Reporter’s Notebook: A shift in Democrats’ support of police

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The video went viral. 

And the punches never stopped.

A New York City Police officer tangled and wrestled with a 16-year-old boy for what seemed like the entire round of a boxing match at Madison Square Garden. 

Cops finally subdued the teen — charging him with assault on a police officer and resisting arrest. Police say the teen jumped a turnstile in a subway station. Officers had previously arrested him for possession of a loaded gun and a robbery. 

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This is just one example of recent assaults on police.

An assailant shot and killed Clark County, Ohio Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Yates over the weekend. The entire police department of Kenly, N.C., quit recently, citing hostile work conditions. 

Congress is taking notice. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Tuesday on protecting police. Rising crime means this is an election issue. 

Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher joined NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday and called on Democrats to talk about saving children's lives and a women's right to choose ahead of the midterm elections.

Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher joined NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday and called on Democrats to talk about saving children’s lives and a women’s right to choose ahead of the midterm elections. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Democrats facing competitive races know they need to put some distance between themselves and the progressive “defund the police” mantra. The slogan matured into the political mainstream two years ago after the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. 

“We are funding the police and we should. But our work cannot end there,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., pivoting to firearms. “We cannot ignore the dominant role of guns in assault and killings of police officers.” 

Republicans are also converting violence against police into an election issue. 

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“The rise in anti-police rhetoric in the summer of 2020, the progressive prosecutor movement and COVID lockdowns and the lack of criminal prosecutions of emboldened criminals across the board has been especially deadly when it comes to uniform law enforcement officers,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex.  

The Fraternal Order of Police says criminals have shot 187 police officers this year through the end of June. That’s up by 19 percent compared to 2021.

Cedar Falls, Iowa, police officer Zachary Andersen presented to the Judiciary Committee, dramatic, blow-by-blow testimony of how he and his colleagues confronted an armed man in a garage.

“The suspect ambushed us when the next door was opened. He was waiting for us with a shotgun,” said Andersen, tearing up. Another office placed his arm on Andersen’s shoulder. 

“He fired two shots, striking, killing Sergeant Smith,” said Andersen. “Two officers were trapped in the basement and the subject began making threats to kill us all. ‘Come in and start shooting. I’ll kill you like I killed your buddy. I was nice. I shot him in the chest. But come on up. I won’t be so nice. I’ll shoot you in the face,’” recounted Andersen. 

He added that those words “will be with me the rest of my life.” 

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“The ‘defund the police’ movement has done more damage than anyone can imagine,” testified Demetrick “Tre” Pennie of the National Fallen Officers Association. 

Police advocates blame progressives for undercutting officers. 

“We also have to acknowledge the demonization of police has added to this problem greatly,” said Oakland County, Mich., Sheriff Michael Bouchard to senators. 

Republicans say Democrats pay lip service to police while liberal groups fundraise off opposing the police. 

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis speaks during a campaign event with Vice President Mike Pence at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. 

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis speaks during a campaign event with Vice President Mike Pence at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.  (Khadejeh Nikouyeh/News & Record via AP)

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., revealed a fundraising message from a liberal group for what was characterized as a “justice” run. Tillis says, with a little sleuthing, one could decipher a code — linking the distance of the run to letters in the alphabet – standing for “ACAB.” That translates to “all cops are bastards.” 

“All cops are bastards. Are you kidding me?” thundered Tillis. “It’s time for a change and it’s time to stop this crap. This is killing people.” 

There are also assertions from vulnerable Democrats that the party needs to do more to inoculate them from attacks about “defunding the police.” 

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House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., contends that “defunding the police is just part of the big lie that extreme MAGA Republicans continue to tell about everything.” 

Vulnerable and centrist Democrats certainly don’t call for defunding the police. But some liberals like squad member Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., have doubled down on defunding the police. 

“I always tell (Congressional Democrats), ‘If you all had fixed this before I got here, I wouldn’t have had to say these things,’” said Bush over the winter. 

Bush advocates for a shift in some law enforcement dollars to social programs. 

Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., testifies during the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing

Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., testifies during the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Republicans find it rich that Democrats now insist on funding the police after supporting the confirmation of two controversial Justice Department officials: Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke. Both pushed to reprogram some police funding. 

“Every single Democratic senator voted to confirm both of them,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex. 

But Durbin defended Gupta and Clarke from GOP attacks. He said that police organizations endorsed both Gupta and Clarke. 

“There is always a little bit more to the story,” said Durbin. “Does this sound like someone who’s an enemy of police?” 

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Moderate Democrats like Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., was one of the first to call out the Democrats’ “defund the police” rhetoric in late 2020 after the party nearly lost control of the House of Representatives.

“We need to make investments in ensuring our police departments can be all they want to be. And, all we want them to be. And frankly, all the community demands,” said Spanberger. 

The House was scheduled to be done for the August recess on Friday. There is now a push to approve an assault weapons ban in the House. But Democrats don’t have the votes – yet. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., indicates the House could return to session before a special election on August 9 in Minnesota to replace late Rep. Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn., who died. At that point, the Democratic margin will shrink to three seats. Several Democrats — ranging from Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., to Jared Golden, D-Maine — could vote no. Democrats may need help from a few Republicans. 

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In addition, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., just announced a “Gun Violence Day of Action” on September 7. She says that’s an effort to contrast “extreme MAGA Republicans’ opposition to basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people with Democrats commitment to Safer Communities for all.”

So, Democrats are trying to change the “defund the police” perception and pivot to guns. But fair or not, politics often locks in perception. It’s unclear right now if Democrats can refocus the conversation to firearms. But the die may already be cast ahead of the midterms that Democrats are soft on crime. 

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