WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is announcing new efforts to stem a rising national tide of violent crime as administration officials brace for what could be a turbulent summer, focusing on attacking gun violence, providing money to cities that need more police and offering community support.
The worry over crime is real: It has created economic hardship, displacement and anxiety. But there are also tricky politics at play. The spike in crime has become a Republican talking point and has been a frequent topic of conversation on conservative media.
White House aides believe that Biden, with his long legislative record on fighting crime as a senator, is not easy to paint as soft on the issue, and the president has been clear that he is opposed to the “defund the police” movement, which has been effectively used against other Democrats to cast them as anti-law enforcement.
But Biden also is trying to boost progressives’ efforts to reform policing, following a year of mass demonstrations and public anguish sparked by the killing by police of George Floyd and other Black people across the country. And while combating crime and reforming the police don’t have to be at odds with each other, the two efforts are increasingly billed that way.
Biden will try to do both at once, according to senior administration officials who detailed his upcoming address on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about it.
In his speech Wednesday, Biden will announce a “zero tolerance” policy — not to be confused with the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration that separated thousands of children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. This one gives no leeway to gun dealers who fail to comply with federal law — their license to sell will be revoked on the first offense.
The president has already announced a half-dozen executive actions on gun control, including cracking down on “ghost guns,” homemade firearms that lack serial numbers used to trace them and that are often purchased without a background check.
But Biden is limited in his power to act alone. The House passed two bills requiring background checks on all firearm sales and transfers and allowing an expanded 10-day review for gun purchases. That legislation faces strong headwinds in the Senate, where some Republican support would be needed for passage.
In the meantime, Biden will also seek increased transparency on gun data and better coordination among states, and he will push Congress for more money for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency responsible for enforcing federal gun laws and regulating gun dealers. The Justice Department is also launching strike forces in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to help take down illegal gun traffickers, building on an initiative begun last month.
Police officials around the country have said they are struggling with increasing crime and continued tensions between police and communities, and some say their calls for support aren’t answered as they take the blame for the spike.
“Many of us — if not most of us — are seeing a rise in crime, while at the same time, we’re hearing calls for reform,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said of cities in remarks Tuesday at a forum on policing. “And some of those calls are to the extreme of dismantle and defund ... while all of the same time we’re sworn to protect the people.”
Biden planned to discuss how $350 billion of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package can be used by cities to hire law enforcement officers, pay overtime, prosecute gun traffickers and invest in technology to make law enforcement more efficient. The officials said the Biden administration hoped cities would choose to use the money for alternatives to policing, too, and to invest in community policing models.
While crime is rising — homicides and shootings are up from the same period last year in Chicago; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon; Baltimore; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Houston — violent crime overall remains lower than it was a decade ago or even five years ago. And most violent crimes plummeted during the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic, as people stayed indoors and away from others.
Crime started creeping up last summer, a trend criminologists say is hard to define and is likely due to a variety of factors such as historic unemployment, fear over the virus and mass anger over stay-at-home orders. Public mass shootings have also made an alarming return.
The rise in violence comes against the backdrop of the national debate on policing and racism in policing — and as a police reform bill is being crafted in Congress. White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday dismissed suggestions that a presidential event focused on cracking down on crime would undermine that legislative effort.
As a senator, Biden wrote several major anti-crime packages, including a 1994 bill that contained provisions now viewed by some as an overreaction to the crime spikes in the 1980s and 1990s. Critics say those bills helped lead to mass incarceration of Black Americans, and Biden’s involvement became a flashpoint in his 2020 campaign.
Biden has expressed second thoughts about some aspects of the legislation, and he has acknowledged its harmful impact on many Black Americans. But he and his allies still hold out the law’s provisions to address domestic violence, ban assault weapons and finance community policing.
On the reform side, Biden on Wednesday is expected to push cities to use $122 billion to help keep schoolchildren busy this summer — they’re often both targets and perpetrators of violence — and to expand summer hiring programs for teenagers, the officials said. Labor Department funding will be used to provide pre-apprenticeship jobs for youths and help formerly incarcerated adults and young people in 28 communities get work.
The White House also planned to convene a bipartisan meeting Wednesday of law enforcement officials, politicians, activists and prosecutors and will meet with 14 jurisdictions from around the country that have committed to using a portion of the funding for violence intervention programs.
“Yes, there need to be reforms of police systems across the country. The president is a firm believer in that,” Psaki said Tuesday. “But there are also steps he can take as president of the United States to help address and hopefully reduce that crime. A big part of that, in his view, is putting in place gun safety measures ... using the bully pulpit but also using levers at his disposal as president.”
Lemire reported from New York.