Fact Check: Tillis Falsely Claims Opponent Has Not Weighed In On Defunding Police

Aug 26, 2020

In this fall’s U.S Senate race, incumbent Republican Thom Tillis has accused Democrat Cal Cunningham of not weighing in on what’s become a hot political issue since the killing of George Floyd: defunding the police.

"Cal Cunningham has been silent on this — on defunding the police," Tillis told conservative satellite radio talk show host David Webb on July 30. "I assume his silence is consent.”

WRAL’s Paul Specht joins us to assess the senator's claim.

Marshall Terry: So, Paul, has Cunningham, in fact, been silent on the issue of defunding the police, as Tillis claims?

Paul Specht: He has not. In fact, he's gone on the record with the local newspaper, The News & Observer here in Raleigh, and he even wrote his own op-ed and published it to medium.com, where he explained his view of the current situation in America with policing and establishing better relationships with their communities.

Terry: What is his view on defunding the police?

Specht: Well, he believes that in order to reform police departments and law enforcement agencies and provide more oversight, that will require more funding, more investment, not less, and he's been pretty clear about this in other interviews as well.

Terry: Do you know what Tillis meant when he said Cunningham has been silent on defunding the police?

Specht: Now, when we reached out to Sen. Tillis' staff, they said that Tillis meant to make a broader point about protesting and supporting police. Tillis' broader point is that Cunningham has spoken out in support of some protesters and the reforms they want, whereas Tillis has been more vocal in defending and supporting police officers.

Terry: As part of this fact check, you looked into what the phrase "defiund the police" actually means. What did you find?

Specht: You can find a range of definitions depending on who you speak with. There are certainly people, albeit on the fringe, who believe that police departments should be gutted. There are a little more people who believe that police departments should have some of their money redirected. It's probably fair to say that that's the broader view held by especially the political class, is that some funding can be redirected from police to social services. And not just funding, but responsibilities.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R.-N.C.
Credit WFAE/UNC-TV

And, you know, they give examples like dealing with mental health cases or dealing with the aftermath of someone who's been sexually assaulted — things that take a little more sensitivity and care. And then, of course, there are some people like Cal Cunningham who say let's invest more but change the rules, for lack of a better word, of what they're allowed to do. And of course, Cunningham and others want to see less violence, they want to see less profiling, and they want to see more oversight.

Terry: So, it sounds like defunding the police means different things to different people. Do you know what Tillis means when he uses that phrase?

Specht: We reached out to the Tillis campaign about his claim, about his quote, and he didn't give us a definition. He didn't lay out what he thinks it means. They sort of took a step back and said that Tillis meant to talk about support for police, more so than defunding it, and where the money goes. He thinks that Cunningham has not been supportive enough of police officers. So, no, we didn't get him on the record with a definition of that. But like you said, there are lots of definitions out there.

Cal Cunningham
Credit Graysonbarnette / Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Terry: So, how do you rate this claim, then, by Tillis?

Specht: Well, in fact checking, often times if someone meant to say something else, that doesn't really matter. What we rate is what politicians say on air to a broad audience. And in this case, Tillis' claim was false. Cunningham had not been silent. He wrote that op-ed that's online, that's available for anyone to read. Medium.com is not a subscription service. Anyone can go pull it up, and his views are laid out there in hundreds of words, so it was a pretty clear-cut false in this case.

These fact checks are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.