Fox News is pushing a dark money smear of President Joe Biden’s picks for top positions in the Department of Justice, which falsely suggests these nominees want to “abolish the police.”
In fact, neither Vanita Gupta nor Kristen Clarke, Biden’s choices for associate attorney general and assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, has called for the eradication of policing. Instead, both longtime civil rights advocates support police reform that will reallocate funding toward social services for communities of color and away from blunt law enforcement that disproportionately harms these same neighborhoods. Nevertheless, right-wing media and conservative operatives have attempted to falsely conflate this type of strategic “defunding” with wholesale abolition -- a position neither nominee supports.
Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke have been nominated for two of the top jobs at the Department of Justice
Constitutional law expert: “They are both independently legit civil rights champions with a long deep history.” As detailed by The Guardian, Biden’s selection of Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke for high-level positions at the Department of Justice marks a determination to refocus the federal government on the protection of civil rights.
Now, after years of leading the fight for civil rights from outside the justice department, both women are poised to return to its top levels, where they can deploy the unmatchable resources of the federal government. Last month, Joe Biden tapped Gupta to serve as his associate attorney general, the No 3 official at the department, and Clarke to lead the civil rights division. If confirmed by the Senate, Gupta would be the first woman of color to be the associate attorney general; Clarke would be the first Black woman in her role.
“They are both independently legit civil rights champions with a long deep history,” said Justin Levitt, who worked with Gupta at the justice department and knows both women well. “They’re going to make a really spectacular, really powerful team.”
Picking two career civil rights lawyers for two of the top positions at the justice department sends an unmistakable signal that civil rights enforcement will be a top priority for the agency over the next four years. Civil rights leaders said they could not remember a prior administration in which two of the department’s highest positions were filled by civil rights attorneys, especially two such as Clarke and Gupta.
Both nominees have supported police reform that strategically redistributes funds toward “community health”
Gupta: “Law enforcement officials will tell you that they cannot fill the role of medical health professional no matter how much training they receive.” On June 16, 2020, during the summer of Black Lives Matter protests against police violence that disproportionately affects communities of color, Gupta testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that “too often, the calls for better policing have been answered with simply more policing.” The problem with this blunt approach, explained Gupta, is that “many crises that currently involve a police response, and which too often lead to mistreatment and increased mistrust, would be better handled through more mental health providers, social workers, victim advocates, drug treatment professionals, educators, gun violence interrupters, and others who can serve community needs in a non-punitive capacity.”
For too long, we have misguidedly tossed the responsibility of answering issues of community health and safety to police. These are problems that require investment in community-based services and programs, including education, housing, health care, and violence interruption — not more police. At the same time, we must continue to pursue police accountability to ensure they fulfill their role to advance public safety while respecting people’s civil rights and liberties.
It is critically important that police departments across the country implement policies and practices that are fair, equitable, procedurally just, and increase transparency and accountability — values that build community trust, improve confidence, and ultimately heal wounds. At the same time, state and local leaders must engage and work with communities to develop solutions to the social and public health problems that for so long have fallen to police to answer. While front-end systems changes are important, it is also critical for state and local leaders to heed calls from Black Lives Matter and Movement for Black Lives activists to decrease police budgets and the scope, role, and responsibility of police in our lives.
Clarke: “Funding and defunding aspects of policing must be a part of the discussion about how we institute smart reforms.” In a June 11, 2020, Newsweek article, Clarke reflected on the Black Lives Matter protests and explained that “among activists and local governments, the meaning of ‘defund the police’ ranges from reining in municipal police budgets to complete police abolition.” Clarke continued that she was a proponent of the first option, and she advocated for being “smart and strategic” in reallocating parts of police budgets toward “programs and policies that address critical community needs.”
Police departments today have too much contact with communities on issues they were never equipped to address. We can fix this.
We must invest less in police and more in social workers. Take the tragedy of Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth, Texas. A neighbor called the police after noting that her front door was open late at night. Jefferson ended up dead after a cop shot her through her back window. Had a social worker been dispatched for this welfare check, Jefferson would still be alive today.
We must invest less in police and more in social supports in our schools. More than 14 million students attend schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. But we have armed security at more than 40 percent of America's schools. Police presence inside schools does little to help our children, but serves as an on-ramp to the school-to-prison pipeline.
We must invest less in police and more in mental health aid. People with untreated serious mental health issues are 16 times more likely to die in encounters with police and make up as many as half of people killed by police, despite representing only 2 percent of the population, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. Expecting police to be the first responders on the scene of every mental health crisis can prove disastrous.
Reallocating funds to remove the need for police officers to engage in social services is the substance behind the slogan
Brookings expert: “Defund does not mean abolish policing.” The executive director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research (LASSR) at the University of Maryland, College Park, Rashawn Ray, outlined how the movement to “defund the police” involves transformative police reforms that some departments implemented even before the death of George Floyd. As explained by Ray, police officers’ responsibilities have been stretched far beyond what makes fiscal sense, and the research he “conducted with hundreds of police officers show that they respond to everything from potholes in the street to cats stuck up a tree.”
George Floyd’s death has galvanized much of America to move the needle toward police reform ideas—such as defunding police—that were previously viewed as radical.
“Defund the police” means reallocating or redirecting funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by the local municipality. That’s it. It’s that simple. Defund does not mean abolish policing.
Police officers’ skillset and training are often out of sync with the social interactions that they have. Police officers are mostly trained in use-of-force tactics and worst-case scenarios to reduce potential threats. However, most of their interactions with civilians start with a conversation.
Advocates for the defund movement like Phillip McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris argue that shifting funding to social services that can improve things such as mental health, addiction, and homelessness is a better use of taxpayer money. This approach further enhances the push to decriminalize and destigmatize people with mental health conditions and addiction problems. Ever since the overcriminalization of people addicted to crack cocaine in the 1990s, some scholars, practitioners, and policymakers have said that this shift is long overdue.
NBC News: “Defund the police” can resemble “experiments already underway in cities and towns around the country.” On June 10, 2020, NBC News reported that the reality of municipal defunding experiments belie the caricature of “images of empty precinct stations and the proliferation of citizen patrols.” Instead, these projects “don’t reject police or seek to take away their entire budget but rather aim to decrease their role in situations that are not dangerous, while allowing medical and social services workers to take the lead.”
The defund movement calls for reducing communities’ reliance on police for a number of services: monitoring the homeless, resolving domestic quarrels, disciplining students, responding to outbursts by people with mental illness, swarming neighborhoods to tamp down violence and responding to minor complaints like someone trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, the accusation that triggered the police call that ended in Floyd’s death.
That work, advocates say, could be better done by outreach workers, social workers and community workers trained to de-escalate street feuds. That could be paid for by diverting money from police budgets to municipal programs that deal with underlying causes of crime, including poverty, inadequate housing and poor education.
“When we talk about defunding the police, what we're saying is invest in the resources that our communities need,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told NBC News’ “Meet the Press.” “So much of policing right now is generated and directed towards quality-of-life issues, homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence. … But what we do need is increased funding for housing, we need increased funding for education, we need increased funding for quality of life of communities who are over-policed and over-surveilled.”
Co-director of Georgetown Law School’s Innovative Policing Program: “Police themselves often complain about having to ‘do too much,’ including handling social problems for which they are ill-equipped.” In a June 7, 2020, Washington Post op-ed, law professor and contributing columnist Christy E. Lopez explained that “defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need.” She added that especially now, in the aftermath of a national awakening to police violence against communities of color, “we have a chance to make not just policing, but our entire country, fairer and safer. We must think creatively and educate ourselves. We must ask hard questions and demand answers about public safety budgets.”
“Defunding the police” is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds, and engaging on this topic is necessary if we are going to achieve the kind of public safety we need. During my 25 years dedicated to police reform, including in places such as Ferguson, Mo., New Orleans and Chicago, it has become clear to me that “reform” is not enough. Making sure that police follow the rule of law is not enough. Even changing the laws is not enough.
To fix policing, we must first recognize how much we have come to over-rely on law enforcement. We turn to the police in situations where years of experience and common sense tell us that their involvement is unnecessary, and can make things worse. We ask police to take accident reports, respond to people who have overdosed and arrest, rather than cite, people who might have intentionally or not passed a counterfeit $20 bill. We call police to roust homeless people from corners and doorsteps, resolve verbal squabbles between family members and strangers alike, and arrest children for behavior that once would have been handled as a school disciplinary issue.
Police themselves often complain about having to “do too much,” including handling social problems for which they are ill-equipped. Some have been vocal about the need to decriminalize social problems and take police out of the equation. It is clear that we must reimagine the role they play in public safety.
But right-wing media are falsely conflating Gupta and Clarke’s police reform proposals with police abolishment
On February 18, FoxNews.com repackaged a Politico report about a dark-money ad campaign that falsely suggests Gupta wants to “abolish the police,” pushing the right-wing claim that the nominee is “too far left to be confirmed by the Senate” and that “her selection breaks Biden's promise of 'unity.’” In fact, as reported by HuffPost, “a number of conservatives and law enforcement organizations have enthusiastically endorsed her nomination, and even the nation’s largest police union ― which twice endorsed former President Donald Trump ― praised her as someone they looked forward to working with, saying she could ‘find common ground even when that seemed impossible.’”
Later that same night, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham took the same fact-free approach in a segment that indulged a conspiracy theory about Gupta that “Soros-type” “radical” Democrats “think we are an evil, awful, racist country” that will use “the levers of government to dismantle the government,” such as “abolishing the police.” Fox News outlets have also repeatedly warned their viewers about Clarke and her Newsweek article on police reform.
These recent attacks on Gupta and Clarke are in alignment with the recent Fox News smear campaign against Biden’s prominent nominations and appointments with a background in civil rights law and policy. News organizations are beginning to observe that not only has there been a general slowdown in confirming Biden’s choices for his administration, but also that right-wing opposition appears to be focusing on persons of color.