WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden plans to lay out new steps to stem a rising national tide of violent crime, with a particular focus on gun violence, as administration officials brace for what they fear could be an especially turbulent summer.
The worry over crime is real and believed to be fueled by the pandemic, which 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 crime as a former 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 paint them as anti-law enforcement. But Biden also is trying to boost progressives’ efforts to reform policing. 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.
Joe Biden pushes effort to combat rising tide of violent crime
In a speech on Wednesday, Biden is to unveil a series of executive orders aimed at reducing violence, and he will renew his calls for Congress to pass gun legislation, aides said. Ahead of the speech, the Justice Department announced new strike forces aimed at tackling gun trafficking in five cities.
The White House also planned to convene a meeting Wednesday with Attorney General Merrick Garland; the Democratic mayors of Baltimore and Miami-Dade County and the Republican mayor of Rapid City, South Dakota; the Democratic attorney general of New Jersey; the police chief in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and community activists. White House staff members have also been in touch with legislators and congressional staff.
“Yes, there need to be reforms of police systems across the country. The president is a firm believer in that,” White House press secretary Jen 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.”
In April, Biden 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.
There is also new federal funding from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package directed toward municipal governments, allowing them to keep more police officers on the street. Aides said Biden would also urge a swift confirmation of his choice to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
But Biden is limited in his power to act alone. The House passed two bills requiring background checks on all firearms sales and transfers and allowing an expanded 10-day review for gun purchases. But that legislation faces strong headwinds in the Senate, where some Republican support would be needed for passage.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Tuesday that she has seen double-digit increases in murder and violent crime nationwide.
“It is staggering. It is sobering,” she said at a violent-crime forum held by the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum. “And it’s something that DOJ is committed to do all we can to reverse what are profoundly troubling trends.”
Monaco said the Justice Department would launch strike forces in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to help reduce violent crime by addressing illegal gun trafficking, building on an initiative begun last month.
If the federal effort sounds familiar, it is. Federal operations have often been launched to help cities facing spiking crime. President Donald Trump announced something similar last year when he and then-Attorney General William Barr launched Operation Legend, named for a boy who was shot to death in Kansas City, Missouri. In that effort, hundreds of investigators were deployed to nine cities with rising crime, prioritizing the arrest of violent criminals.
Trump, though, laid blame for the spike in crime on protesters who demonstrated against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He claimed that Democrats were allowing crime to run amok in their cities. But despite pockets of violence in both Democratic- and Republican-run cities, the protests were mostly peaceful. A Harvard Radcliffe Institute study found there were no injuries reported in 97% of the events. Still, Republican leaders continue to echo Trump’s claims.
And 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 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.
“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 at the police forum. “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.”
Interest in guns, too, is on the rise. The number of people stopped from buying guns through the U.S. background check system hit an all-time high of more than 300,000 last year amid a surge of firearm sales. And several states have passed laws barring federal gun control laws from taking effect.
Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields said lax gun laws and the presence of illegal guns on the streets are compounding the violence.
“When everyone can have a gun, they tend to,” she said. “And it just leads to more illegal guns on the street.”
The Justice Department recently announced a sweeping investigation into the Louisville police over the March 2020 death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death by police during a raid at her home. A similar investigation was launched into the Minneapolis police force.
The rise in violence comes against the backdrop of a national debate on policing and as a police reform bill is being crafted in Congress. 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.
Concerns rising inside White House over surge in violent crime
A nationwide surge in violent crime has emerged as a growing area of concern inside the White House, where President Joe Biden and his aides have listened with alarm as local authorities warn a brutal summer of killing lies ahead.
Biden plans to address the spike in shootings, armed robberies and vicious assaults on Wednesday afternoon following a meeting with state and local officials, law enforcement representatives and others involved in combating the trend.
He hopes to dampen what has already become a cudgel for Republicans eager to run a "law and order" campaign in next year's midterm elections.
The President is poised to announce a comprehensive crime reduction strategy on Wednesday, officials said, in hopes of reducing gun violence and addressing the root causes of the spike. He plans to sign executive actions with a particular focus on tamping down gun crimes, according to officials, while again calling on Congress to take steps to enact new gun control laws. He is also set to press Congress to confirm David Chipman as his nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Across the country, the easing of pandemic restrictions paired with the onset of warmer weather has led to a troubling increase in crime, much of it involving guns. After years of decreasing crime statistics, the homicide rate surged in major cities in 2020 and that trend appears poised to continue this year. Last weekend, there were 10 mass shootings across nine states that killed seven people and injured at least 45 others, according to data compiled by CNN and Gunviolencearchive.org.
Already, the uptick is becoming a potent political issue for a President who worked over the past two years to carefully calibrate his approach to criminal justice, resisting pressure from the left to support defunding the police while justifying his role in writing major anti-crime bills from the 1990s. Biden entered office with a mandate to his team on reducing gun violence, according to officials, and has been acutely aware that crime rates have been spiking over the past year.
The politics of the moment are further complicated by the prospect of bipartisan police reform legislation, which is slowly moving its way through Congress.
The decision by the White House to devote an afternoon of the President's time to focus on the nation's rising crime rate underscores how serious the matter is being taken inside the West Wing. The wave of violent crime is not only seen as an impediment to the economic recovery from the pandemic, but also as a potential political threat that could give Republicans an opening in their midterm election fight against Democrats.
Biden's aides have sought to put the numbers in context, noting the current upswing in crime began before he entered office.
"There's been, actually, a rise in crime over the last five years, but really the last 18 months," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.
Can't 'just arrest our way out of this'
For months, state and local officials have been sounding the alarm about the toll that shootings, carjackings, armed robberies, assaults and more have been taking on communities.
"We have seen the data change, peoples' state of mind change, ever since the Covid pandemic has presented so many challenges from the economic hardship, the stress, the anxiety," Chief Murphy Paul, of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Louisiana, told CNN "Newsroom" on Monday. "We have to deal with the causes of crime and not just arrest our way of this."
White House officials hope to take steps that will better link federal law enforcement resources with state and local governments, according to people familiar with the matter. Biden's Justice Department has laid out a strategy for combating violent crime that includes embedding federal agents with local homicide teams and nationwide sweeps for wanted fugitives involved in violence.
That plan sought to de-emphasize the number of arrests and prosecutions, instead focusing on overall reductions in violent crime as a metric of success. It also sought to improve community engagement and violence intervention programs in the hopes of preventing violence from taking root.
Biden's sweeping $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure proposal includes $5 billion to support community-based violence prevention programs, though the future of that proposal remains uncertain.
The President also plans on using the nationwide spike in crime as an opportunity to advance his argument for new gun control laws, even though his calls earlier in his presidency for Congress to take action prompted little action.
The impetus then was a rash of mass shootings that drew the nation's attention after a relative lull in gun massacres during the pandemic. But even during his remarks from the Rose Garden calling for a ban on "ghost guns," Biden acknowledged the surge in gun violence that wasn't generating the same type of headlines.
"We recognize that cities across the country are experiencing historic spikes in homicides, as the law enforcement can tell you," he said on April 8. "The violence is hitting Black and brown communities the hardest."
A complicated history
For Biden, it's the latest chapter in his long -- and politically complicated -- history with crime legislation. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden helped write the 1994 crime bill, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
"A guy named Biden wrote that bill and he wrote that bill by going down and sitting down with the president of the United States of America," said Biden, crowing about the legislation during a speech on the Senate floor at the time.
In the 1990s, the tough-on-crime stance was viewed as a prized accomplishment for Biden, who warned of "predators on our streets" who were "beyond the pale."
Yet a quarter-century later, his warm embrace of Clinton during a Rose Garden signing ceremony for the 1994 crime bill stirred controversy during his 2020 presidential primary. Several candidates, including then-opponent Kamala Harris, criticized Biden for his role in the legislation, which she and other critics said led to an era of mass incarceration.
Biden dismissed such criticism from the progressive base of his party, reminding voters that the controversial crime bill at the time was supported by the Congressional Black Caucus and several of the nation's leading Black mayors. At the same time, he minimized his role in getting the law enacted, saying he was "got stuck with" the job because he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Today, the politics of crime legislation are less certain.
A movement to "Defund the Police" has lost considerable steam inside the Democratic Party, amid rising crime rates across the country. Biden has consistently been opposed to any such measures -- and avoided such language -- by refusing to accept the criticism from progressives during his presidential race.
Meanwhile, local law enforcement officials have begun placing greater emphasis on community intervention programs to prevent violence, a shift away from the style of policing embedded in the laws Biden helped pass.
"We have to do a better job of ... not repeating the mistakes of the past, where we think the best way to solve violent crime is to go out and arrest people for low-level offenses, creating this mass incarceration epidemic that we are trying to handle," said Chief Shon Barnes of the Madison, Wisconsin, police. "That is simply not the way to handle violent crime in America."
"I believe that we have to start partnering with other people in our community, and sometimes the police have to take a backseat and allow some of our civic groups, some of our entities within city government to take the lead and we take a supporting role. The idea is to prevent crime and not simply to respond to it," Barnes said on CNN.
While Biden's views and record on crime hardly kept him from winning the primary and general election campaigns, they now present a new test for the White House in its quest to avoid deep schisms inside the Democratic Party.
Republicans, in their effort to win control of the House and Senate next year, are already seizing on the issue of crime. Party officials believe it's one of the strongest arguments to win back suburban voters, particularly women, who abandoned the GOP in the Trump era.
"Democrats up and down the ballot have done everything in their power to subvert law enforcement," Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said this week. "Voters will hold Democrats accountable for their pro-crime policies."
Biden launches an effort to head off violent crime — and political peril for his party
President Biden is expected to lay out an anti-crime strategy this week, focusing on gun crimes as part of an effort to stem the rise in homicides across the country at the beginning of what his administration and experts believe will be a tumultuous summer.
Biden’s planned remarks Wednesday will put the White House at the forefront of a delicate issue that has dogged him and the Democratic Party in the past and carries potential political consequences for them. Administration officials are eager to show that the president is attuned to the problem and taking concrete steps to reduce crime, people familiar with the plans said.
The new push comes as chunks of the Democratic coalition tug in different directions: Some on the far left want to dismantle traditional policing while others see liberal slogans from 2020 such as “defund the police” as a reason for underwhelming election results and concerned that spiking crime will only exacerbate the political fallout that the slogan wrought.
Liberal activists pushing for an overhaul to policing worry that the alarm over the violence will undercut their efforts to increase oversight and accountability of individual police officers.
“I do think that Democratic politicians are feeling some pressure to respond in some way, so I think you’ll see a lot of responses from the president on down,” said Ronald Wright, a law professor at Wake Forest University and a criminal justice expert.
Crime was down overall last year by about 6 percent, according to previously released FBI data, one of the largest decreases in decades, while at the same time the murder rate appears to have risen about 25 percent, and violent crime about 3 percent.
The FBI on Monday released initial crime figures for the first three months of 2021 that was inconclusive about whether overall crime was trending up or down, while data being tracked in big cities across the country shows the alarming homicide trends continuing in them.
The issue brings Biden to the center of a policy area that has proved fraught for him over his long career. As a senator, Biden wrote several major anti-crime packages including a 1994 bill that contained provisions now viewed by critics as an overreaction to the crime spikes in the 1980s and 1990s that contributed to mass incarceration of Black Americans. Biden’s involvement in that bill became a major sticking point in his 2020 campaign.
Biden has voiced regrets about aspects of the “tough on crime” legislation and acknowledged its harmful impacts on many Black Americans, although he and his allies still tout the bill’s work to address domestic violence, ban assault weapons and fund community policing.
On Tuesday, he will take another step toward dismantling the effects of crime legislation he previously backed. His administration will endorse a measure to end the disparities between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses.
Biden opposed defunding the police as the movement to do so grew in the summer before the 2020 election with support from many on the party’s left flank. Conservatives sought to tie him and fellow congressional Democrats to the movement, and a report commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) earlier this year showed that effort damaged the party, which lost significant ground in the House even as Biden won the presidency.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Biden hopes local government can use some of the funds provided in the American Rescue Plan to pay for police officers and sheriffs.
A 73-slide deck outlining missteps in the 2020 election by several Democratic groups found that one of they key weaknesses in the election was that “defund the police” allowed Republicans to paint candidates as radical — particularly newer ones who lacked an established rapport in their communities.
“Defund was devastatingly bad for Democrats in 2020,” said Matt Bennett, a founder of the center-left think tank Third Way. “It was a very powerful argument and it is one we’re very worried about coming back in 2022.”
Rising crime rates in New York have emerged as a key issue in the city’s mayoral race, which is expected to be decided by Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Law and order has become a dominant theme in the final stretch of the campaign. Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), the head of the DCCC who oversaw the release of that study, on Monday endorsed New York mayoral candidate Eric Adams, a former police officer who has rebuffed calls to weaken the police department.
“I think they should be really worried,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who chairs the campaign arm of the Senate GOP caucus. Scott said that Democrats have erred by playing down the impact of property damage at protests across the country in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder.
He said that support by some Democrats for defunding police departments will do long-lasting harm to the party.
“If you’re law enforcement, you’re going to be very cautious about doing your job when you see that the Democrats are never going to back you up,” Scott said. “I can tell you, the mentality that the Democrats have — it’s going to help Republicans win more elections.”
Republicans have had little luck so far this year winning races by focusing on crime. It was the key issue in a closely watched congressional race to replace Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), who became Biden’s interior secretary. Despite a laser focus on issues such as the rising murder rate in Albuquerque, Republican Mark Moores lost overwhelmingly.
And in Philadelphia, incumbent District Attorney Larry Krasner won a Democratic primary against Carlos Vega, who had been endorsed by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. As a prosecutor, Krasner sliced the city’s jail population, instituted a “do not call” list for police officers who couldn’t testify because of previous bad behavior and handled 98 percent of juvenile arrests in juvenile courts.
Scott said that voters, particularly in urban areas, will lose their allegiance to Democrats. “Nothing happens overnight, but I think over time when they see that the crime is up, these Democrats are going to lose,” he said.
And the White House decision to focus on the issue Wednesday is a clear indication that the president’s team is concerned about the issue.
“The president feels a lot — a great deal of the crime we’re seeing — is as a result of gun violence,” said Psaki said Monday. “You can expect he’ll speak to that and his commitment to continuing to address gun violence and gun safety in the country.”
As a candidate, Biden promised to take sweeping action on gun control and touted his ability to defeat the National Rifle Association. Biden has signed a few executive orders to combat gun violence as president, including strengthening regulations on ghost guns, and redirecting federal funding to prevent community violence. He also nominated a gun control advocate, David Chipman, to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. But Biden says he is hamstrung by Republican opposition in Congress.
“They’ve offered plenty of thoughts and prayers, members of Congress, but they’ve passed not a single new federal law to reduce gun violence,” Biden said in April. “Enough prayers. Time for some action.”
Biden will speak Wednesday about his administration’s crime prevention strategy and plans on meeting with some stakeholders.
Bennett, with Third Way, noted that there’s little that the White House can do to directly affect crime reduction, given that police enforcement is largely controlled at the local level.
“It’s not like racketeering is spiking; it’s stuff that local governments have deal with,” said Bennett, who became familiar with the potency of the GOP’s anti-crime message as an aide on Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign. “There is no magic bullet that solves a rise in crime. What we discovered in the 1990s is it is easy to overreact.”
Across the country, activists who protested police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s killing — and some of the new crop of politicians they helped elect — worry that upticks in crime would give politicians an excuse to reach for the same antiquated policies. Such policies, they contend, left minority communities overpoliced by officers who were not held accountable for misdeeds.
Bernice Lauredan, with Tampa Dream Defenders, helped organize demonstrations across the Tampa Bay area calling for money that went to police budgets to be redirected to improve underserved communities. She and other activists were dismayed when the Tampa City Council approved a budget that included an eight-figure increase for police.
“I think particularly in Tampa, we’ve seen our police budget last year actually increase by one of the largest increases in the country,” Lauredan told The Washington Post. “By 13 million dollars. We never saw any defund. We saw an actual increase in police budgets. Really, it’s about how do we continue to push our elected [leaders] to do the things we’ve been asking.”
Biden’s focus on crime comes as lawmakers have struggled to forge a bipartisan accord on policing legislation on Capitol Hill. Negotiators, led by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), blew past Biden’s May deadline — the first anniversary of Floyd’s death — and they continue to wrestle with how to hold police officers and departments accountable for wrongdoing.
The talks have explored whether the legal doctrine know as qualified immunity that has historically immunized police from civil lawsuits might be modified to allow some claims from victims of misconduct. But compromise proposals have not yet met with mutual approval, including a proposal circulated by Booker that would keep officers accused of misconduct personally immune but allow suits against the departments that employ them.
Hopes of reaching a deal by the end of the month have been complicated by a split between police groups, congressional aides have said. Although the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file cops, has tentatively endorsed the qualified immunity plan, the National Association of Sheriffs, whose members lead departments and are frequently elected on tough-on-crime platforms, have been significantly more skeptical.
The congressional calendar is also a challenge: Without a deal in the coming weeks, many on Capitol Hill fear policing could soon be swamped by the need to pass Biden’s marquee infrastructure plan, as well as looming fiscal deadlines later this year.
Fred Guttenberg, a gun safety advocate and father of a student who died in the Parkland school shooting, said the rise in homicides were “not surprising,” pointing to the surge in gun sales during the pandemic
“We know we have 400 million weapons on the street, and to continue doing nothing is not an option,” he said. “It is time to deal with the reality that we have a public health crisis, and we have to take steps to reduce the gun violence death rate.”
Devlin Barrett and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
Biden picks 2 critics of Trump-era immigration policies for key Homeland Security roles
President Joe Biden on Monday nominated two critics of Trump-era im... for key roles at the Department of Homeland Security.
The nominations come as the Biden administration faces a rising number of people attempting to enter the country along the Southwest border.
Biden named Tucson, Arizona Police Chief Chris Magnus to be commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. Immigration policy expert Ur Mendoza Jaddou has been nominated to be director of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Magnus publicly challenged the Trump administration’s efforts to punish cities that refused to cooperate with tougher immigration enforcement policies, arguing that it damaged relations between law enforcement and migrant communities.
Magnus leads the 800-member police force in Tucson, which calls itself an “immigrant welcoming community” and has changed police policy to minimize the ability for officers to enforce immigration laws. He has been a counterweight to hardline voices in the Border Patrol union and the Arizona Legislature.
“He’s a strong leader, he’s quiet, and that’s what CBP needs,” said Gil Kerlikowske, who ran the agency for three years during Barack Obama’s presidency. “It’s 60,000 professionals and the last thing they need are people who are more interested in using their Twitter account or going on Fox News.”
Magnus offered to resign last year when a young Hispanic man, Carlos Ingram-Lopez, died in police custody and the department failed to inform the public for months. The officers involved resigned, and Magnus said he would have fired them. Mayor Regina Romero publicly supported Magnus.
“During his time in Tucson and throughout his career, Chief Magnus has developed a national reputation for his sensible, inclusive approach to policing that has always centered around community building,” Romero, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Magnus was previously the police chief in Richmond, California and Fargo, North Dakota. Magnus, who is white and gay, held a Black Lives Matter sign during a protest in Richmond, photos of which went viral in 2014.
Jaddou most recently was director of DHS Watch, which was broadly critical of the Trump administration’s efforts to curtail both legal and illegal immigration.
CBP’s responsibilities including patrolling the border while USCIS runs legal immigration services. Both positions require Senate confirmation and were run by acting leaders under former President Donald Trump, repeatedly drawing criticism from Congress.
The number of migrants apprehended by the Border Patrol along the Southwest border has been rising for months. The Biden administration has continued to turn back adults under a public health order issued under Trump at the start of the pandemic.
But the administration has been allowing unaccompanied children and some families to stay. Last month, the U.S. government picked up nearly 19,000 children traveling alone across the Mexican border in March, the largest monthly number ever recorded.