In a virtual convention this week that is heavy on personality and light on policy, Democrats have presented a unified front on issues of racial justice, declaring that the status quo is not acceptable.
Not far beneath the surface, however, lies broad disagreement over policing, with the reform-oriented proposals of Joseph R. Biden Jr., the party’s nominee, falling well short of the demands of progressive activists who believe that police departments need to be significantly downsized or abolished.
The gap between Mr. Biden and his party’s progressive flank was evident in a line he delivered during a discussion on the Democratic National Convention’s opening night: “Most cops are good, but the fact is, the bad ones need to be identified and prosecuted.” It struck an array of activists as discordant at a moment when the police killing of George Floyd has spurred nationwide calls for transformational change.
Progressives say they see an unprecedented will and momentum to transform policing that they can’t let slip away in an election year. Having a standard-bearer who is not fully committed to the kind of fundamental change they believe is necessary could be problematic, they said.
“What I’m concerned about is the continued conversation about it being a few bad apples as opposed to systemic racism in the system,” said Jamaal Bowman, the Bronx Democrat who ousted the longtime Representative Eliot Engel in a June primary. “Part of our issue is recognizing that racism is not an individual-to-individual problem, it’s our system. It’s part of America’s DNA because we’ve never reckoned with our history of slavery.”
Since Mr. Floyd’s death on Memorial Day, Mr. Biden has made eloquent calls for systemic changes to the country’s criminal justice system and proposed reforms in police tactics. But he has said he opposes cutting resources for law enforcement — rather, he has proposed new funding for community policing, which a spokesman said would be conditioned on departments implementing reforms.
As a longtime Democratic politician who has pitched himself as a champion of the working class, Mr. Biden has courted support from law enforcement unions — groups that have resisted the sort of systemic changes and accountability for individual officers that activists and even Mr. Biden are now demanding. Mr. Biden also played an important role in passing the tough-on-crime legislation of the 1990s that many activists feel led to the abuses in the criminal justice system that fueled this summer’s protests.
He has long insisted that the American law enforcement can be improved by weeding out bad personnel. He has also called for tactical reforms like banning chokeholds and ending the transferring of “weapons of war” to police forces, and he has pledged to create a national police oversight commission within the first hundred days of his presidency.
“I don’t think it’s rotten in the core,” Mr. Biden said of policing during a June interview on “The Daily Show.” “I don’t think all cops are bad cops.”
But by cheering calls for reforms while also proposing increased funding for law enforcement and attributing problems to a few bad apples, Mr. Biden is trying to appeal to the widest possible expanse of general election voters without alienating either end of the political spectrum.
“I’ve heard him speak really eloquently about systemic racism and housing,” said Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s civil rights division under former President Barack Obama. “And he’s had a close relationship with law enforcement for many years, and I don’t think the two live as contradictory things in his mind.”
In trying to have things both ways Mr. Biden risks alienating both ends of his coalition. Suburban voters — particularly older white voters — are less enthralled with the idea of defunding the police. And activists say a pledge to prosecute bad cops doesn’t go nearly far enough.
“We have to get away from this good cop, bad cop thing,” said Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat who went from protesting police violence in Ferguson to unseating a longtime House member this month. “I agree with Joe Biden that something needs to change, but we have to take it much further than that. Because in the balance are dead people that look like me.”
Progressive lawmakers and activists say they do not believe their differences with Mr. Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, on policing will hurt him electorally. They say they can find common ground with Mr. Biden, despite their reservations about his positions, but not with President Trump, who they fear will make things only worse for Black and Hispanic people with his aggressive vision of law enforcement.
“I think the vast majority of us are saying, ‘I may do this with vomit in my mouth, but I’m voting for Harris and Biden because Trump has to get the hell out of office,’” said Cat Brooks, an activist based in Oakland, Calif., who has long lobbied for abolishing the police.
Mr. Biden’s “most cops are good” comment came during a conversation about racial justice he was having with prominent Democrats, including Gwen Carr, whose son, Eric Garner, was killed by the New York Police in 2014. Immediately after saying “most cops are good,” Mr. Biden turned to Ms. Carr and asked, “How are you doing?”
“We can’t let things settle down,” she said. “We have to go to the politicians and we have to hold their feet to the fire. Because otherwise, the big uprising is not going to mean a lot.”
Mr. Biden pumped his fist in approval.
The Democratic divide over how to address policing is playing out in battles over police budgets in cities nationwide.
In Minneapolis, Oakland and Seattle, City Councils led by Democrats have been at odds with their Democratic mayors over how much money to cut from police coffers and invest in other services. Progressive council members have pushed for slashing the budgets in half in Seattle and Oakland. And in Minneapolis, a majority of the Council has pledged to dismantle the Police Department and create a new system of public safety.
Jeremiah Ellison, a Minneapolis councilman in favor of defunding, said he has heard Democrats suggest reforms that he believes already have been tried and failed.
“I think that there’s a pretty large gap,” he said of the diverging views of policing.
Even seemingly small differences among Democrats can be significant, he said. He recalled a recent conversation with a former police chief in which they both agreed that public safety required more investment in things like mental health services and violence prevention. But the former chief said the police should provide those services, which Mr. Ellison opposed.
“We have a fundamentally different opinion about what will work in order to competently provide those services,” he said.
Part of the difficulty for Democrats to build a unified approach to policing is their diversity, Mr. Ellison said.
“The Democratic Party is really several different parties,” he said. “There are members of the Democratic Party that really have no business being in the same party together. I think maybe the thing that would tether us together is, loosely, a belief that people are more important than property and individual wealth.”
While polls suggest there is broad public support for redirecting some police funding toward social services, a prospect favored even by Democratic National Committee members, there is less backing, including among Democrats, for drastically downsizing or eliminating police departments.
Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, who served as chairman of the criminal justice task force arranged by the campaigns of Mr. Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, agreed with Mr. Biden’s sentiment.
“Most cops are, in fact, good,” Mr. Scott said. “But there are just too many that conduct themselves in such a way that violate constitutional rights and violate the law.”
Like Mr. Biden, Mr. Scott opposes efforts to strip funding from law enforcement agencies. The “Defund the Police” movement, he said, fails the test of being easily understood by a large enough segment of the electorate.
“The slogan, when you immediately have to start explaining what you mean, it becomes problematic,” Mr. Scott said.
But progressive lawmakers said it was important for the Democratic establishment to ensure that people who believed in drastic overhauls and even the abolishing of police departments had a seat at the table to help shape the party’s positions.
“If we don’t agree to speak to each other and have the tough conversations and wrestle with the solutions together,’’ said M. Lorena González, the president of the Seattle City Council, “then there could be the unintended consequence of people becoming disaffected with the Democratic Party, particularly young activists of color.”
Democrats in Seattle have been unified around the belief that reforming the police was not enough, Ms. González said. There is broad support in investing in things like education and health care that Democrats believe will stabilize communities and reduce crime. The tension comes in that some people also want to reduce the size of the police force, while others believe that those social investments can be made without downsizing the department, she said.
Libby Schaaf, the Democratic mayor of Oakland, considers herself a progressive who believes in transformational reform in policing. But some of the city’s lawmakers and activists see Ms. Schaaf as a barrier to systemic change. She cast the deciding vote last month that prevented the Police Department’s budget from being slashed beyond the roughly $14.5 million that the City Council had cut in June.
Ms. Schaaf said that while she agreed that the current system of policing did not keep everyone safe, she urged a more cautious approach to defunding because people needed someone to call when they were in crisis. But she acknowledged that Democrats who are adamant about defunding or abolishing police departments can move the needle toward necessary changes, pointing to nationwide efforts to trim police budgets that, not long ago, seemed unlikely.
“There is an appetite right now for transformative change,” she said. “And the more people get involved, the more appetite there is. People’s participation matters and has tremendous impact on policies that get put forward.”