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Biden launches an effort to head off violent crime — and political peril for his party

Police investigate the scene of a shooting in the Sixth Street entertainment district area of Austin on June 12. (Nuri Vallbona/Reuters)

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.