May the force be with us

Ranking topics: Government spending

“DEFUND THE POLICE”, a slogan that might once have appealed only to America’s left, has gone mainstream. Since George Floyd’s death on May 25th, protesters across the country have called for police departments to be “defunded”, or for a portion of funds to be diverted to social programmes. Others want departments abolished altogether. 

But the proposal has yet to win over a majority of voters. A recent survey by YouGov, a pollster, found that only a quarter of American adults are in favour of cutting funding for police departments outright. (When respondents are alerted to arguments from opponents of defunding that it might lead to a rise in crime, the proportion drops even lower.) A larger share favour redirecting funds from police to alternative first responders, such as social workers, drug counsellors and mental-health experts. Nearly half of Americans approve of this approach, though support is split along party lines with 68% of Democrats in favour, and 55% of Republicans opposed.

Other police reforms enjoy broader support. Another survey, also by YouGov, found that large majorities of Americans favour training police officers to de-escalate conflicts (88%), equipping them with body cameras (87%), identifying troublesome officers sooner (80%) and banning restraint of suspects’ necks (67%; Mr Floyd was choked by an officer’s knee). Two bills introduced by the House and Senate, on June 8th and June 17th, respectively, include all of these ideas in one form or another. The Senate bill encourages de-escalation training; the House bill boosts funding for investigations of police misconduct; both encourage the use of body cameras. The House bill bans chokeholds and neck restraints outright, whereas the Senate one discourages chokeholds by blocking federal grants if used.

Yet when it comes to reforming the police, congressional powers are limited. Most of America’s 18,000 law-enforcement agencies are governed locally, so lawmakers in Washington can only regulate them in roundabout ways—for example by collecting data, prosecuting abuses of power or restricting access to federal grants. Some reforms passed in Congress could be ignored. Things may not get that far. Democrats and Republicans in Congress struggle to pass controversial legislation even in amicable times, let alone during an election year. 

This article is from our Graphic detail section.