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Biden presses local officials to use relief money to tamp down on crime

President Biden speaks during a meeting with Attorney General Merrick Garland and local leaders on the administration’s strategy to reduce gun crimes. (Stefani Reynolds for The Washington Post)
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President Biden on Monday used a meeting with mayors and law enforcement leaders to urge local officials to use federal money from the coronavirus relief package and do more to combat a nationwide surge in violent crimes.

In what he described as a listening session about what is working in different communities, Biden also said more needed to be done to curb gun trafficking and that more funds needed to be injected into community policing programs.

The meeting came at a point where Biden is rated poorly on his handling of crime, as Congress continues debating police reform legislation, and as Washington, D.C., passed the grim milestone of 100 homicides so far this year.

In brief remarks to reporters, Biden outlined some of the highlights of his plan and said that he and Attorney General Merrick Garland, who attended the meeting, “have been at this a long time. A long time. Most of my career has been on this issue. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach.”

Biden, who drafted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994 as a senator and opposed the movement to “defund the police” last year as a candidate, is in the middle of conflicting impulses in his party. Many want to see widespread reforms in policing and law enforcement, pointing to the number of Black Americans who have been gunned down, often by White police officers. But some worry that going too far on reforms will create grave political risks, especially as crime rises in many urban areas.

“I think this [rise in violent crime] is on the White House’s radar screen. This wasn’t a month ago, and now it is,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which supports law enforcement leadership. “Honestly, I think this White House is getting it. Violent crime is the number one issue in urban parts of the country and in other parts.”

The meeting on Monday at the White House included Eric Adams, who won the Democratic primary in the New York mayor’s race using a tough-on-crime message that some in the party have looked to as a template for the 2022 midterm elections.

Following the meeting, he told reporters that “the problem in America is the handgun,” but urged the response to be broader than just arrests.

“We spend too much time looking at the role the police play,” he said. “We can’t continue to respond to symptoms. It’s time to respond to the underlying causes of violence in our city. This president is making it clear: He’s going to redefine the ecosystem of public safety. And that includes identifying the role of police, schools, families, resources, employment. This is where we need to go as a country.”

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A Washington Post-ABC poll earlier this month found that 59 percent of Americans believe crime is an “extremely” or “very” serious problem in the United States, the highest level since 2017. In an increasingly polarized country, the worries about crime surpassed party lines, though Republicans were more concerned than Democrats.

Biden got negative ratings in the poll, with 38 percent approving of how he has handled crime and 48 percent disapproving, while a sizable 14 percent offer no opinion.

Biden on Monday highlighted the need to stem the flow of firearms by cracking down on gun dealers and illegal gun trafficking.

He also urged communities to hire more police, pay them overtime and invest in community policing. “We know when we utilize trusted community members and encourage more community policing, we can intervene before the violence erupts,” he said.

He promoted using funds for mental health programs and job training for young people — “Support young people to pick up a paycheck instead of a pistol,” he said — and said more needs to be done to reintegrate formerly incarcerated individuals into communities by offering housing and job programs.

“If somebody gets out of jail right now after serving time, they get a bus ticket and 25 bucks, they end up under the same bridge they left,” Biden said. “We know this will help.”

Ahead of the meeting, the administration sent out a memo to state and local officials that provided examples of how different cities are using the funding. It included $59 million from Washington in Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s fiscal 2022 budget proposal, including 100 new slots for the city’s cadet program, youth safety initiatives and additional mental health services.

“Next year, I actually think we’ll be able to do a little bit more,” Bowser (D) told reporters. “I think from a city like ours, people care about safety, they care about fair policing and justice and they care that the police and the community work together.”

D.C. on Monday recorded its 101st homicide of the year when a 34-year-old woman was found fatally shot inside her apartment in Southeast Washington. Homicide rates — fueled by a rise in gun crimes — are up 3 percent in the nation’s capital from this time in 2020 and are rising for the fourth consecutive year.

At the same time, the D.C. police force, which counted 3,800 officers in 2014, is projected to drop to 3,460 by the end of next year, which Police Chief Robert J. Contee III has said would be the smallest in over two decades.

The D.C. Council has pushed for a smaller police force and urged spending on alternative justice programs that confront crime as a public health issue.

A budget proposal for the next fiscal year allows police to resume hiring after a pause, but officials say it will not make up for attrition; the police union says 386 officers have either retired or resigned since June 2020 when the Council adopted laws ushering in police reforms.

Bowser, who several years ago announced plans to boost the number of officers to 4,000, has been critical of the council for wanting a smaller police department. Bowser is proposing that the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement be allocated $28.1 million in the coming fiscal year, nearly triple its budget from this year. She is also proposing cutting the police budget by about 6 percent, to $514 million.

Several police chiefs — C.J. Davis of Memphis, David Brown of Chicago, and Robert Tracy of Wilmington, Del. — were also at the meeting.

“We have to find balance. We can’t continue to arrest crime away,” Davis said. “We need to get guns off the street, hold people accountable, and ensure our communities get the kind of protection they need. Right now Black and Brown communities are being terrorized from gun violence.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose said that his city was attempting a range of changes on its own, saying of delays in passing federal legislation, “We’re not going to wait.”

“This is a president who wants to partner with cities — who’s reached out to cities to explore ways the federal government can support what we’re doing,”
Liccardo said in an interview.

The city of San Jose is drafting an ordinance that would require gun owners to carry liability insurance and pay an annual fee that goes toward the estimated cost of gun violence in the city.

Earlier this summer, the city passed another ordinance aimed at curbing straw purchasing — when someone buys a gun on behalf of another person who cannot legally purchase one. It mandates that gun shops record video and audio of their gun sales, along with other measures such as displaying suicide prevention information in the stores. The ordinance was passed about three weeks after a mass shooting at a San Jose rail yard killed nine people.

Liccardo touted a program the city announced in March called Resilience Corps, which will employ about 500 young adults in high-poverty areas, regardless of their citizenship status, in industries that work to combat the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

“The best way to stop a bullet is with a job,” he said.

Peter Hermann, David Nakamura and Silvia Foster-Frau contributed to this report.

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