President Donald Trump and his allies have seized on calls to “defund the police” as a dangerous example of Democratic overreach as the president fights crises that threaten his reelection.

Prominent Democrats, including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, are distancing themselves from the “defund” push, which some supporters say is a symbolic commitment to end systemic racism and change policing priorities rather than an actual plan to eliminate police forces.

But confusion over the proposal’s intent has created an opportunity for Mr Trump, who has struggled to navigate the delicate debate over racial justice, risking support from people of colour, suburban women and independents less than five months before Election Day.

Facing increasing pressure to weigh in, Mr Biden addressed the issue on Monday in an interview with CBS Evening News.

“I don’t support defunding the police. I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency, honourableness and, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community, everybody in the community,” Mr Biden said.

Other Democratic opponents of the movement include Senator Cory Booker, a former presidential candidate and one of two black Democratic senators, and Representative Karen Bass, head of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Defund The Police
A protester in Phoenix last week (Matt York/AP)

National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) president Derrick Johnson, in an interview, also declined to endorse calls to defund the police.

“I support the energy behind it. I don’t know what that substantively means. As I’m talking to people about the concept, I’ve gotten three different explanations,” said Mr Johnson, who has criticised Mr Trump.

“We know there has to be a change in the culture of policing in this country.”

Democrats are well-positioned to win over the political centre this autumn, according to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who said Mr Trump’s uneven actions and rhetoric at a time of sweeping social unrest were “killing him”.

Mr Luntz added, however, that Democrats risked their advantage by embracing policies viewed as radical following the death of African-American George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress kneel and observe a moment of silence at the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall on Monday, (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Municipal officials in Minneapolis have endorsed the “defund the police” language backed by some civil rights activists and a handful of progressive House Democrats. Protesters over the weekend also painted “DEFUND THE POLICE” in large yellow letters on a street close to the White House, alongside the “BLACK LIVES MATTER” street mural which had official sanction from the city’s mayor.

But there was little evidence that the effort was gaining momentum in Congress. Some Democrats described it as bad politics, even if most Democrats shared the desire to overhaul policing.

Former Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp, a white moderate who lost her 2018 re-election bid, said “defund the police” was “a horrible name” that misconstrued the goal.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, is grasping for a strategy that might generate some momentum. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll over the weekend found 80% of Americans believed the country was out of control.

Some Trump advisers have considered having the president deliver an address on police-community relations and racial injustice, while others believe it would do little good, according to two White House officials and Republicans close to the White House. They also discussed creating a task force featuring Housing Secretary Ben Carson, the only black member of Mr Trump’s Cabinet, but that has yet to get off the ground.

Before the pandemic, Trump advisers believed the president had a real chance of making inroads with black voters, given his support for criminal justice reform and the strength of the economy. They are less confident now.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable discussion with law enforcement officials on Monday, where he said possible changes on law enforcement would be discussed, while ruling out defunding or disbanding police forces (Patrick Semansky/AP)

On Monday, Democrats on Capitol Hill unveiled a sweeping proposal to address police brutality that did not include plans to strip funding from the police.

The Justice in Policing Act would limit legal protections for police, create a national database of excessive-force incidents and ban chokeholds, among other changes.

Mr Trump responded by accusing Democrats of wanting to abandon police forces.

Representative Greg Meeks, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a group of moderate House Democrats called the New Democrat Coalition, said Mr Trump’s tweets accusing Democrats of seeking to abolish the police were a diversion.

“It sounds like the guy that’s the 45th president is trying to distract from what the real issue is, the brutality and the murder of George Floyd,” said Mr Meeks, who represents New York. “And we’re not going to allow them to do that.”

Democratic representative Matt Cartwright, who is white and represents a Trump-leaning district in northeastern Pennsylvania, rejected calls to defund the police outright.

“I don’t care how it’s named, I’m not for that,” he said, while noting he had joined protest marches in his district.