Last Wednesday, on the second anniversary of George Floyd’s death, President Biden unveiled a long-awaited executive order aimed at overhauling policing 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 on policing” — between progressive activists demanding greater constraints 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 across more than 100 hours, according to the White House.
But all of that balancing work, which earned praise from groups as disparate as the N.A.A.C.P., the A.C.L.U. and the Fraternal Order of Police, masked an enduring divide among Democrats that the massacre of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, has ripped back open: Should America invest more in its police or redirect funding and attention elsewhere?
Where consensus on the left breaks down
When it comes to how to protect children in schools, the national debate bears many hallmarks of the country’s disagreements over policing, and falls into many of the same ruts.
After the Texas shooting, there were immediate calls by Democrats to ban military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, tempered by pessimism that few, if any, Republicans would support anything beyond enhanced background checks and red-flag laws. Most Democrats agree on that much.
Democrats also universally ridiculed arguments by Republicans, led in recent days by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, that the answer to mass shootings in schools is “armed good guys stopping armed bad guys” — not outlawing AR-15s.
“Why those kinds of weapons are available to citizens is beyond me,” said Michael Nutter, a former mayor of Philadelphia. “And nobody has ever been able to give a legitimate reason or rationale for that.”
But then the consensus among Democrats starts to break down.
Speaking for 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 failed to halt the slaughter. “After decades of mass shootings, there is still 0 evidence that police have the ability to stop them from happening,” she wrote. “Gun safety and other policies can.”
That’s not what the White House has been saying. Centrist Democrats, led by Biden, have pushed since taking power to give police departments more resources — and have loudly distanced themselves from calls after George Floyd’s murder to defund police departments.
The president’s pandemic relief package, the American Rescue Plan, directed $10 billion in federal spending toward public safety. During his State of the Union address in March, the president pounded the lectern as he declared, “We should all agree the answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.”
The federal government has also poured millions into hardening schools’ defenses. In April, the Justice Department announced $53 million in new funding for improved security at 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 cops in schools’
In case there were any doubt, the president’s remarks at the signing ceremony for the executive order made clear which side he is on. He criticized “those who seek to drive a wedge between law enforcement and the people they serve.” And he praised “brave local officers and Border Patrol agents,” who he said had “intervened to save as many children as they could” in Texas.
Days later, as details emerged about the local police’s mishandling of the massacre in Uvalde, the Justice Department announced a review of law enforcement agencies’ actions.
In one indicator of the passion around 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 police made in Uvalde that day,” Axelrod explained in an email. “It was that their inaction for 90 minutes spoke to the indispensability of proper, prompt policing in tragic situations such as this. Those kids needed the police that day. They didn’t act until far too late.”
“There’s very little doubt that we are going to see more cops in schools as a result of this,” said Adam Gelb, the chief executive of the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan policy and research organization in Atlanta. “And also louder and more vociferous arguments that more cops isn’t the solution.”
One of those present when Biden signed the executive order was Udi Ofer, deputy national political director of the A.C.L.U. and a leader of the group’s work on criminal justice. The A.C.L.U. has been one of the most vocal proponents of overhauling policing.
In an interview, Ofer praised the executive order as a “first step” that incorporated some of the A.C.L.U.’s priorities, such as its call for cabinet officials to pull together guidance and resources promoting alternative ways of responding to “persons in crisis” — for example, sending a social worker to investigate a domestic dispute instead of an armed police officer.
Groups on the left argue that increasing resources for counseling and mental health is critical to identifying and stopping potential mass shooters, including in schools.
A 2019 report by the A.C.L.U. argued that the United States had over-invested in police officers in schools while underinvesting in mental health resources. It found, for instance, that 14 million students attended schools 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, indicating that investments in early childhood education pay off by reducing the likelihood that students will be arrested as adults.
“When a tragedy like this happens, the reflexive response is to put more policing in schools,” Ofer said. “But police actually don’t do a good job of stopping mass shootings.”
‘The issue is better police’
To Marc Morial, the chief executive of the National Urban League, the ideological debate over policing in America is a source of endless frustration.
“The issue is not more policing or less policing,” Morial said in an interview. “The issue is better police and better policing.”
As mayor of New Orleans for eight years, Morial revamped the city’s Police Department and tripled investment in community programs. Now, he worries that the return of “tough-on-crime” messaging could herald a regression to the failed policing strategies of the past.
“I feel very, very strongly that we could make a wrong turn and return to yesterday,” Morial said. “There’s a lot of empty, hollow political rhetoric in this space.”
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