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Democrats call for police reform, risking tough-on-crime claims



President Joe Biden is seeking to lead Democrats in a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system following a series of high-profile incidents in which black Americans have been killed by police, answering public cries for justice but also potentially endangering his party’s hard-won image for being tough on crime.

The delicate dance was on display Tuesday as Biden hailed the criminal conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd last year, an event caught on video that triggered racial justice protests across the country. “Again — as we saw in this trial, from the fellow police officers who testified — most men and women who wear the badge serve their communities honorably,” Biden said. “But those few who fail to meet that standard must be held accountable.”

His top spokeswoman the next day addressed another killing of a black person — this one attacked another person with a knife — by a white officer, suggesting the administration wants big changes.

“We also know that there are particular vulnerabilities that children in foster care, like Ma’Khia, face, and her death came, as you noted, just as America was hopeful of a step forward after the traumatic and exhausting trial of Derek Chauvin and the verdict that was reached,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday of a police shooting in Columbus the previous day. “So our focus is on working to address systemic racism and implicit explicit bias head-on and, of course, to passing laws and legislation that will put much-needed reforms into place at police departments around the country.”

Public dismay over Floyd’s death helped sweep Biden into the White House. Combined with the coronavirus, sometimes violent nationwide protests helped cement the perception that the country was spiraling out of control under former President Donald Trump. Biden carried voters who listed “racial justice” as their top issue by 85 points, according to exit polls, which was bigger than his margin among those whose top issue was the pandemic.

But Democrats also faced tougher-than-expected races in competitive districts as liberal calls to defund the police cost them votes. In a conference call with fellow Democrats after the election, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who was only narrowly reelected in her suburban Virginia district, blasted the phrase as a losing slogan. Democratic operatives have determined that perceived hostility to law enforcement actually drove more conservative-leaning nonwhite voters to cast their ballots for Republicans.

For decades, Democrats were desperate to avoid seeming critical of police as Republicans sought to portray them as soft on crime. Biden himself played a major role in this after Democrat Michael Dukakis, pilloried for supporting weekend furloughs for violent criminals and opposing the death penalty, lost the 1988 presidential election in a landslide.

A longtime top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden was an architect of the 1994 crime bill that, among other things, sought to fulfill President Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to put 100,000 additional police officers on the street. Despite its current reputation as a driver of mass incarceration in communities of color, most members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for the bill.

“What works in the fight against crime?” Biden wrote in a 2002 op-ed while still a senator from Delaware. “It’s simple — more police on the streets.”

“Put a cop on three of four corners and guess where the crime is going to be committed? On the fourth corner, where the cop isn’t,” Biden continued. “More cops clearly means less crime.”

As vice president, Biden was often deployed as former President Barack Obama’s emissary to law enforcement. He was present at the “beer summit” following Obama’s criticism of a Cambridge police officer’s arrest of black Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates. Biden attended the funeral of a New York City police officer who was shot dead in 2014.

Vice President Kamala Harris also boosted her political career as a prosecutor who was tough on crime. She rose to national prominence as California’s attorney general, but some considered her overzealous — she once laughed about jailing parents for truancy — and detractors labeled her “Kamala the Cop.”

Now, Biden is emphasizing that avoiding future deaths similar to Floyd’s “takes acknowledging and confronting, head-on, systemic racism and the racial disparities that exist in policing and in our criminal justice system more broadly.”

“Dems cannot go too far. Defund the police as a message is unpopular even with liberal Democrats and is not a responsible position to take in light of rising crime in cities now occurring,” said veteran Democratic strategist Doug Schoen. “Dems need an agenda that focuses on keeping people safe, of course, but also meaningful job training, vocational education, and creating ways to succeed for underserved minorities — not just focusing on attacking the abuses that do occur sadly by law enforcement through policies that will only make people less safe and ultimately help the Republicans.”

A top Democratic data scientist concluded talk about defunding the police contributed to the party’s underperformance with minority voters last year, including Hispanics.

“Further down the road, defunding is going to result in more high-profile, use-of-force decisions that end badly, not less,” said Randy Petersen, senior researcher for the policing initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “The place where they are going to cut is training. A competent, confident officer makes much better decisions about the use of force.”

Petersen, a former law enforcement officer himself, added that it was counterproductive to public safety to make policing a partisan issue.

“Now, we have blind deference to the police on the Right and ‘the police can do nothing right’ on the Left,” he said.

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