pollster in the region, conducted the survey for the nonprofit news site Crosscut. 

It showed Mr. Harrell leading Ms. Gonzalez among minorities, 29% to 22%. Nearly a third said they were undecided.

The poll 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,” such as investing in mental health services.

Among people of color, 57% wanted more cops and 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 was mainly from White voters, who backed the idea 51% to 40%. Support among Black voters was 42%, with 47% opposing the plan.

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

Among Black respondents, 75% oppose reducing the police force.

“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, elected as Minneapolis’ first Black and first female mayor in 1993, said Black voters want racial justice but also 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 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 that Black people opposed reductions in 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 backs former President Donald Trump.

At a recent debate, Ms. Gonzalez acknowledged that she “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 that “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 seven-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. 

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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