Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Trump's '911 call' ad is powerful, but is it true?

President Donald Trump speaks Jan. 9 at a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio. (Jacquelyn Martin)/Associated Press)
President Donald Trump speaks Jan. 9 at a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio. (Jacquelyn Martin)/Associated Press)

President Donald Trump’s “911 call” ad dropped July 12 on TV stations across the country, including in Iowa. It starts with a phone dial tone, followed by what purports to be a recorded message from a 911 dispatcher unable to answer the phone.

“Due to defunding of the police department, no one is available to take your call,” the woman says.

Visuals in the ad show fire, people beating windows with baseball bats and others entering a building through broken glass. These violent images are mixed with photos of Black Lives Matter protests where people are holding up signs saying “defund the police.”

Graded a D

The Fact Checker reviewed the verifiable claims in the ad, including “Joe Biden’s supporters are fighting to defund the police,” “Violent crime has exploded” and “our estimated wait time is currently five days.” That last one is said by the purported police dispatcher.


Claim: “Joe Biden’s supporters are fighting to defund police departments.”

There are a couple of key words in this claim: “supporters” and “defund.” There are some well-known Biden supporters who have been vocal about cutting funding to police.

In the “911 call” ad, the Trump campaign points to a June 6 Fox News story saying U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., supports shifting money from the New York Police Department. She has said she’ll vote for Biden and is serving on his climate policy panel, so she’s a supporter.

Musician John Legend, who participated in a July 26 digital fundraiser for Biden, has said he supports reducing the funding to police departments in favor of hiring more social workers, drug treatment specialists or people with expertise in conflict resolution, Billboard.com reported.


“I’m almost 100% sure Biden won’t be tweeting #DefundThePolice,” Legend tweeted June 7. “It’s the job of activists to push these politicians toward meaningful change.”

Only about one-quarter of 4,700 adults surveyed June 16-22 by the Pew Research Center said police funding should be decreased. The rest said police budgets should stay the same or be increased. But support for cutting police funding is higher among Democrats and Democratic leaners, Pew found.

The word “defund” can be confusing because some people take it to mean complete elimination of police budgets, which would end policing as we know it.

Some criminal justice reformers want to zero out police budgets because of systemic racism in some police departments. But some also use the term to mean a reduction of police funding and redeployment of that money to other responders, such as mental health counselors.

Other times this summer, Trump has inaccurately said Biden himself supports defunding police. Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace called him on it July 19 during an interview.

“And Biden wants to defund the police,” Trump said, according to the Fox News transcript of the interview.

“No he, sir, he does not,” Wallace said.

Trump then called for an aide to get him a copy of a letter Biden signed with Sen. Bernie Sanders, but after looking through it could not highlight where it said “defund” or “abolish” the police.

Biden said Aug. 5 in Atlanta he wants to provide more money to police as long as there are changes, including banning chokeholds, stopping departments from procuring military-grade equipment and implementing a national police oversight commission, the Hill reported.


Grade: The “911 call” ad says Biden’s supporters want to defund the police, which is true about some supporters, but definitely not the majority if you look at the Pew survey data. We give Trump a C.

Claim: “Violent crime has exploded.”

The Trump campaign cites a June 24 story by ABC News talking about the Police Executive Research Forum’s survey of four major cities — Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New York and Las Vegas. The group found crime had spiked in those cities since the COVID-19 pandemic, with some law enforcement officers attributing it to offenders released from prison because of the outbreak or people not being arrested to keep jail populations low.

NYPD Chief of Department Terrance Monahan told the research forum 20 percent of people released from the Rikers Island prison due to COVID-19 had been rearrested.

Crime rates overall have fallen since COVID-19, according to an analysis for 25 U.S. cities by David Abrams, a University of Pennsylvania law and economics professor. This includes violent crime.

“People have reacted to the pandemic in all sorts of ways in decreasing economic activity,” Abrams told National Public Radio. “They stopped going to work, they stopped driving their car. They stopped walking around the city, and crime also stopped.”

A few cities, including Chicago, Houston, Fresno — and Cedar Rapids — have seen increases in murders and shootings.

In Cedar Rapids, the number of homicides and shots-fired incidents by July 28 were already higher than all of 2019. Of the 105 shootings by July 28, 36 incidents ended in injury or death, police reported.

“There is typically a seasonal increase in crime during the summer, coupled with coronavirus and civil unrest,” Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow told Gazette reporter Kat Russell. “Unemployment and uncertainty about financial future, evictions and economic uncertainties can be factors.”


Grade: Abrams’ analysis of violent crime in 25 U.S. cities has not shown an increase, although shootings and murders are up in some cities. That doesn’t meet the definition of “exploded,” but it is concerning. The ad’s claim about violent crime is muddied because it shows images of Black Lives Matter protests, yet the news story sourced by the ad attributes the rise in shootings and murders to people released from prison in the pandemic.

We give Trump a C on this claim.

Claim: “Our estimated wait time is currently five days.”

The ad provides no sourcing for this claim, said at the very end of the ad, so Fact Checker went looking for some data about national 911 response rates.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, a federal agency that is the primary source of criminal justice data in the United States, does an annual survey of crime victims and one of the questions is about police response time.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey from 2017 shows 40 percent of nearly 2,700 crime victims nationwide said police responded to their calls within 10 minutes. For another 40 percent, police response time was 11 minutes to one hour. Only 2 percent of crime victims surveyed said police took longer than one day to get back to them.

Grade: F


Trump’s “911 call” ad is effective in creating a feeling of fear and loss of control. It touches on current events — even showing real news video — but does not accurately describe the causes and the extent of the violence. While two of the claims we checked have kernels of truth, the ad overall is misleading. We give it a D.


The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan of The Gazette.

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