As a candidate, President Joe Biden cautiously trod the narrow path between supporting a newly invigorated abolitionist movement within the Democratic Party and working with the police unions he had worked with for decades.
But as murder rates rise in large cities across the country and as legislative efforts to curb gun violence stagnate—and as the nation’s most reliably Democratic city elected a Black ex-cop as its mayor—Biden appears to have come down firm on the side of working with law enforcement, rather than against it.
Speaking from the headquarters of the New York Police Department on Thursday, Biden signaled the beginning of a new partnership between his administration and local law enforcement nationwide, unveiling a new Department of Justice initiative to crack down on gun crime and pushing for hundreds of millions of dollars in increased funding for police departments.
“Six NYPD officers have been victims of gun violence just so far this year,” Biden said, flanked by Mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD police officer and the city’s second Black mayor in history. “It’s enough—enough is enough, because we know we can do things about this.”
“The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said, referring to a slogan that has animated both his own party’s left wing and Republican opponents, albeit for vastly different reasons. “It’s to give you the tools, the training, the funding, to be partners, to be protectors.”
Biden’s appearance coincided with the release of the Justice Department’s newest plans to combat violent crime in major cities. The plans—which include cracking down on the flow of illegal weapons from low-restriction states into major cities, launching an initiative to train prosecutors in prosecuting criminals who use “ghost guns” to commit crimes, and prioritizing prosecutions of illegal gun sales—are in large response to a surge in violent crime that came with the coronavirus pandemic and has yet to abate.
It’s a remarkable change in political calculus from the summer of 2020, when the nation was riled by the largest protest movement in half a century following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death and protests over similar incidents in cities across America sparked fervent calls on the left for drastic law enforcement reform and launched a “defund the police” movement in order to address the social roots of crime.
But in Adams, who has fashioned himself as “the Biden of Brooklyn,” the president has found a partner. Like Biden, the mayor emerged from a crowded field of Democratic rivals—many of whom called for radical changes in how the nation’s largest city handled policing—with a message that emphasized his strength among working-class voters of color, and the importance of public safety in those communities.
“Mister President, Eric Adams is reporting for duty and ready to serve,” Adams said at Thursday’s event, during which he called the issue of rising gun violence “pervasive” in America’s cities.
“Mayor Adams, you and I agree: The answer is not to abandon our streets,” Biden said. “The answer is to come together, police and communities, building trust and making us all safer.”
Coming one day after the funeral of a New York police officer who was shot and killed after responding to a 911 call, Biden’s repeated pledge not to defund police departments was a welcome one to longtime allies in the law enforcement community, who have eyed the president’s past pledges to push police reform extremely skeptically.
“It’s not popular to support the police now, by many politicians,” said Paul DiGiacomo, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, the second-largest labor union representing New York City Police Department officers, at the time. “It’s always better to educate people that are trying to make reform when they don’t know what we do.”
But Stanley Fritz, political and campaigns director for Citizens Action New York, told The Daily Beast he was disappointed to see Biden join Adams on Thursday. Fritz said fears the return of stop-and-frisk in New York and worries the resurrected plain-clothes unit will “harass black and brown people,” among other concerns.
“The police have never fixed it. Period. Full stop… If we’re actually having a conversation about how to stop crime, why isn’t anyone looking at the police and the fact that they’ve consistently failed to do that?” Fritz said.
The White House pushed back on assertions that Biden’s appearance amounted to a pivot in his approach to policing, or that there was any political element to the gun-violence push, which comes amidst increasing attacks from Republicans accusing the president of not supporting law enforcement.
“We reject the notion that we’re moving into any political direction. The president has a decades-long record of… being an advocate for fighting crime and supporting local cops programs with necessary and appropriate resources and funding,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One ahead of the president’s remarks. “Pursuing police reform is a step that will help rebuild trust in communities and is something that is welcomed by many communities and police forces across the country, and he believes that goes in hand with public safety. Having effective, accountable community policing to helps us fight crime, and it also makes us safer.”
But the Department of Justice’s new initiatives do come as many of Biden’s other priorities on gun violence and police reform languish in Congress with little change of making it to his desk.
Biden’s administration announced last April that its primary focus on addressing police violence against minority communities would be on backing the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases, require the use of de-escalation techniques before use of deadly force, and eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement. But despite promises by Psaki at the time that Biden would “use the power of his presidency to move it forward,” the bill has gone nowhere.
But that’s a step ahead of another issue of public safety that Biden has championed. Biden pledged throughout his campaign to introduce legislation on his first day in office that would end exemptions for gun manufacturers from civil liability claims. Three hundred and seventy-eight days later, the bill has yet to be introduced—despite Biden’s repeated calls for it, even during his remarks on Thursday.
Biden’s meeting with Adams also followed news of the mayor’s new “blueprint” for policing in New York, which includes reinstating a controversial plain-clothes unit of the New York Police Department, among other proposals.
Sochie Nnaemeka, Director of the New York Working Families Party, said in a statement that she appreciates Biden coming to the city to discuss public safety, but argued the “most impactful thing President Biden can do to increase safety in New York and across the country is not to pour more federal money into bloated police budgets, but rather to get the Build Back Better agenda passed, and deliver critical investments in housing, jobs, healthcare, and violence intervention programs.”
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