'Patience is growing thin': Activists fear Biden's anti-crime strategy could overshadow police reform efforts

  • Activists say they want Biden to be as vocal about police reform as he has been on crime prevention.
  • In more than 30 cities the homicide rate has increased by 24% during the first three months of 2021.
  • A crime spike has revived a GOP attack on Democrats over the far-left 'defund the police' slogan.
  • Strategists say Biden needs to strike a balance between public safety and police reform ahead of the midterm elections.

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden's push to combat a rise in violent crime is stirring concerns among activists over whether it could sap momentum for police reform after a year of protests over the police killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans.

Biden was elected amid a nationwide reckoning over race and policing, an issue he vowed to tackle on the campaign trail. The political reality has been harsher for the president, who's tried to strike a balance on passing big-ticket items such as coronavirus pandemic relief and infrastructure while promoting work on campaign pledges on overhauling policing and gun control. A sweeping police bill stalled on Capitol Hill, where negotiations stretched beyond Biden's deadline to pass it by the anniversary of Floyd's death in May. 

Udi Ofer, director of the justice division for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that although crime prevention and criminal justice reform are interlocked, "patience is growing thin" among advocates who say the president hasn't shown the same commitment to police reform as he has to combating crime and other issues. 

"We have not seen President Biden put in the same kind of aggressive push on police accountability as he just did on crime prevention," Ofer said. "It's time for him to put the same sort of weight of the White House behind police accountability. You're going to be hearing a lot more about the need for Biden to act."

At the White House last week, Biden outlined a plan to crack down on gun trafficking and help beleaguered police departments hire more officers – a signal that the administration is taking steps to address rising national anxiety over an increase in homicides before the summer, when violent crime is typically more pronounced. 

"This is not a time to turn our backs on law enforcement," he declared. 

An increase in shootings and homicides catapulted violent crime back into the political spotlight. The homicide rate in more than 30 U.S. cities increased by 24% during the first three months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. Gun-related deaths are up by about 21%, according to the report, but violent crime overall is lower than it was five or 10 years ago. 

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The White House dismissed Republican efforts to pin the crime wave on Biden, emphasizing that the increase in gun violence started five years ago and accelerated over the past 18 months amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some cities reported spikes in other forms of violence, Biden pointed to guns as the most serious threat.

The administration pointed to $350 billion in direct aid from Biden's COVID-19 relief plan, which cities and states can use to hire more police officers and for alternative crime prevention initiatives such as summer jobs for at-risk teens and community violence intervention programs – a package the White House noted no Republicans voted for. 

Before last week's event, Biden issued a raft of executive orders aimed at curbing gun violence, including tightening restrictions on "ghost guns," untraceable weapons that can be constructed from parts purchased online, and redirecting federal funding to community programs. Senate Republicans blocked sweeping gun safety legislation. 

The president's record on crime prevention comes with some political baggage. The once-tough-on-crime Democrat wrote a major bill in 1994 that critics said is responsible for overincarceration of young Black men. Biden's involvement in the bill drew criticism from his opponents during the 2020 election. The president expressed regret over some aspects but defended others, including protections against domestic violence and funding for community policing.

'Defund the police'

The crime spike has revived a GOP attack on Democrats over the "defund the police" slogan before next year's midterm elections, when Republicans look to seize control of the House and the Senate. A Democratic review of the 2020 election cycle found that Republicans successfully used the slogan to brand candidates as radical socialists, which contributed to Democratic losses down the ballot. 

Matt Bennett, co-founder of the center-left think tank Third Way, which helped compile the report, said last week's New York mayoral race could offer a road map for how moderate Democrats can navigate the message of police reform and public safety.

Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Adams, a former police captain who holds a commanding lead in the city's first election using a ranked choice voting system, campaigned on public safety and denounced liberal slogans such as "defund the police" while promising to rein in police misconduct and abusive policing. 

"Overwhelming data shows that voters of color don't want to defund the police for the most part. They are the ones who count on the police because in many of their communities, crime is a serious problem," he said. "Defund the police attacks didn't just hurt with white voters, they hurt with Black and Latino voters who didn't want their member of Congress supporting that kind of thing."

A Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll focused on Milwaukee residents' attitudes toward police underscores the challenge Democrats face in policing. Fifty-seven percent of residents say they oppose the phrase “defund the police,” including 44% of Black Milwaukee residents versus 35% who say they support the term.

A majority of the 500 adults polled say they do support redistributing taxpayer dollars  from law enforcement to other agencies. When asked about "cutting some funding" from police budgets and using those resources for social services, such as for the homeless or mentally ill, 55% favor that idea.

Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist close to the White House, said although there are differences in the party over the definition of "defund the police," there's unanimity over police accountability. 

"The North Star is not just what the Democratic Party supports, it's what does the average American support, it's what the persuadable voter supports," he said, pointing to the popularity of police reform.

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George Floyd act

Biden has been unequivocal that he does not support dismantling police departments and has instead thrown his weight behind passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, introduced in Congress months after Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested for kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes, even after Floyd lost consciousness. The bill was reintroduced in February, passed in the House in March and faces a divided Senate. 

The Floyd act would limit qualified immunity, a legal provision that shields officers from being held personally liable for unconstitutional actions on the job, and lower criminal intent standards. The act would establish a national registry on police misconduct, among other provisions.

Negotiations over the bill, spearheaded by Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., have dragged on and left some activists frustrated that the president hasn't taken a more public role. The lawmakers said last week that they reached a preliminary, bipartisan agreement, but details of the plan and a timeline were not immediately clear. 

Ofer of the ACLU said the bill shouldn't affect the broader discussion about crime prevention as it's primarily legislation focused on police accountability. He said Biden could show his commitment to criminal justice reform by taking a stand on qualified immunity – a sticking point in the Floyd bill – and using the power of clemency to commute the sentences of people who are unfairly incarcerated.

"We're now expecting to see the same sort of passion, the same sort of commitment and the same sort of audaciousness on our criminal justice reform and police accountability," he said of Biden and his anti-crime push. 

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said the White House has been pushing all sides involved to finalize an agreement on the bill. 

"These two initiatives go hand in hand. There's a clear understanding that we need to move forward on conversations [on the Hill] but also that we need to confront gun violence," he said. "His strategy takes a unified, comprehensive approach. It's a good fit." 

Some activists are willing to give the administration time to see if it can fulfill a promise to usher in more police oversight and accountability of individual officers while confronting a national concern over crime. 

Marc Morial, CEO and president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans, said some activists would like the president to be louder.

"In this moment, I'm going to trust the president's judgment," Morial said. "I'm going to trust them, but the truth will be whether we get a strong bill. And my position on whether the president should be more active and more vocal could change depending on those circumstances."

Contributing: Joey Garrison, Phillip Bailey and Chelsea Cox