Biden’s justice reform plan exams Black Lives Matter, police assist

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Biden's justice reform plan tests Black Lives Matter, police support

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Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden sent a message to George Floyd’s family during his funeral in Houston.

USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – As President-elect Joe Biden nears inauguration, he faces pressure from opposing factions: One group believes he has shifted too far to the left; the other believes he’s not progressive enough.

On one side are the more conservative-leaning law enforcement groups and unions – Biden’s longtime allies after three decades in Washington – that now say the former vice president has and will continue to abandon the pro-police policies he championed as a senator.

“We’re expecting to see a hard lurch to the left from the incoming administration,” said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, which backed President Donald Trump.

On the other side are social justice activists who are skeptical of an establishment politician like Biden, are uncompromising in their call to defund the police and have already amped up pressure on the incoming administration. 

“We want something for our vote,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors said in a letter last month asking to meet with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. 

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Joe Biden speaks via video link as family and guests attend the funeral service for George Floyd at The Fountain of Praise church June 9 in Houston. (Photo: David J. Phillip, AP)

The conflicting interests will test Biden’s reputation as a centrist politician and a negotiator at a critical time for law enforcement and policing in the United States. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police and the prolonged civil unrest that followed exposed a deepening distrust in law enforcement and led to calls for significant reforms. Biden, as a candidate, drew from their deaths to call for meaningful change. 

Yet social justice activists believe any reform from the Biden administration will not go far enough. Police groups, meanwhile, believe Biden has already gone too far. 

During a townhall in Miami in early October, Biden promised to bring together stakeholders – “peaceful protesters, police chiefs, police officers, police unions as well as civil rights groups” – for conversations at the White House. 

“I do not believe we have to choose between law and order and racial justice in America. We can have both,” Biden said in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Those who have known and worked with Biden on criminal justice issues are optimistic that he will be able to leverage his longstanding ties with law enforcement to chart some kind of middle ground. 

“That’s what he’s done historically. He’s brought people to the table,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the think-tank Police Executive Research Forum. “They don’t always agree with each other, (but) he’s been very good at letting them express themselves.”

Still, whatever Biden does, he’s bound to disappoint people from both sides, said Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. 

“If he approaches crime reducing using policing as a center point, that will upset people  on the left,” Johnson said. “By the same token, if he goes and implements certain reforms, there are going to be people on the policing side and pro-law-enforcement side who will be disappointed.”

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From center-right to center-left

President Barack Obama is joined by Vice President Joe Biden as he makes a statement Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, at the White House about policies he would pursue after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Obama tasked Biden, a longtime gun control advocate, with spearheading the effort. (Photo: Charles Dharapak, AP)

After the mass shooting that killed more than two dozen students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, the Obama administration convened a task force of cabinet members and law enforcement leaders to weigh gun control reform.

Biden, then the Obama administration’s point person on criminal justice, led the task force. 

“I remember thinking that there’s only one person in the room that knows everybody,” said Wexler, who was one of the several law enforcement leaders who met with Biden and other administration officials at the White House. “You can’t have been in Washington and worked on criminal justice issues for the last 20, 25 years and not know … Biden. He may be the first president that’s had as much experience on policing issues as any incoming president ever has.”

But Biden’s relationships with police groups have since fractured as his rhetoric and policies on criminal justice and policing have moved further to the left. 

“I think that he has … moved from a center-right position over time to center-left position. At the same time, police officers, by and large, have tended to move from a more center-right position to a right position,” said Jim Pasco executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which also endorsed Trump. “Our respect for President-elect Biden has not flagged, but our disagreement in some policy areas is a new ingredient in the stew.”

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US President Donald Trump and National President of the Fraternal Order of Police Patrick Yoes speak during a “Make America Great Again” campaign rally at Harrisburg international airport in Middletown, Pensylvania on September 26, 2020. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI, AFP via Getty Images)

As a senator, Biden’s policies added more police officers on the streets and built more prisons.

As a presidential candidate, Biden called for more mental health services and substance abuse treatment as an alternative to imprisonment. He championed policies that would rein in legal protections for police and ban chokeholds. He promised to create a national oversight commission that would examine police departments’ hiring and de-escalation practices.

“Most cops meet the highest standards of their profession. All the more reason that bad cops should be dealt with severely and swiftly,” Biden said last summer in Philadelphia.

And he vowed to restore federal investigations of possible civil rights abuses at police departments – power that Biden’s 1994 crime bill gave the Justice Department, but which the Trump administration significantly curtailed. 

But beefing up such investigations is bound to further alienate law enforcement groups that see them as too costly and burdensome.

Most pressing for law enforcement – and an issue the Biden administration will have to face – is rising violent crime in several cities this year, said Wexler, the think-tank executive director whose group surveyed law enforcement agencies and found that the majority of the country’s largest largest police departments are seeing an increase in homicides and shootings. 

‘We know who he is’

Joe Biden gives a videotaped message during the funeral for George Floyd on June 9 at the Fountain of Praise church in Houston. Floyd died after being pinned by a Minneapolis police officer May 25. (Photo: Godofredo A. Vasquez, Pool Photo-USA TODAY NETWORK via)

On the campaign trail, Biden aligned himself with progressive causes. He talked about the need to weed out systemic racism in policing. He acknowledged that too many Black Americans die after their lives intersect with the criminal justice system. He drew from his own personal loss, telling George Floyd’s family during his funeral that he knows what it’s like to bury a loved one.

Yet, Black activists remain skeptical.

Biden was not their first choice in the Democratic presidential primary. They’re relieved that Trump lost, but they’re also not enthusiastic about a Biden presidency. And his role in the 1994 crime bill that critics say led to the incarceration of a disproportionate number of Black Americans remains an indelible stain on his record. 

“We know who he is. We know that he hasn’t been a strong advocate for Black people,” said Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. “Even though there’s individual relationships that he can point to, that’s not the same thing as setting policies that make a difference on the lives of Black people.”

Biden’s campaign website, which has a page dedicated to policies for Black America, points to his sponsorships of bills that fought employment discrimination and protected Black Americans’ right to vote. In his victory speech, Biden said: “The African American community stood up again for me. You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., questions chief justice nominee John G. Roberts Jr. during the second day of confirmation hearings for President Bush’s selection to be the 17th chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2005. (Photo: BILL CLARK, GNS)

But his relationship with some of the loudest voices in the Black community, specifically those who are calling for significant police reforms, seems to be off to a rough start. 

Abdullah said “it’s disappointing” that Black Lives Matter has not heard from Biden’s team about its request for a meeting with Biden and Harris.

“President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris both understand the need for criminal justice and police reform so all people are protected and treated fairly under the law. Maintaining open lines of communication with groups committed to reform and law enforcement is paramount in achieving meaningful outcomes that make a difference in so many lives,” Biden transition spokesman Cameron French said in a statement.

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‘Feeling of abandonment’

Bill Johnson, the National Association of Police Organizations executive director, said there’s some disappointment and a “feeling of abandonment” among law enforcement leaders after hearing Biden’s policy proposals and rhetoric on the campaign trail.

He notes Biden’s suggestion during a meeting with church leaders in Delaware this summer, when he said officers should be trained to shoot suspects in the leg instead of in the chest or abdomen. He said the comment disregards the difficulty of hitting a much smaller, moving target at a moment of extreme stress for a police officer. 

“I think that he knows better,” said Bill Johnson, who also has known Biden and worked with him for years. “He made it look like officers are trained to kill.”

Still, police groups are confident they will be heard. Pasco said he expects, “at a minimum,” to have a dialogue with the Biden administration.

“The underlying affection and respect (for Biden) is there to be rekindled,” Pasco said. “He’s been in town a long time. He knows that in Washington, some of the best results that have ever come out of Washington have come as a result of compromise.”

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, D-Ill., and his choice for a running mate, Joe Biden, appear together outside the Old State Capitol on Aug. 23, 2008, in Springfield, Ill. (Photo: Jeff Roberson, AP)

Some were also heartened by Biden’s assurance that he does not support defunding the police. 

“I think the president-elect … is generally a pro-law enforcement person, (but) he is going to have to respond to elements within his own party that are going to be asking him to be very focused on police accountability,” said Jason Johnson, the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund president.

Where there may be some wariness is around what kind of reform the Biden administration will pursue and what it means for police. 

‘Strongly and loudly, defund the police’

Equally wary are social justice activists, who see Biden’s longstanding ties with law enforcement and his proclivity to compromise as a cause for concern. 

“Compromise happens at the expense of progressive ideals,” an organizer for Black Lives Matter in Philadelphia. “That’s exactly what my worry is. It’s that compromise … is going to cut out anything that is actually transformative or would represent systemic change.”

Ideally, Washington wants to see a world that has shifted from policing in favor of social services that address the root causes of crime and targets programs to those who are at most risk of becoming victims or criminals.

Realistically, under the Biden administration, “what we’re going to get is a bunch of reforms that are going to be sold as the answer to police misconduct, but, again, are not going to go far enough,” Washington said

Biden has proposed $300 million to reinvigorate a community policing program that was enacted as part of his 1994 crime bill. The money would fund hiring and training for officers on the condition that police departments mirror the racial diversity of their communities. 

Civic leader and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles chapter, Melina Abdullah, poses for a photo after voting at the Staples Center early on November 3. (Photo: VALERIE MACON, AFP via Getty Images)

Biden’s transition team pointed to widespread support from civil rights groups and leaders for the program, which the Trump administration had not sufficiently funded.

Still, the increase in funding for police departments is a problem for a group like Black Lives Matter.

“We want to make sure that Biden understands that we’re in a new era, and this era understands public safety as much more broadly than policing and sometimes in contrast to policing,” Abdullah said. “We say, strongly and loudly, defund the police. Joe Biden doesn’t have to like it.”

She added: “You can’t utter the name George Floyd, as he has done, you can’t speak the name Breonna Taylor as he has done … and still stand by a system of policing that stole their lives.”

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