The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two years after Floyd’s death, little movement on police reform in Washington

Biden was an outspoken supporter of the racial justice movement that arose after George Floyd died. Now he often speaks more about the need to fund and bolster the police.

President Biden, accompanied by Vice President Harris, speaks on April 20, 2021, at the White House after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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A few days after George Floyd was murdered, presidential hopeful Joe Biden addressed the nation, speaking passionately about police reforms that he stressed could not wait another month, let alone another election cycle: banning police chokeholds; rules for use of force; a review of every police department’s hiring, training and de-escalation practices.

“No more excuses,” Biden demanded, urging Congress to put a bill on then-President Donald Trump’s desk within days. “No more delays.”

Two years later, it’s Biden who sits behind the presidential desk. And his emphasis often appears to be less on how quickly the nation’s police departments can be reformed than on how quickly they can add officers.

“To every governor, every mayor, every county official, the need is clear, my message is clear: … Spend this money now that you have,” Biden said in a speech from the Rose Garden earlier this month, flanked by police chiefs from across the country. “Use these funds we made available to you to prioritize public safety. Do it quickly, before the summer, when crime rates typically surge. Taking action today is going to save lives tomorrow. So use the money. Hire the police officers.”

Two years after Floyd’s killing sparked demonstrations for police reform and a movement to confront systemic racism, the push to rehabilitate police departments has stagnated. A bill bearing Floyd’s name aimed at overhauling police practices died in the Senate, even after Biden urged legislators to get it done in his first address to Congress. The administration has been mulling for months whether Biden should issue an executive order on police reform, leaving civil rights leaders frustrated at the delay and whether it will result in any enduring improvement.

More deeply, those who have pushed hardest for reforms worry about what they see as an about-face on equitable policing, or at least a faltering of will, as a surge in crime creates pressure on Biden and his party to stand unwaveringly with the police.

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“We’re now contending with elected officials who are now defaulting to the same narrative that we know does not offer any solutions to the issues that we face, meaning it is a lot easier to just default to the knee-jerk ‘we need more police on the streets’ argument,” said Amara Enyia, a policy research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives. “It’s a reaction that takes absolutely no thought and that doesn’t take into account what the research shows about the conditions that create safety. But it’s just something that fits neatly within a campaign cycle.”

Republicans are trying to throw Democrats on the defensive by branding them as a party that stands for defunding the police and tolerating chaos and violence. Some midterm election ads have already sought to sway voters with images of violent protests, burning cities and brazen crimes.

Those political winds, combined with near-universal Republican opposition to Democratic efforts at police reform, have blunted much of the momentum that arose after Floyd’s death. In one stretch earlier this month — during National Police Week, when the country traditionally honors fallen officers — Biden’s public appearances focused on a pro-police message on three of four days.

On May 13, he urged communities to use pandemic relief funds to bolster police departments to head off anticipated increases in crime over the summer. Two days later, he spoke at the National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Then he held a ceremony to award medals of valor to nine police officers and six firefighters in the East Room of the White House.

“Folks, the answer is not to abandon the streets,” Biden said at the police officers’ service. “It’s not to choose between safety and equal justice. And we should agree: It’s not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them with the resources, the training they need to protect our communities and themselves, and restore trust among the police and the people.”

It’s not that Biden has reversed himself on any specific policies, but rather that his emphasis and rhetoric have shifted.

Two years ago, Biden enthusiastically embraced the racial justice movement sparked by Floyd’s killing, speaking at Floyd’s funeral, meeting with the murdered man’s family in Houston and at the White House, and inviting Floyd’s brothers to speak at the Democratic National Convention where Biden was nominated.

Later, when the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck was convicted of murder, Biden vowed to Floyd’s family that he would get something done on police reform in Floyd’s name.

All of that helped Biden create a contrast with then-President Donald Trump, who criticized what he described as “lawless” racial justice protests in Democratic-led cities, highlighted incidents of violence amid the demonstrations, and in some cases dispatched federal troops because, he said, he needed to protect federal property.

After Derek Chauvin was convicted of Floyd’s murder, Vice President Harris, too, made impassioned comments. “America has a long history of systemic racism,” Harris said in a televised speech at the White House. “Black Americans, and Black men in particular, have been treated through the course of our history as less than human. Black men are fathers and brothers and sons and uncles and grandfathers and friends and neighbors.”

But turning rhetoric into change has proved daunting, given the razor-thin Democratic majorities in Congress and an American public increasingly spooked by rising crime. In 2021, a dozen major cities, including Louisville, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., set homicide records.

In June 2020, amid the nationwide racial justice protests, about a quarter of Americans supported cuts in police funding, according to a Pew Research Center survey. By October 2021, that had fallen to 15 percent, and the drop was even starker among voters who leaned Democratic.

Biden’s political pivot is a lesson in the limited powers of the presidency, said Michael Fauntroy, director of the Race, Politics and Policy Center at George Mason University. As a result of a paper-thin governing majority, Fauntroy said, Biden “is limited at this point to rhetoric and symbolism.”

“As a Black man in America, I definitely want more done. But as a political scientist, and somebody who has followed this stuff throughout my career, I understand why things haven’t been done,” Fauntroy said. “It doesn’t matter how passionate or how good an idea is — If you can’t get 60 votes in the Senate and 218 in the House, then you can’t do it.”

The Senate is politically split 50-50, with Harris casting tiebreaking votes if necessary, and 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation through that chamber. In the House, Democrats hold a 221-208 edge with six vacancies. Adding to Biden’s challenge, as the November elections approach, fewer lawmakers are prepared to cast risky votes that could be used against them.

The White House argues that bolstering police departments is not at odds with reforming them. Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this month that the administration is still mulling an executive order on police reform, and had delayed in hopes that Congress would forge something more enduring.

And she said Biden’s recent message that cities should use pandemic relief funds to beef up police departments reflects the need to confront gun crime across the country. “It’s not just about pumping funding into police departments, it’s about ensuring that there are enough cops on the beat to crack down on violent crime, to crack down on illegal guns that are the cause of 77 percent of crimes across the country,” Psaki said.

Biden has acted unilaterally in some areas. His Justice Department implemented a ban on chokeholds and carotid restraints for federal officers, began requiring agents to wear body cameras, and severely limited the use of so-called no-knock warrants like the one that factored into the 2020 killing of Louisville resident Breonna Taylor.

Those changes do not cover the thousands of state and local police departments across the country, but the White House hopes many of those departments will use the new federal rules as a model.

In another effort to address racial justice, Biden recently pardoned three people and commuted the sentences of 75 nonviolent drug offenders, amid calls for leniency in a system that disproportionately affects people of color.

And the White House has stressed that increased police funding is part of a broader set of policies to combat gun violence and make law enforcement more equitable.

“The mass mobilization that we saw after the murder of George Floyd was not only about policing or criminal justice issues, it was about the need for racial justice,” said Chiraag Bains, special assistant to the president for criminal justice. “We are seeing its impact in terms of translating that commitment to equity into policy throughout the government’s work, not just in our criminal justice reform and policing.”

Biden’s supporters also say his balanced position reflects public opinion, since polls show that most Americans do not want widespread cuts in police budgets. An effort to dramatically reduce police funding failed in Minneapolis, the epicenter of the George Floyd protests. And the administration stresses that many of the mostly-minority communities that had some of the most passionate demonstrations are also plagued by rising crime.

But Biden’s pivot in messaging has clearly angered an array of activists and leaders. Many see crime as the product of decades of divestment in America’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, and they contend that the only solution is a reinvestment in people and communities, not just in the police that patrol them.

That reaction also could resonate politically. Black voters have long been one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal voting blocs, and if large numbers of them come to believe Biden and his party have failed to fulfill their promises, they could stay home in November’s midterms.

Angela Lang, a Milwaukee political organizer who founded Black Leaders Organizing for Communities in 2017, said voters tend to speak of the need to rebuild the resources that help their community flourish, from health care to housing.

“When we go out in the field and knock on doors, we always start the question with ‘What does it look like for our community to thrive?’ ” Lang said. “People always talk about we need investments in mental health. We need investments into affordable housing. We constantly have a housing crisis in Milwaukee. … And so people are talking about all the different ways they want their community to be invested in order for it to thrive. And it doesn’t include more policing.”