When he was elected vice president in 2008, Joe Biden called in police officials for meetings during the transition to let them know that he would be their liaison in the Obama administration.
More than a decade later, Biden won the presidency and his transition team called in police officials for a new round of meetings. This time, the landscape was strikingly different: The nation was shaken by a reckoning over police violence and racial injustice. Biden was arguing for police reform, while his opponent, President Trump, billed himself as the “law and order” candidate and won endorsements from police groups.
Despite everything that had changed, police officials who attended these meetings said Biden has the confidence of many in law enforcement. Even officials who supported Trump in the election said that they thought the president-elect was well-suited to bring together groups that are divided on police issues.
“We’ve always had a good working relationship with Biden,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which twice endorsed Trump. He was one of the first police officials invited to meet with the Biden transition team. “He looks for middle ground and consensus where he can find it. He understands the dynamics of policing today probably as well as any elected politician.”
But Biden will face immense pressure from both sides as he tries to bridge the nation’s bitter divide over policing. On the left, he is hounded by skepticism from racial justice advocates who assail his 1994 crime bill as a catalyst for mass incarceration. On the right, police unions and their supporters accuse the former senator of abdicating his alliance with law enforcement by backing reform efforts, including Democratic-led legislation that would ban chokeholds and create a national police misconduct registry. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House in June but stalled in the Republican-led Senate. Its fate could be determined by Democrats, who won back control of the Senate after two runoff elections in Georgia.
After George Floyd’s killing in May at the hands of Minneapolis police set off a wave of nationwide demonstrations against police tactics, Trump regularly emphasized his support for law enforcement, saying there were a few “bad apples” in policing but focusing much of his rhetoric on pockets of violence that emerged during the unrest.
Biden acknowledged “systemic injustice” in “law enforcement and the way in which it’s enforced.” He also distanced himself from demands to “defund the police,” pushing back against activists’ calls to redirect police department funding to social services and other programs. Instead, Biden urged more police funding.
Terry Cunningham, deputy executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and another attendee at a Biden transition meeting, said “we think he’s uniquely positioned” to connect law enforcement officials and groups pushing for police reform and find common ground.
“Biden does still have the respect of the police,” said Cunningham, a former police chief in Wellesley, Mass. “I worked with him a lot as vice president. He connected well with law enforcement and civil rights groups.”
Biden has echoed the belief that he could bring people together. During the first presidential debate, he said that “there are some bad apples” in law enforcement who need to be dealt with, but defended “the vast majority of police officers.” He pledged to bring together police chiefs, officers and civil rights groups “to work this out.”
Biden long boasted of deep relationships with law enforcement, touting their work on the 1994 crime bill. As he sought the presidency, Biden has shifted his stance on some criminal justice issues, seeking to reduce the number of people in prison and calling for an end to the death penalty.
“His views have evolved, and they’ve evolved with the times,” Wexler said. “You can’t pretend that things haven’t changed. You can’t pretend that there isn’t a need for reform.”
Civil rights groups and leaders have called on the Biden administration to act on police issues, back national use-of-force standards and resume federal investigations of police departments, measures Biden has supported.
Although most American policing is carried out at the state and local levels, police officials and experts said a president and his administration could help fuel meaningful change. One key change from the Trump administration to Biden’s will be a federal focus on reform, said David Carter, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University and a former police officer in Kansas City, Mo.
“There’ll be a greater emphasis on reform and accountability,” Carter said. “Of course, the federal government is limited in what it can ask state and local law enforcement to do. It’s an incentive approach. The way the federal government usually does that is, they’ll tie conditions to grants.”
In emphasizing a need for more police funding, not less, Biden has laid out a criminal justice plan calling for a $300 million investment in the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office to help departments get resources. In an op-ed in June, Biden proposed helping police departments “institute real reforms like adopting a national use of force standard, buying body cameras and recruiting more diverse police officers.”
The Biden administration is also expected to return to the practice of investigating local police departments for possible constitutional violations. These Justice Department inquiries can lead to court-enforced “consent decree” agreements between the federal government and local departments to institute policing reforms, which occurred in cities including Baltimore; Ferguson, Mo.; and New Orleans.
The practice was targeted by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Trump administration’s early weeks when he curtailed such investigations, and Biden’s website pledges that the Justice Department will “again use its authority to root out unconstitutional or unlawful policing.”
Biden introduced his nominees to lead the Justice Department last week. Vanita Gupta, his pick to be the department’s third-ranking official, pledged during her introductory remarks that officials will “harness all of the Justice Department’s levers for civil rights, justice and police reform and climate justice and so much more.”
Cunningham and Pasco said the federal government could also lead on a national “consensus use-of-force policy,” pushing departments to limit shootings at or from moving vehicles, prohibit chokeholds unless deadly force is needed and emphasize de-escalation tactics.
Thomas Manger, a retired police chief in Montgomery County, Md., said “a lot of police officers appreciate the fact that the Trump Administration has been supportive of law enforcement.” But, he added, it was so focused on supporting police that it did not “make substantive steps” in areas needing improvement.
Biden’s transition team has made clear to police officials that it is planning another commission to study law enforcement, in the wake of panels formed by the Obama and Trump administrations. Manger called for a large effort to examine the entire justice system.
“You’ve got to have everybody at the table,” he said, “to have all points of view, see what’s thoughtful and substantive and have policing be such that people trust what the police do and that the cops are well-intentioned.”