Biden emphasizes investment in police, communities to combat crime
President Biden on Wednesday outlined steps the executive branch is taking to curb crime at a time when cities are seeing spikes in homicides, highlighting ways in which money from his signature economic relief bill can be repurposed to reduce violence.
“For folks at home, the American Rescue Plan, which is a once in a generation investment to reduce violence in America — I’m proud of it. It means more police officers, more nurses, more counselors, more social workers, more community violence interrupters to help resolve issues before they escalate into crimes,” Biden said in remarks from the State Dining Room.
“It means we go after the people who flood our streets with guns, and the bad actors who decide to use them to further terrorize the communities,” he added. “It means saving lives, and Congress should in no way take away this funding that has already been appropriated.”
Biden reiterated his call for Congress to pass an expansion of background checks for firearm purchases and a federal ban on assault weapons to curb gun violence, despite little progress on those policies in a gridlocked Washington.
“I never give up hope,” Biden said when asked after his speech about the prospect of new gun laws.
Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland also met with a group of local law enforcement officials, community leaders and other White House officials to discuss their efforts, a sit-down that lasted longer than expected Wednesday afternoon ahead of Biden’s speech.
Biden faces a balancing act in laying out his agenda on crime.
He's looking to distance himself from calls by some progressives to "defund the police" to insulate himself from Republican attacks, while also drawing a contrast with former President Trump 's divisive and inflammatory rhetoric that included chastising protesters while framing himself as a tough-on-crime candidate.
“It’s not being soft or tough on crime. We have to be smart on crime. We have to do the things that we know work,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) told reporters following Wednesday’s meeting when asked about Republican efforts to brand Democrats as weak on crime.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) described the Republican narrative as “completely lazy and inaccurate,” noting that officials in New Jersey have invested in law enforcement.
Biden portrayed himself as a supporter of law enforcement during his address on Wednesday, laying out plans to help bolster local law enforcement to ensure they have the resources to address the uptick in crime and violence during the pandemic.
“This is not a time to turn our backs on law enforcement or our communities,” he said, as he criticized efforts to reclaim money allocated to states in the American Rescue Plan.
The country has seen an increase in violence over the past 18 months. In 2020, as much of the country and economy was shuttered due to the pandemic, there was a 30 percent year-over-year increase in homicides and an 8 percent increase in gun assaults in large cities. Those numbers continued to rise in the first quarter of 2021, administration officials said.
“Crime historically rises during the summer, and as we emerge from this pandemic, with the country opening back up again, the traditional summer spike may even be more pronounced than it traditionally would be,” Biden said Wednesday.
Many of the initiatives Biden announced Wednesday involved encouraging jurisdictions to use billions of dollars in funds allocated to state and local governments through the American Rescue Plan to invest in police departments and community programs to cut down on violence and offer alternatives for residents in at-risk communities.
The emphasis on using funding from the rescue plan raised some eyebrows given the administration’s resistance to repurposing funding from the law for infrastructure projects. Psaki noted some of the funding in the American Rescue Plan was specifically outlined for community investments like the ones Biden laid out Wednesday.
The administration is also collaborating with 15 jurisdictions that have seen high rates of gun crime to bolster community violence intervention programs. Among the partner locales are Chicago; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Baton Rouge, La.; Los Angeles, Detroit and St. Louis.
The Department of Justice separately announced the creation of multijurisdictional "firearms trafficking strike forces" to reduce the trafficking of guns to high-crime areas like New York City; Chicago; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area.
“These steps alone will not stop the problem of violent crime. Success depends on all of us joining together,” Garland said in prepared remarks at the White House.
When asked how politics factored into the decision to prioritize efforts against crime earlier Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki described the new strategy as a continuation of Biden’s efforts thus far to address gun violence and empower local police.
“The president has been very consistent in his views over decades. He has never been for defunding the police. He has always been a supporter of ensuring that local community policing is funded and adequately supported by the federal government. He has also been a longtime advocate for decades and leader on addressing gun violence. So, this is actually the continuity of his leadership on these issues over decades,” Psaki said. “This is just an opportunity to put additional meat on the bones.”
Wednesday’s plan built on previous efforts from the Biden administration targeted specifically at gun violence. The Department of Justice in April announced new rules to crack down on modified pistols and so-called ghost guns, which pose problems for law enforcement because they do not have serial numbers or are assembled piece-by-piece to avoid tracking.
Senior White House officials, predominantly Susan Rice and Cedric Richmond , have been engaging with gun safety advocates as they craft executive branch policy around firearms. Advocates said they were encouraged by Biden’s crime prevention plan and the focus on gun violence.
“Gun violence remains a priority focus and as we continue conversations with the administration, we are really pushing them to look at what is happening at a state-by-state level,” said Luis Hernandez, founder and executive director of Youth Over Guns.
Hernandez specifically commended the White House’s plan to expand access to summer programs, employment and other services for young individuals, arguing it would both help keep them out of harm’s way and provide them resources to help them survive.
“When young people have the resources, have jobs, have a place to be, they’re not caught in the middle of crossfire on the streets,” he said.
Biden echoed that logic during his remarks Wednesday afternoon, saying that for teenagers in underprivileged neighborhoods, “no jobs” means “more trouble.” Young people, he said, “pick up a paycheck instead of a pistol.”
Still, some advocates have pushed the White House to do more, including by tapping a point person within the West Wing to handle gun issues only. Psaki seemed to throw cold water on the possibility on Wednesday, telling reporters “the president’s in charge.”