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These Top Democrats Go Further Than Biden on Diverting Police Funds

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WASHINGTON — A month after the killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis ignited a wave of nationwide protests, Democratic Party officials are expressing broad support for significantly reallocating funds away from police departments, with positions that go well beyond that of the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Interviews with 54 Democratic National Committee members, convention superdelegates and members of a criminal justice task force convened by Mr. Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders found a near-unanimous sentiment that local governments should redirect more money toward social services, education and mental health agencies.

Very few advocate fully defunding or abolishing the police, as some activists have called for. But they are aligning themselves, as have city councils in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, Ore., and other cities, with an increasingly popular movement to drastically rethink the priorities surrounding law enforcement.

Their views exceed those adopted by Mr. Biden, who opposes defunding but has proposed policing changes and said that federal aid to police departments should be conditioned on meeting “basic standards of decency and honorableness.” They also go further than what the Biden-Sanders task force will recommend to the party’s platform committee and the Biden campaign later this month, according to several members of the group.

“Governments are going to have to look at how they can reallocate money,” said Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader. “Of course it’s a good idea if we have more social services rather than police because police are to be our guardians rather than warriors. There are a lot of things we’d rather have a sociologist work through rather than a guy with a gun and a holster.”

The issue could prove delicate for Mr. Biden as he works to unite the party’s disparate factions — including a still-skeptical progressive wing — into a coalition that can defeat President Trump in November, while rebutting the president’s strategy of attacking Democrats as weak on “law and order.” There is clear tension not only between Mr. Biden and the party’s base, but between the moderate voters Mr. Biden needs to win the general election and the more liberal voters who populate Democratic primaries.

A New York Times and Siena College national poll released this week shed light on the diverging viewpoints. It found 63 percent of registered voters oppose spending less money on the police. But among Mr. Biden’s supporters, 55 percent favor reducing the amount of resources spent on law enforcement.

Stacey Walker, a county supervisor from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, whom Mr. Sanders appointed to the criminal justice task force, supports the movement to defund police departments and has been pushing the Biden-Sanders task force toward more sweeping proposals. He suggested that Mr. Biden had not yet caught up to the energy and sentiment that is currently motivating many in the party.

“It seems to me right now that the vice president certainly understands the need for police reform, but I think his vision is a little different from some of the progressive activists on the ground,” Mr. Walker said.

“Cities spend a huge portion of their local budgets on traditional armed policing when situations on the ground don’t require traditional armed policing,” said Mr. Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio. “There’s no question that what’s happened in the last few weeks has channeled, directed and broadened the calls for change.”

Demands to reduce police funding range from abolishing departments entirely, and immediately, to phasing out tasks that have long been assigned to law enforcement. Ted Terry, a D.N.C. member who is the former mayor of Clarkston, Ga., called for a 50 percent reduction in police budgets over 10 years. “Racial justice is absolutely the most prominent and important issue right now,” Mr. Terry said.

Yet while his party pushes for allocating fewer resources to police departments, Mr. Biden has proposed directing an additional $300 million toward local law enforcement community policing efforts, funds his campaign said would come with restrictions on use-of-force rules and requirements that departments spend more on social programs.

There is some hope among Democrats advocating change that Mr. Biden will eventually adopt policies reversing his career-long direction of funneling more federal funds to police departments.

“If he stopped here I wouldn’t be satisfied, but I know that he is evolving,” said Ron Harris, a Democratic National Committee member from Minneapolis. “He is listening and I anticipate that the more he listens and the more we advocate for these things that he’ll respond accordingly.”

The issue has complicated matters on the criminal justice task force that was formed by the Biden and Sanders campaigns after Mr. Sanders dropped out of the race and endorsed Mr. Biden. When it was first convened in mid-May, the group of eight was expected to focus on the decriminalization of marijuana and phasing out the for-profit private prison system.

After Mr. Floyd’s killing, the conversation turned toward policing, and the task force has considered proposals as robust as abolishing police departments entirely. In the end, though, the group’s recommendations to the Biden campaign and the D.N.C.’s platform committee will not include reducing money for law enforcement, according to people familiar with its plans.

Yet even Mr. Biden’s appointees to the task force said a potential Biden administration should consider what incentives it offers local governments to redirect its law enforcement resources.

“You can’t go downstream and say, ‘Why aren’t there any fish?’” said Raumesh Akbari, a Tennessee state senator from Memphis who was appointed by the Biden campaign to serve on the task force. “You have to go to the top of the river and figure out what the problem is there.”

The Democrats who urge shrinking police budgets say it would reverse decades of policies that have shifted funds away from social services toward police departments.

“I support law enforcement, and that means realigning their mandate and stop being asked to respond to the social service needs which our elected officials have ignored for far too long,” said Alma Gonzalez, a Democratic National Committee member from Tampa, Fla.

As liberal activists and demonstrators have rallied around the “defund the police” slogan, President Trump and his Republican allies have argued that a Biden presidency would lead to chaotic scenes across American cities. In an effort to stoke those anxieties, the president has tweeted the phrase “law & order” 16 times since Mr. Floyd was killed.

The vast majority of Democrats interviewed did not seem worried about Mr. Trump’s attacks, and said they saw little risk in having Mr. Trump portray them as weak on law and order issues as long as they were making practical policy proposals for redirecting police funding to other social service agencies. The bigger risk, most of them said, is for Mr. Biden to alienate an energized base — exposing a potentially damaging schism in his coalition.

“We, as black citizens, will no longer accept the minimum from the Democrats,” said Ray McKinnon, a Democratic National Committee member from Charlotte, N.C. “We will not accept the ‘tough on crime’ Biden or Clintons. Those days have passed and we demand that black and brown folks are centered.”

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