Fact check: Biden didn't say 'yes, absolutely' to defunding police

Posted August 6, 2020 4:42 p.m. EDT
Updated August 6, 2020 5:18 p.m. EDT

A digital ad targeting former Vice President Joe Biden used edited video to suggest, wrongly, that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee would defund the police.

The 15-second ad, from conservative super PAC America First Action, selectively edits a clip from Biden’s interview with liberal activist Ady Barkan. While the text on the screen reads, "Defund the police?," Biden is seen on a TV saying, "Yes. Absolutely, yes."

The ad then cuts to a woman in a dark room. The woman is holding one hand over a child’s mouth and dialing 911 with another. The call goes to voicemail.

"You have reached 911," an operator says. "Due to budget cuts and increased criminal activity, our agents are busy assisting other callers."

"Mommy, I’m scared," the child says, as a figure is shown approaching the doorway and the text on the screen reads, "Police have fewer resources in Joe Biden’s America."

The ad was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) A 30-second version of the ad shows the parent and child hiding under a bed before calling 911.

The ad mischaracterizes Biden’s position on defunding the police, and its depictions of urgent 911 calls going unanswered exaggerate what many activists are asking for. As we've reported, most "defund" advocates do not want violence to run wild in a police-free state.

Biden doesn’t want to defund the police

President Donald Trump, his campaign and his allies have repeatedly lumped Biden in with activists who have called to defund the police following the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police. But Biden is against the idea.

"No, I don’t support defunding the police," Biden told CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell in June. "I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness and, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community."

Activists’ calls for defunding the police have varied. Some want to eliminate police departments, while others want to reexamine their functions and redirect some funding to other services.

Biden has rejected support for those calls multiple times: in a spokesperson’s statement, in an op-ed, during fundraisers, in a number of local news interviews, and in response to a questionnaire from the Fraternal Order of Police, an organization of law enforcement officers.

He has instead proposed investing an additional $300 million in the Community Oriented Policing Services Program, or COPS, his campaign website says. The program, to which Trump previously proposed budget cuts, provides police departments with technical and training assistance, hiring grants and access to mental health and wellness resources.

Biden would also expand the Justice Department’s authority to investigate excessive force, unconstitutional policing and systemic misconduct. He has vowed to establish a national police oversight commission within 100 days of taking office, and he has urged other reforms.

In the Fraternal Order of Police questionnaire, Biden argued for "serious investments" in social services so police can focus on investigations and violent crime, writing that "that certainly makes more sense than eliminating police departments or defunding the police."

Trump has falsely claimed that the policy recommendations from a task force of advisers picked by Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called for abolishing the police. They did not.

"He's desperate to run against a fictitious Joe Biden," said Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates.

The Ady Barkan interview

America First Action is not the first to pounce on Biden’s interview with Barkan, which was edited and posted July 8.

Biden’s "absolutely" comment came after Barkan mentioned recent killings of Black Americans by police. Noting that protesters say redirecting some police funding to social services could reduce fatal police encounters, Barkan asked: "Are you open to that kind of reform?"

"Yes. I proposed that kind of reform," Biden said.

Biden went on to discuss the need for increased mental health services and police reforms such as transparency in misconduct records, and he decried police use of military-grade equipment.

At that point, Barkan interjected: "But do we agree that we can redirect some of the funding?"

"Yes. Absolutely," Biden replied, before the interview cut to Biden talking about the prison system.

The Biden campaign gave PolitiFact an unedited audio recording of that exchange. The recording shows that after Biden said he "proposed that kind of reform," he added, "And by the way, the idea though, that’s not the same as getting rid of or defunding all the police."

According to the recording, after, "Yes. Absolutely," Biden said: "And by the way, not just redirect, condition them. If they don’t eliminate chokeholds, they don’t get Byrne grants. If they don’t do the following, they don’t get any help."

The America First Action ad edited Biden’s answer to make it seem like he said, "Yes. Absolutely, yes." There was no second "yes." And it was not in response to a direct question about whether Biden supports defunding the police, as the ad suggests.

911 response times

The ad also connects defunding the police to slow 911 responses, with the woman in the ad failing to get through to a dispatcher.

Criminal justice experts we spoke to were mixed about whether defunding police according to activists’ wishes would make it harder to get police on the line. Experts previously told us a Trump campaign ad warning of five-day wait times was an exaggeration.

Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said "unrelenting attacks on policing and police budgets may have devastating consequences for some individuals and communities," including with regard to police response times following 911 calls.

Other experts saw drawn-out wait times as less likely. Candace McCoy, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay, said the ad’s portrait of long 911 waits is "just scare tactics."

Seth Stoughton, associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina, said a goal for many "defund" activists is to "adequately invest in other aspects of social service and public safety infrastructure so that there is less need for police involvement."

That could give police more room to field 911 calls. "If we expand the public safety infrastructure by developing alternate capabilities of responding to certain emergencies, then we might actually preserve police resources for those calls that require a police response," he said.

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