As Sen. Joe Biden struggled 26 years ago to put together a massive crime bill, he relied on a man named Tom Scotto, who had become a fixture in his Capitol Hill office. Day after day, Scotto walked into Biden’s sanctum and convinced him to up the ante, asking for billions of dollars for 100,000 police officers, which in turn required a major expansion of prisons across the country.
“There wasn’t one thing when he said, ‘No,’ ” Scotto recalled in an interview.
Scotto, however, was not a member of Biden’s staff. He was the president of the National Association of Police Organizations, representing about 220,000 police department employees, the nation’s second-largest such group. As Scotto worked alongside Biden in writing the bill, which became law, he personified the bond that the senator from Delaware proudly maintained with the law enforcement community’s power brokers.
As Biden later said of his work with Scotto’s organization, boasting of his ties: “You guys sat at that conference table of mine for a six-month period, and you wrote the bill.”
Biden’s deep relationship with police groups while crafting the landmark 1994 legislation reflected his decades-long partnership with them as he embraced a tough-on-crime persona — one that extended from his time in the Senate to his work as vice president when he served as a liaison between police and the White House.
But now, as Biden runs for president amid a national reckoning over police violence and racial injustice, that long alliance is threatening to undermine a cornerstone of his candidacy.
The presumptive Democratic nominee is seeking to channel the anger of African Americans, one of his party’s most important voting blocs, by calling for “real police reform” and promising to combat systemic racism.
In doing so, however, Biden is effectively distancing himself from some of his work with law enforcement groups — and from his own comments about not caring about the socioeconomic background of those who turn to crime — while promising to undo some of the very measures he helped enact 26 years ago. Biden last year said some parts of the bill had failed, while others had succeeded.
His record is undergoing heightened scrutiny as protests mount over the killing of George Floyd and police conduct emerges as a central campaign issue. Biden’s past ties to police groups could become more of a challenge for him as some police unions resist changes and defend officers accused of racism.
Meanwhile, President Trump on Friday noted that he had signed a criminal justice overhaul bill into law, while retweeting a statement from a conservative African American author that Biden’s crime bill “led to mass incarceration of my people.” Then Trump tweeted on Sunday that “Sleepy Joe Biden and the Radical Left Democrats want to “DEFUND THE POLICE,” but Biden told CBS News Monday, “I don’t support defunding the police.”
Addressing the wave of violence sweeping the country in response to the police killing of Floyd, Biden said that the recent events were a wake-up call “for all of us. And I mean all of us.” He said “the moment has come” to deal with racism and inequality.
Floyd, who was African American, died after a white police officer pressed his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, even as Floyd was handcuffed. Biden met privately with Floyd’s family for an hour in Houston on Monday and recorded a video for Tuesday’s funeral.
Some black activists remain skeptical of Biden’s turnaround at such a politically convenient moment.
“This is not a wake-up call,” said Cori Bush, who was a leading community activist in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, was killed in 2014 by a white police officer. “We protested for more than 400 days.”
Bush, who is running for Congress in Missouri’s 1st District, which includes Ferguson, said she has “huge concerns” about Biden’s ties to police groups, saying “that bothers me a lot; it doesn’t personally make me feel safe.”
“I want to support him,” Bush said, “but I need to know what he has been doing. I want him to do right so my son can live.”
For Biden, who declined an interview request, the uproar over Floyd’s killing and his response to it comes at a crucial moment. Even as his record on crime is questioned by some in his party, he has seen his support from law enforcement groups slip away.
He has yet to receive an endorsement from a national police union.
The largest such group, the 351,000-member national Fraternal Order of Police, is expected to request to interview Biden in the coming weeks and then take a vote of its membership on whom to endorse. In 2016, the group voted overwhelmingly to back Trump.
Not a 'wacko liberal'
While Biden presents himself today as a liberal allied with social justice groups, he first ran as a more conservative candidate in Delaware in 1972, when he defeated an incumbent Republican. By the early 1990s, as a violent crime wave swept through much of the nation, Biden was among the most outspoken Democrats supporting stiffer penalties for criminal offenses.
In a Senate floor speech in 1993, Biden said he was tired of the idea that when it came to crime, Republicans were tough and Democrats were weak.
In advocating for his bill, Biden rebutted the idea that he was one of those “wacko liberals [who] only want to look at the causes” of criminal behavior, dismissing concerns that poverty, discrimination and abuse contribute to illegal conduct.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not they were deprived as a youth,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether or not they had no background that enabled them to become socialized into the fabric of society. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society.”
He said if the “end result” is that they harm his family, “I don’t want to ask, ‘What made them do this?’ They must be taken off the street.”
Biden worked closely on the legislation with Scotto. At the time, Scotto said, there was such a big wave of crime across the country that “everyone was demanding new laws. They would tell you, ‘Put them in jail for 50 years, lock them up.’ ”
Scotto helped draft the provision providing funds for local departments to hire 100,000 police officers.
That, in turn, required massive expenditures in new equipment. And with so many more officers, Scotto said, it was inevitable that would lead to many more arrests, which in turn required money for more prisons.
Biden enthusiastically agreed to it all, and crime went down as a result, Scotto said. In the decade after the bill was passed, the violent crime rate dropped by 33 percent, according to federal statistics.
“Joe Biden deserves credit,” Scotto said. “He was the key guy all along.”
The bill also included a ban on assault weapons — which at the time was favored by many law enforcement groups and has since been rescinded — as well as a number of measures designed to provide treatment to people jailed with drug offenses.
Scotto said he does not recall discussion at the time about the bill’s impact on the black community because he never looked at crime as a racial matter, and he noted that black groups endorsed the measure.
For years, Biden did not acknowledge the criticism of the bill’s impact on minority communities. The NAACP says black people are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than whites.
Instead, he criticized Republicans who sought to cut funding for his program to hire 100,000 police officers. In 2002, he wrote in an editorial that the best way to fight crime was “simple — more police on the streets.”
He made no reference to criticism that his crime bill increased incarceration rates.
Police groups back away
During his 2008 run for vice president, Biden served as an informal liaison to the law enforcement community, a tie that helped Barack Obama’s campaign win the endorsement of the National Association of Police Organizations, which Scotto left as president in 2002. The group also backed the Obama-Biden ticket in 2012.
Biden assured the group that, just as he had let them participate in writing his 1994 crime bill, he would give them a prominent voice whenever criminal justice issues arose. “We’re not going to do anything, literally, without having you guys at the table,” Biden said.
Obama, meanwhile, praised the way Biden “brought Democrats and Republicans together to pass the 1994 crime bill, putting 100,000 cops on the streets, and starting an eight-year drop in crime across the country.”
But after the Obama administration’s investigation of several killings of black people by white officers, some of the national police organizations that once backed Biden all but ended their relationship with him.
Among those upset with the administration was the National Association of Police Organizations.
Bill Johnson, the group’s executive director, said in an interview that he worked with Biden for years but became dismayed at the administration’s handling of the investigation into the killing of Brown in Ferguson.
While the Justice Department under Obama did not file charges against the officer, it issued a report finding that Ferguson’s police department had a “pattern of civil rights violations.”
Johnson said that during a meeting in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, Biden said police officers did not face a significant threat of being targeted by criminals.
“He said, ‘C’mon man, you know it’s not that dangerous for police,’ ” according to Johnson, who disagreed with the vice president’s assessment. (A spokesman said Biden denied making the comment.) Since then, Johnson said, he has concluded that Biden has changed his views about law enforcement “for political reasons.”
The association, after having backed Biden for so many years, has asked for an interview with him as it prepares for a possible decision on an endorsement. “We’d love to work with him again,” Johnson said, while stressing that the group needs answers about his changing views.
A smaller group, the International Association of Police Organizations, endorsed Trump last year, deciding not to wait to see who was nominated by the Democrats. Dennis Slocumb, the group’s executive director, said he has known Biden since 2000 and has long respected him.
But Slocumb said police officers in his group became disenchanted with Biden because of the Obama administration’s Ferguson investigation. “It further alienated our membership from the Democratic Party,” Slocumb said.
Under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, investigations were launched into whether there was systemic bias in police departments, but only one such probe has occurred during the Trump administration, according to CNN. The virtual shutdown of such investigations has earned Trump support from some police groups that said they were unnecessary.
From both sides
While Biden has not been endorsed by law enforcement groups, he does have the backing of the International Association of Fire Fighters, whose president, Harold Schaitberger, said he has known Biden for 44 years.
Schaitberger, who in his role as a public safety advocate worked alongside police union officials, said he was stunned that law enforcement has abandoned the former vice president. He said Biden had evolved in his views on criminal justice like much of his party and the country have evolved.
“I’m dismayed that the strong support he has had from law enforcement throughout his career” from unions has now been given to Trump, Schaitberger said. “I get it; the president embraced law enforcement, that’s good, but for them to abandon and forget about the decades of support for Joe Biden as senator and vice president, the law enforcement community will have to answer that.”
Scotto said he is similarly dismayed at the criticism Biden is receiving from some law enforcement leaders.
“I think people are taking his comments to the far extreme that he is severing his relationship with law enforcement,” Scotto said. “I don’t take it that way. I take it that his desire to have police reform includes guidelines that law enforcement can follow,” which Scotto said would help officers.
Biden also is facing criticism from social justice groups that question his commitment.
He has acknowledged his crime bill had flaws, but he has still defended it. In a speech last year to the NAACP, Biden stressed that the bill was supported by the Democratic Party, including a majority of the Black Caucus.
“It worked in some areas,” he said. “But it failed in others. . . . I will accept responsibility for where it went right. But I will also accept responsibility for what went wrong.”
In response to questions for this article, his campaign said the legislation should be seen in the context of a time when violent crime was at record levels. The Biden campaign also noted that the law had a number of provisions that enable the federal government to examine racist policies at police departments.
Biden has issued an agenda that would effectively undo some of the impact of his legislative accomplishments. It would, for example, seek to reduce the number of people in prison. Biden also proposed abolishing the death penalty, a sharp turn from his view in the 1990s when he boasted of drafting a bill that had 53 crimes eligible for such a penalty.
Most notably, Biden backs the gist of a proposed bill from the Brennan Center for Justice called the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act. It is designed to reverse some of Biden’s crime bill, sending $20 billion to the states to enact programs to reduce prison populations. The Biden campaign says it is “inspired” by the center’s idea, according to his website, which does not mention that it is based on an effort to undo some of Biden’s previous work.
In a speech last week, Biden sounded far removed from the politician who declared in 1993 that he didn’t care whether criminals were the victims of socioeconomic problems or had been victimized themselves. He expressed empathy for Americans who he said are “suffering under the weight of generation after generation after generation of hurt inflicted on people of color.”
Jenna Johnson and Alice Crites contributed to this report.