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‘Defund the police’ slogan and anti-cop violence debated at U.S. Senate hearing

Commissioner Michael Harrison of the Baltimore Police Department testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee about violence against police officers on Tuesday. The hearing was held as part of a bipartisan effort to address violence against police officers and the safety of law enforcement. Photo by Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images.

Republicans on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and law enforcement witnesses at a Tuesday hearing blamed recent violence against officers on anti-police rhetoric, while Democrats distanced themselves from the “defund the police” slogan and said an oversupply of guns made law enforcement jobs more dangerous.

Republicans on the panel raised complaints about general attitudes toward police and members of both parties criticized progressive activists’ calls to “defund the police,” which peaked after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020.

The panel’s ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, requested the hearing. He said 73 police officers were intentionally killed last year, the most since 2001.

“A main cause of this violence against police is the demonization and the disrespect shown to the profession of law enforcement throughout the country,” Grassley said. “When you allow hatred of a group to spread, it makes it easy to justify violent attacks against law enforcement.”

Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, pointed out the committee had approved five bills this year to increase federal funding for local departments. President Joe Biden last week called for even more federal funding, Durbin said.

Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said Congress should also focus on decreasing access to guns.

“There are some on the other side who falsely accuse Democrats [of] wanting to defund the police,” Durbin said in an opening statement. “The record is clear: We are funding the police, and we should. But our work cannot end there. We cannot ignore the dominant role of guns in assaults and killings of police officers.”

‘Defund the police’

Republicans on the panel and some witnesses focused on the movement to “defund the police” in the aftermath of the killing of Floyd, a Black man, by a white officer. The term has been interpreted across the political spectrum to mean everything from reforming police departments to abolishing them.

Sgt. Demetrick “Tre” Pennie, the president and executive officer of the National Fallen Officer Foundation, told the panel that “coordinated efforts” to “undermine our police” were responsible for a rise in police deaths.

“As calls to defund the police got louder, more police officers died,” he said Tuesday.

Pennie traced a rising anti-police attitude to the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer there killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man.

With a few exceptions in the U.S. House, congressional Democrats have rejected the defund-the-police label, and polls show the concept finds disapproval among most Americans.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who was the lead prosecutor in the state’s largest county before joining the Senate, said policing practices should be reformed, but not eliminated.

“One of the focuses has got to be … reforming some of the practices, but at the same time funding the police,” she said.

But Republican members of the panel still tied Democrats to the defund slogan.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, showed a webpage for ActBlue, a national Democratic fundraising platform, that promoted a 13.12-mile run for justice. Hashtagged #DefundThePolice, the event’s fundraising page said the distance was selected because the numerals 1-3-1-2 correspond to the letter A-C-A-B, which stands for “all cops are bastards.”

“This radical concept of defunding the police has gone from the radical left — a minority of the party — to something that the primary fundraising entity from liberal progressives is now touting,” he said. “This is a cancer.”

The obscure fundraising page said it had raised about $1,000 from 23 donors; the page appeared to have been established as far back as June 2020 and the creator was unclear.

The panel highlighted the April 2021 fatal shooting of Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Jim Smith. The shooter in that case led police in a chase before hiding in his house. The shooter lied in wait and fired a shotgun at officers as they opened a door in the home.

Former Grundy County Deputy Zach Andersen, who was on the scene when Smith was killed, choked up Tuesday as he related the account to the committee.

He also told the committee the shooter was motivated “by his hatred of law enforcement.”

Availability of guns

Durbin said Congress should consider not just rhetoric, but also the availability of guns.

“Some just want to address what’s on the mind of the shooter,” Durbin said. “Some of us want to address what’s in the hand of the shooter, what weapons they bring to terrify or assault a police officer. They’re both relevant.”

AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles are becoming more common in attacks on police and in mass shooting of civilians, Durbin said. An estimated 10 to 20 million such weapons are in the country, he added.

Michael S. Harrison, the commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department and the president of the Police Executive Research Forum board, said “proliferation of illegal guns and the availability of guns” was a major factor in making policing more dangerous.

Harrison told Durbin that almost all shooting murders in Baltimore were committed with illegal guns. But he rejected that more legal guns would make the city safer.

“That data does not support that more legal, law-abiding citizens carrying guns makes us safer,” Harrison said.

The police commissioner also called attention to the death of Officer Keona Holley, who was shot while sitting in her patrol car in the early morning hours of Dec. 16, 2021.

Harrison said that Holley was dedicated to improving community relationships with law enforcement and “exemplifies what we want in our officers.”

He said confronting the national challenge of gun violence requires a “multi-layered approach,” including investing in historically disinvested communities, providing services to victims of violence, and expanding drug rehabilitation programs, among other efforts.

Harrison praised a recent gun-control law and said more federal funding and partnerships with federal agencies would be welcome.

House bills 

The U.S. House Rules Committee is set to consider five police and safety bills Wednesday, setting them up for full House consideration later this week.

U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat, is the lead sponsor of a bill to authorize $50 million per year for a Justice Department grant program to assist small, local police departments.

Another bill would reauthorize a grant program to hire more local police and increase their pay.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Florida Democrat and former Orlando police chief, sponsored a bill to provide $100 million per year in grants to help police agencies solve violent crimes.

Two other bills would authorize Health and Human Services Department programs to promote mental-health approaches to policing.

One bill would create an HHS grant program to have states and local governments hire mental-health professionals to be sent in lieu of police when a person with a mental illness is involved in an emergency.

Another, sponsored by Nevada Democrat Steven Horsford, would provide $1.5 billion to HHS to fund local violence intervention programs and $1.5 billion to the Labor Department for job training programs for young people in communities affected by gun violence.

Maryland Matters Editor Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.