The president is expected on Wednesday to detail efforts to use federal resources to assist the police as well as community-based groups.,
Biden is set to address rising gun violence, amid continued calls for police reform.
A “Stop Gun Violence” sign displayed on a truck during a Gun Violence Peace March last week in Miami.Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images
June 23, 2021, 8:31 a.m. ET
President Biden is expected on Wednesday to announce a slate of actions to bolster efforts by law enforcement agencies and community organizations to tackle gun violence, propelling the White House into the politically contentious debate over how to address rising crime in many U.S. cities.
The president’s remarks come as city leaders grapple with dueling calls to both improve oversight of their police departments and address soaring homicide rates that administration officials fear will continue through the summer.
Mr. Biden’s comments from the White House, scheduled for 3:30 p.m., will come after a discussion with local mayors, prosecutors and activists. The president’s remarks, administration officials say, are needed not just to show action by the federal government on the issue, but also because concerns over rising crime could hinder efforts to galvanize support for meaningful police reform measures.
The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that the Justice Department would start five “strike forces” to combat gun trafficking in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and the San Francisco area.
On Wednesday, the administration announced that state and local governments could use coronavirus relief funds to hire police officers, pay overtime for community policing work, support community-based anti-violence groups and invest in technology to “effectively respond to the rise in gun violence resulting from the pandemic,” according to a statement from the Treasury Department. The funds can also be spent on summer camp programs in communities struggling with violence, programs for the formerly incarcerated and mental health services.
Biden administration officials said the president’s remarks would build on previous executive actions, including orders meant to curb the spread of “ghost guns” easily assembled from kits, expanding federal grants for police departments and directing $5 billion in his infrastructure proposal to groups that intervene with those most likely to commit violence.
Mr. Biden does not feel that reforming the police and tackling crime are conflicting goals, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on Tuesday. “We believe that a central driver of violence is gun violence,” she said, adding that the president “also believes that we need to ensure that state and local governments keep cops on the beat.”
Criminologists have reported that homicide rates in large cities were up more than 30 percent on average last year, and up another 24 percent for the beginning of this year, though overall crime figures have been down during the pandemic.
Some criminal justice advocates are concerned about the possibility that raising alarm over crime in cities could undermine momentum to overhaul law enforcement.
“We must not overreact and we must not repeat the mistakes of the past where crime has been politicized and the solutions have been focused on trying to arrest our way out of the problem,” said Udi Ofer, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Justice Division. “If there is a lot of jargon in that speech that feeds the tough-on-crime narrative, than yes we have a problem.”
Quentin James, the president of Collective PAC, an organization dedicated to electing African American officials, said Mr. Biden’s comments would be welcomed if he focused on the “root causes of crime and not just the symptoms of much larger social ills.”
“It’s not like you’re going to be pro-police or pro-cops or you’re going to be pro-reform — it’s not that cut-and-dried,” he said, adding that the important thing was hearing “nuance and balance” on the issue. “Black people are nervous about the crime spike and how to deal with that, but to deal with that in a way where we’re not just doubling police budgets.”
A bipartisan compromise on a national policing overhaul has stalled in Congress, despite Mr. Biden urging lawmakers to reach a deal by May 25, the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Democrats continue to debate reducing funding for police departments, while Republicans have seized on the “defund the police” slogan to attack them as weak on public safety.
“If they think they’re just going to pass a few gun laws and everything is going to be fine, they’re absolutely not in touch with the reality of what’s going on across our country,” Representative John Katko, Republican of New York and the ranking member of the House Homeland Security committee, told Fox News on Tuesday.
For some, Mr. Biden’s comments on Wednesday will be a reminder of his political baggage. As a senator, Mr. Biden championed a 1994 crime bill that many experts say fueled mass incarceration, prompting questions during his presidential campaign over his commitment to overhauling the criminal justice system.
Mr. Biden has resisted calls by some members of the Democratic Party to divest in police forces, calling instead for using Justice Department grants to encourage police departments to change and eliminating sentencing disparities. The administration took a step toward the latter goal on Tuesday when the Justice Department backed a Senate proposal to equalize punishments for crack and powder cocaine offenses — which would end disparities that Mr. Biden helped create as a senator.