Fact-checking the Trump campaign's 'defunding the police' ad

Posted July 9, 2020 6:13 a.m. EDT
Updated July 9, 2020 5:53 p.m. EDT

An ad by President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign goes full-bore against those who would support "defunding the police."

The July 2 ad features images of looting and violence in the streets, as an answering service narrates with a recorded voice:

"You have reached the 911 police emergency line. Due to defunding of the police department, we're sorry, but no one is here to take your call. If you're calling to report a rape, please press 1. To report a murder, press 2. To report a home invasion, press 3. For all other crimes, leave your name and number and someone will get back to you. Our estimated wait time is currently 5 days. Goodbye."

On-screen text references Trump’s presumptive opponent in the presidential race, saying, "Joe Biden's supporters are fighting to defund police departments," "violent crime has exploded," and "you won't be safe in Joe Biden's America."

The text in the ad is artfully worded, saying that "Joe Biden's supporters" — rather than Biden himself — want to defund police departments. That’s because Biden is against the idea.

The ad also paints a worst-case scenario for a post-defunding future. While some protesters want to eliminate police departments entirely, others want to revisit the functions of police departments and reroute some of their funding toward social services. Experts say that most defunding advocates do not want violence to simply run wild in a police-free state.

"If police departments were to disappear, this scenario might be plausible," said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "But short of that, police departments will continue to accept and respond to 911 calls."

What does "defunding the police" mean for 911 calls?

While some protesters want to eliminate police departments entirely, others want to revisit the functions of police departments and reroute some of their funding toward social services.

Kailee Scales, managing director for Black Lives Matter Network Action Fund and Black Lives Matter Global Network Inc., said the group was calling for a "divestment in police in order to support more teachers, mental health and restorative services, community resilience departments, social workers, and government resource liaisons."

"I know that sounds like a lot to take in," she wrote in a June 8 Reddit "Ask me anything" live chat, "but simply, it is the idea of creating the ‘American Dream’ for all — less cops on streets and better schools and social programming."

Experts in criminal justice told us it is rare to shut down a police department, and the changes some governments are considering now are not that extreme.

Police departments could offload to other agencies a variety of responsibilities that don’t necessarily require an armed officer, such as managing traffic, securing sporting events, or dealing with the homeless or people overdosing from drugs. A city could rely on housing inspectors, recreational directors, and social workers for certain tasks currently handled by police. Another outcome could be a city dismantling its most aggressive police units.

In Portland, Ore., Mayor Ted Wheeler has already said he will shift police away from assignments in schools.

"Defunding doesn’t mean eliminating the police or reducing them to a skeletal force," said James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist.

If police forces were cut substantially, they should still be able to address the serious offenses mentioned in the ad given the volume of those calls, Fox said. A typical city of 500,000 people has about 50 homicides and 700 home invasions a year, or about two a day, he said.

Almost everybody who supports the movement also believes that responding to 911 calls for reported violence "is proper and that police should do it," said Candace McCoy, who teaches in the doctoral program in criminal justice at the City University of New York.

"Usually police respond to reports of homicides or rapes or home invasions by showing up and taking reports and setting up crime scene investigations," McCoy said. "Most ‘defund’ people see no problem with that. In fact, many would gladly fund and even increase funding for investigators who will take these reports seriously. Rape investigations, for instance, are notoriously sloppy and often don't happen at all."

Biden does not support 'defunding the police'

Biden has clearly stated his opposition to the idea of defunding the police.

"I don't support defunding the police," Biden told CBS News in a clip aired June 8. "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."

He repeated that stance in an op-ed in USA Today..

"While I do not believe federal dollars should go to police departments violating people’s rights or turning to violence as the first resort, I do not support defunding police," Biden wrote. "The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms, and to condition other federal dollars on completing those reforms.

Other leading Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass, D-Calif., have echoed Biden’s position.

Is there evidence that crime is going up?

It’s likely an exaggeration that "violent crime has exploded," as the text in the ad said. But official crime statistics are usually released months after the fact, so we won’t know about recent crime patterns for a while.

The ad footnoted this statement to an ABC News article. That article cited interviews with senior police officials in several cities conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank.

The police officials expressed concern to the think tank about rising crime, though they were speaking about their own cities, not a national pattern. In addition, many of the reasons they cited for the uptick in crime stemmed from conditions unique to the second quarter of 2020.

The report cited the pandemic as "a key factor in rising crime," noting that "jurisdictions released many offenders in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in jails. And courts in many places have been closed. That has led to a feeling among offenders that they can commit crimes with impunity. In addition, police in some cities are less proactive in their enforcement, in order to avoid interactions with the public that could spread the virus."

The report also cited the demonstrations after Floyd’s death. "Police officers who would normally spend their time investigating violent crime have been assigned to demonstrations," the report said.

The reality, experts say, is that certain crimes have probably risen while others have fallen.

The ad’s line about "five days" of waiting for assistance is "a wild exaggeration," said Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "However, many urban Americans have a hard time getting a timely police response to even urgent calls. Many cities no longer send police to a laundry list of crimes and calls for service, such as thefts, accidents, and even suicidal people."

As for the images of burning streets, it is accurate that looting, fires and other forms of destruction did spike in some major cities when demonstrations began, the protests grew to be largely peaceful in the weeks that followed. Meanwhile, there’s no question that weeks of face-offs between officers and protesters have left both sides on edge.

It’s important to note, however, that violent crime is far lower than it was at its peak in the early 1990s, as this chart of FBI data shows.

Chart: Violent crime in U.S. 1986-2018

This chart only shows the data through 2018. The only subsequent data released to date found that violent crimes decreased by 3.1% between the first half of 2018 and the first half of 2019.

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