In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee declared “systemic racism” plagued police departments across the country, demanded the Justice Department investigate police departments, and pushed for legislation that would strip away some legal protection for officers.
So it was rather surprising when the Texas Democrat earlier this year asked for an endorsement from the Houston Police Officers’ Union, one of the nation’s largest police unions.
Douglas Griffith, the union president, said his group doesn’t endorse candidates for federal office, but Ms. Jackson Lee wouldn’t have won their backing if they did.
“Some politicians have to play to their constituency and that’s the way it is, but we are not going to support someone that doesn’t support us,” Mr. Griffith said.
Ms. Jackson Lee, who did not respond to requests for comment, isn’t the only Democrat who suddenly wants a police endorsement. Police unions across the country say that this year more Democrats than usual are asking for endorsements as the party tries to shed its soft-on-crime reputation amid a nationwide crime wave.
During the Black Lives Matter protests and riots of 2020, activists and far-left politicians were openly critical of the police. They accused police unions of shielding racist cops, weakening officer accountability and blocking police reform bills.
Democratic lawmakers joined the calls for slashing police budgets and scorned police union endorsements.
Now, as violent crime surges across the nation and threatens to drag down Democrats in the Nov. 8 elections, those same politicians are professing a change of heart.
“At one time, politicians were knocking down our door for endorsements, but they were afraid to even approach us in the last election. Now things are out of control and many politicians have reached out,” said Paul DiGiacomo, who heads the New York City Detectives Endowment Association, one of the city’s largest police unions.
He said a handful of progressive Democrats, who just two years earlier called for slashing police budgets, reached out to him this summer disavowing their anti-police rhetoric and asking for an endorsement.
“They told me that it was ‘100% a mistake,’” he said, declining to name the politicians. “They admitted they made a mistake and should have listened to us. I didn’t endorse any of them. Because of their actions, law enforcement and citizens were assaulted, shot and killed.”
The Detectives’ Endowment Association did endorse three Democrats running in local races among a slate of 17 candidates they backed. Those Democrats, he said, had opposed the defund-the-police movement in the last election cycle.
In Houston, Mr. Griffith said he rejected endorsement requests from Democrats other than Ms. Jackson Lee because they slammed the police in 2020. All told, his union endorsed a whopping 106 candidates at the state and local levels, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican. Only 17 Texas Democrats got its endorsement.
James L. Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said no one who explicitly advocated for defunding the police sought his group’s endorsement. However, his union, which represents 10,000 officers in Wisconsin, turned away politicians who pushed for “reimagining” policing or talked about shifting funds out of local departments to support other services.
Mr. Palmer said every candidate on both sides of the aisle who met with the union’s board about an endorsement went out of their way to highlight that they didn’t support defunding the police. He said candidates would address the issue even before they were asked a question.
With Democratic candidates being pummeled with criticism about the crime wave, some are begging for a police union endorsement to fend off the soft-on-crime criticism.
A new ABC News/Ipsos poll found that Republicans enjoy a solid advantage on the issue of crime, with 35% of voters saying they trust the GOP more to combat violent crime, compared to 22% who put their faith in Democrats.
In a recent letter to her Democratic colleagues, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California urged House candidates to make a point of defending their record on crime.
“I write to convey the importance of emphasizing the Democrats’ unyielding commitment to public safety — which is at the heart of our People Over Politics Agenda,” she wrote.
The legislation Mrs. Pelosi highlighted in the memo was the massive COVID-19 aid package and last year’s government spending bill, which included money for law enforcement.
Harvard University researcher Michael Zoorob studied the police union support for former President Donald Trump in the 2016 election and found police accounted for more than 13,000 votes in Michigan — greater than Mr. Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton — and more than 27,000 votes in Pennsylvania. Those numbers could swing outcomes in tight races.
“The police union endorsements have become extremely valuable because many of the people who voted for these very dangerous reforms are seeing the blowback. They are looking for cover by saying, ‘I have the endorsement of the police union,’” said retired NYPD Detective James Coll, a Republican who is running for New York State Senate.
Police groups’ support is so valuable this year that candidates are sometimes erroneously claiming endorsement.
Mandela Barnes, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, was forced to remove two supposed law enforcement endorsements from his campaign website.
A local sheriff said he supported Mr. Barnes, who is running against Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson, but it did not amount to an official endorsement from his office. A day earlier, another sheriff asked Mr. Barnes’ campaign to remove his name from a list of endorsements, saying he never agreed to offer his support.
Mr. Barnes’ campaign issued a statement calling the mistake a “clerical error” and corrected the campaign website.
“Barnes has a shockingly small number of law enforcement endorsements. He didn’t even reach out to us — and we have a history of endorsing Democrats — because of his rhetoric following George Floyd and Jacob Blake took the prospect off the table and I’m sure he knew that,” Mr. Palmer said.
Mr. Blake is a Black man who was shot and seriously wounded by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020, setting off riots in the city.
Back in Houston, Mr. Griffith said the police union endorsements are not merely political posturing. He said the endorsements matter up and down the ballot for voters who want to combat crime.
“We are getting involved in judges races this year because they are the drivers of the high crime rate in Harris County,” he said. “Without the courts working properly, it looks like we are not effective as officers when people get released and re-offend.”