Biden Seeks to Confront Crime While Supporting Police Reform

WASHINGTON — President Biden said on Monday that Americans owed law enforcement and community leaders “big time” as he met with mayors and police chiefs from some of the nation’s largest cities, sending a clear signal to progressives in his party and Republican critics that he would crack down on crime.

In a meeting at the White House, Mr. Biden urged the local officials to invest in police departments and establish community-based programs that could help rebuild trust between people of color and law enforcement.

“We know when we utilize trusted community members and encourage more community policing, we can intervene before the violence erupts,” Mr. Biden said.

The president and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, who also attended the meeting, have “been at this a long time,” Mr. Biden said. “A long time. Most of my career has been on this issue.”

For Mr. Biden, the meeting was part of an increasingly urgent effort by the White House to demonstrate that the president is aggressively confronting gun violence as homicides rise in cities across the country and Republicans accuse his administration of being soft on crime. The president has called on Congress to pass measures that would close background-check loopholes, restrict assault weapons and repeal gun manufacturers’ immunity from lawsuits, but his call for a bipartisan gun control effort is stalled.

Last month, Mr. Biden called on states and local governments to use money from the American Rescue Plan to hire more police officers and beef up enforcement.

But the get-tough language is tricky for Mr. Biden, who risks alienating liberals in Congress and voters who are pushing for criminal justice reform after police killings of Black people last year. Some of the most vocal Democrats in Congress continue to demand that lawmakers defund police departments that employ racist tactics and instead invest in education, mental health or other social services.

Among those at Monday’s meeting was Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who won the Democratic nomination for New York City mayor in part by making public safety a centerpiece of his campaign.

By inviting Mr. Adams, who is heavily favored to win the general election in November, Mr. Biden is showing a desire to strike the same balance that Mr. Adams, a former New York City police captain, did in the primary — satisfying liberals on reform efforts but also demonstrating that he will do something about what the president called the “first responsibility of democracy: to keep each other safe.”

Mr. Biden’s plan, which he reiterated on Monday, includes urging communities to use $350 billion in funds from his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package to surge hiring at departments as well as support more community-focused organizations. More than a dozen local leaders across the United States have already proposed using the funds to expand law enforcement, invest in social services or develop technology used to prevent gun violence.

After the meeting, Mr. Adams praised the administration for encouraging investment in both traditional law enforcement and community-based solutions that should begin to repair the breach of trust between the police and many communities of color.

“They call me ‘the Biden of Brooklyn,’” Mr. Adams told reporters outside the West Wing after the meeting in the Roosevelt Room.

“One thing I’m clear about: The prerequisite to prosperity is public safety and justice,” Mr. Adams said. “And if we don’t have them both together, it doesn’t matter how many police officers you put on the street. We can’t continue to respond to symptoms. It’s time to respond to the underlying causes of violence in our city.”

But it is unclear whether the president will succeed in reshaping the perception of his party as he tries to balance rising crime and police reform.

Americans are concerned about Mr. Biden’s handling of crime. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this month showed that just 38 percent approved, 48 percent disapproved and 14 percent offered no opinion.

On Monday, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, wrote a letter to the Justice Department criticizing Mr. Biden’s strategy for its focus on cracking down on gun dealers.

“Increased firearm acquisition is fueled by rising crime rates, not the other way around,” Mr. Grassley wrote.

Already, advocates of robust overhauls of the criminal justice system are expressing anxiety that raising alarm over the increase in violent crime will undermine efforts to rein in police departments.

“What I’m deeply concerned about is now that we have a little uptick in crime, that will shift the debate and people will say: ‘Forget police reform. We need the police to be unleashed,’” Representative Karen Bass, Democrat of California and one of the sponsors for the police legislation that is now stalled in the Senate, said last month.

Other progressives continue to call for an effort to starve police departments of funding as a way to force change. But the Biden administration is hoping the availability of the stimulus funds will give more mainstream Democratic candidates a way to argue that they are not part of that movement, a White House official said.

Cedric Richmond, a senior aide to Mr. Biden, last month turned the tables on Republicans — accusing them of wanting to defund the police because they did not vote for the coronavirus relief package that sent the $350 billion to local governments.

Republicans who opposed the stimulus package did not vote to specifically cut the funding of police departments, but Mr. Richmond’s argument appears to be part of the strategy to neutralize the Republican attacks.

Mr. Biden is “not only sending a message to Democratic candidates, he’s also trying to provide cover to the Democratic candidates because he too is vulnerable of being soft on crime,” said Brian Sanderoff, of Research and Polling Inc. in Albuquerque.

That dynamic is playing out in cities and towns across the country.

In Albuquerque, Mayor Tim Keller is facing a challenge from Sheriff Manny Gonzales, who has made clear he will go on the offensive over rising homicides in the city. Both candidates are Democrats, but Mr. Gonzales’s move could help him sweep up some Republican votes.

Mr. Keller has responded in part by conveying that he will follow Mr. Biden’s guidance and use 15 percent of stimulus funds to refurbish police departments, expand gun detection technology and bolster recruiting of officers.

“Crime is going to be a hot topic as we move closer to Election Day here in Albuquerque,” Mr. Sanderoff said.

In Georgia, Michael Thurmond, the chief executive of DeKalb County, said Mr. Biden’s proposal would help fend off criticism from two fronts: Republicans who say Democrats are soft on crime and criminal justice advocates who say government funding should go toward mental health or social services rather than police departments.

Mr. Thurmond has proposed investing $11 million of the stimulus funds to provide officers with a retention bonus and build out a system for scanning license plates. But he is also proposing using the funds to invest in mental health programs and a police athletic league.

“It’s no longer an either-or proposition,” Mr. Thurmond said.

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