Joe Biden says he does not support defunding police departments around the country. “No, I don’t support defunding the police,” Biden told CBS on June 9. “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.”
The facts seem fairly simple: Some activists on the Left, including some Democratic officeholders in city governments such as New York and Minneapolis, support defunding police, while the Democratic nominee for president does not.
But the story is not quite that simple. In interviews with liberal activists, Biden has presented a much more nuanced position on defunding the police, suggesting he supports redirecting police funding toward other purposes, like mental health counseling and affordable housing. Such redirection would be, in fact, defunding police. To take one example from recent years: In 2017, House Republicans sought to cut off federal funds for Planned Parenthood and redirect the money to other healthcare centers. The move, which never took place, was widely referred to as “defunding” Planned Parenthood. It seems unlikely that anyone would have believed Republicans had they claimed they did not want to defund Planned Parenthood but simply redirect its funding to more productive uses.
In the interviews with liberals, Biden has not been asked to repeat the words, “I support defunding the police.” Instead, he has been asked whether he supports redirecting funding from police departments to other purposes. And he has said that he does.
On July 8, Biden spoke by video with the leftist activist Ady Barkan. It was not a quick soundbite, television news sort of interview; the questions and answers went on at some length. This was Barkan’s question on defunding police:
The leaders of the movement for black lives believe that we have been trying to reform police departments for many decades, and it is not working. Instead, they believe that the solution is to reduce the number of interactions that civilians have with the police. We can reduce the responsibilities assigned to the police and redirect some of the funding for police into social services, mental health counseling, and affordable housing. So, for example, instead of sending two police officers with deadly weapons to that Wendy’s drive-thru in Atlanta, we could have sent a wellness counselor and a tow truck, and Rayshard Brooks would still be alive today, and his three daughters would still have their daddy. Are you open to that kind of reform?
“Yes,” said Biden. “I proposed that kind of reform.” Then, his answer continued:
We need significantly more help. That’s why I called for a significant increase in funding for mental health clinics and mental health providers. We are desperately in need of that now. One of the things I’ve been pushing for — in our administration, we put together the ability in a bill that I wrote to make sure that we can look at pattern and practice of police departments. Go in and get all the records and find out what they’re doing. That’s why we’re able to stop the stop-and-frisk in Camden and the stop-and-frisk in New York City and the rest, where the federal government has the right to go in and change systemically what’s going on. There’s a whole range of things that we can do. The idea of no-knock warrants for drug cases is bizarre. We don’t need that. It just invites trouble. That’s how Breonna [Taylor] was killed. There’s a need for fundamental change in us being able to have transparency, being able to have access to the records of police when they have misconduct charges against them. To be able to know where they are, so they can’t go from one police department to the next. That should be held, in my administration, that information will have to be made available to the Justice Department and held in a file so you’ll be able to track this. Surplus military equipment for law enforcement — they don’t need that. The last thing you need is an up-armored Humvee coming into a neighborhood; it’s like the military invading. They don’t know anybody; they become the enemy. They’re supposed to be protecting these people. So my generic point is ...
Biden had clearly begun a filibuster. He gave a quick agreement to Barkan’s point, defunding police, and moved on to his own positions. So at that moment, Barkan interrupted: “But do we agree that we can redirect some of the funding?”
“Yes, absolutely,” Biden said, continuing:
One of the things that we also need to be doing is fundamentally changing the way, and I’ve been pushing it for years, changing the way we deal with our prison system. It should be a rehabilitation system, not a punishment system. We’re going to make sure that you’re qualified for every single right you had before you went to prison if you served your time. And that means that you’re entitled to Pell grants to go to school, you’re entitled to job training programs, you’re entitled to housing grants. You’re entitled to every federal program out there.
Biden did it again — quickly agreeing to defunding police, and then moving on to his talking points.
The Barkan interview was edited by Barkan before posting. Later, PolitiFact did an article on Biden and defunding the police, and the Biden campaign provided an audio recording of the entire interview. The recording has not been released publicly, but PolitiFact said that after saying, “Yes, absolutely,” Biden added: “And by the way, not just redirect, condition them.” That did not seem to change Biden’s position as presented by Barkan.
On June 4, Biden appeared on a livestream town hall moderated by actor Don Cheadle, who asked him about a move to defund police in California:
Something that’s happened here in Los Angeles, the mayor [Eric Garcetti] has decided that he’s going to re-appropriate $150 million from the police department to communities of color that are suffering. Do you think moves like this, things like this, could be used across the country? Are you behind these kinds of programs?
Biden began with a classic bit of Bidenesque throat-clearing. “The answer is, I know Eric,” he said. “He’s a first-rate — he’s one of the co-chairs of my campaign, as a matter of fact — he’s a first-rate mayor.” And then, on Garcetti’s move to defund police:
I think it makes sense. Some places, they’re short on having enough people to cover the community. Others, the police departments have a lot more than they need. And so, it depends on the community, but it’s all about treating people with dignity, just treating people with dignity, period. And then setting down basic fundamental rules that relate to what constitutes adequate and fair police conduct. And that’s what we have to focus on.
Just as he did with Barkan, Biden suggested he agreed with the liberal move to defund the police and then quickly moved on to a set of generic points.
The next day, June 10, Biden published 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,” he 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.”
There he went again. By now, Biden has polished his approach to the question of defunding the police. In some forums, he says flat-out that he does not support defunding. And then in others, when liberals ask whether he would support redirecting funds away from police departments, that is, defunding police, he says he does support such moves. What he might do as president is not at all clear.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!