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Biden confronts rising homicide rates as cities struggle to contain violence

President Joe Biden speaks about the 500,000 Americans that died from COVID-19, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden speaks about the 500,000 Americans that died from COVID-19, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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As cities across the United States grapple with a surge in shootings and violent crime, President Joe Biden unveiled a new federal strategy to combat gun violence and protect public safety Wednesday, but it might not be enough to reverse recent trends one administration official called “staggering.”

“I’ve been at this a long time, and there are things we know that work to reduce gun violence and violent crime,” Biden said at a White House event.

Criminologists estimate U.S. cities experienced a 30% increase in homicides in 2020, and murder rates for the first quarter of 2021 remained elevated over the same period last year. Many communities have dealt with mass shootings in recent weeks, and dozens of people have been shot in Chicago in each of the last four weekends.

As public concern about the violence grows, the White House has faced political pressure to intervene. Prior to his remarks Wednesday, President Biden met with stakeholders including mayors, police chiefs, state attorneys general, and community activists.

“The president’s strategy on combating gun crime is meant to allow cities and other local jurisdictions to tailor their approaches to public safety and gun violence and gun crime reduction to their own particular circumstances,” a senior administration official told reporters at a briefing.

With police departments warning of a “long, hot, bloody summer" ahead, the Biden administration saw an urgent need to provide funding, guidance, and resources to help cities get crime under control. The White House is also calling on Congress to act on gun control legislation and the confirmation of Biden’s nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

“It is staggering. It is sobering,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said of the surge in violence at an event Tuesday. “And it's something that DOJ is committed to do all we can to reverse what are profoundly troubling trends and a really bad trajectory that we're on.”

The strategy Biden outlined Wednesday has five primary components:

  • Stem the flow of firearms used to commit violence
  • Provide federal tools and resources to local law enforcement
  • Invest in evidence-based community violence intervention
  • Expand employment and support services for teens and young adults
  • Help formerly incarcerated individuals reintegrate into society

Some Republicans have placed blame on the “defund the police” movement and Democratic politicians—and several cities that cut police budgets last summer have since reassessed those decisions—but homicides have also increased in cities that raised police budgets. They have also attacked progressive prosecutors for easing enforcement of low-level crimes.

“It is impossible to ignore that these terrible trends are coming precisely as so-called progressives have decided it’s time to denounce and defund local law enforcement,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last month.

Democrats have pushed back against that characterization, but they recognize they could be vulnerable to attacks over crime and policing in the midterm elections if current trends continue. Many Democrats welcomed the Biden administration’s approach to countering violent crime as details were revealed Wednesday.

“The gun violence epidemic continues to devastate communities and traumatize American families across the country,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said on Twitter. “Happy to see @POTUS make this a priority—and I’ll do everything I can to help him in this life-saving effort.”

Crime remains a politically tenuous issue for the Biden White House. President Biden has attempted to atone for his role in crafting the 1994 crime bill that critics say fueled mass incarceration of people of color, but he has resisted the “defund the police” rhetoric of the left even as he pushes for comprehensive policing reform.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted late last month found more voters disapproved of Biden’s handling of crime than approved, and only 30% of independents supported his response to the issue. Nearly 85% of Americans said violent crime is a big problem in the country, and a plurality considered crime in their communities a bigger concern than police brutality against minorities.

A majority of Americans cited the racial justice movement as one reason why violent crime is rising, while only 35% blamed the COVID-19 pandemic. Asked whether Biden or former President Donald Trump did a better job of handling crime, 34% of respondents chose Trump and 32% picked Biden.

Under Biden’s plan, the ATF will crack down on illegal gun sales, the Justice Department will launch multijurisdictional firearm trafficking strike forces, and the FBI, ATF, and Drug Enforcement Agency will coordinate more closely with state and local law enforcement.

“Our firearms trafficking strike forces will investigate and disrupt the networks that channel crime guns into our communities with tragic consequences,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Tuesday. “This effort reflects our shared commitment to keep communities safe.”

Much of the rest of Biden’s anti-crime agenda rests on the funds already approved by Congress in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. The administration is encouraging state and local governments to use some of the $350 billion in aid they are receiving to hire more law enforcement officers, pay for overtime, fund efforts to deal with violence exacerbated by the pandemic, and invest in technology and equipment for police.

Under new Treasury Department guidance, ARP funds can also be directed to hiring counselors and social workers, getting courts back to pre-pandemic operations, summer jobs and training programs for young people and the formerly incarcerated, summer education and camp programs, and scaling up social services for vulnerable communities.

“Young people are less likely to commit crime when they're productively engaged in the summer, and that is true for gun violence as well,” a senior official said.

The Department of Education has clarified that the ARP’s K-12 education funds can be used to pay for community violence intervention programs. The White House announced Wednesday that 15 jurisdictions that have committed to investing some ARP money in those programs will work with the administration over the next 18 months on implementing strategies and identifying best practices.

Federal agencies are also taking new steps to make it easier for those who have been released from prison to find jobs and housing, hoping to prevent them from reverting to criminal activity. That includes 70,000 Department of Housing and Urban Development emergency housing vouchers for the formerly incarcerated funded by the ARP.

The White House pointed to more than a dozen communities already using ARP funds to bolster community policing, hire more personnel, and expand youth support programs, including Philadelphia, New York City, Minneapolis, and Portland, Oregon. Experts say there is relatively little the federal government can do to impact crime on the local level, other than releasing more funding and resources.

“The crime that most people are concerned with is street crime, and the federal government has very little role in street crime,” said Richard Bennett, chair of the Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology at American University.

The Biden administration has focused narrowly on guns and gun crime because officials stressed that is the category of crime that is increasing most rapidly. Penny Shtull, a criminal justice professor at Norwich University, noted a shift toward tightening federal gun regulations and enforcement under Biden, but she said a multitiered and multipronged response that includes state and local agencies is necessary.

“We can have a lot of federal policies, but we also need to implement things where this violence is occurring,” Shtull said.

The spike in violence and homicides began last spring as states began easing COVID-19 lockdown orders and a wave of racial justice protests cast new scrutiny on policing. At the same time, rates of property crimes and drug crimes fell, though some communities saw upticks in arson and motor vehicle theft.

Criminologists say it is difficult to discern exactly what is driving the increase in some categories of violent crime, but there are several likely contributing factors. Those include the economic, social, and psychological fallout from the pandemic, a breakdown in trust between communities and police after the killing of George Floyd, and a possible pullback from proactive policing by officers.

A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee report assessing the party’s underperformance in House races last year concluded that moderate candidates were damaged by association with the progressive defunding movement. Crime has been a central issue in the Democratic primary for the New York City mayoral race amid a dramatic rise in shootings and murders in the city.

Some criminal justice advocates fear the Biden administration’s focus on bolstering law enforcement resources will undermine negotiations on Capitol Hill on a policing reform bill that would introduce greater accountability for misconduct. Lawmakers are aiming to make progress on a compromise by July 4, and the White House maintained the new violence prevention strategy would not affect that effort.

“There need to be reforms of police systems across the country, the president is a firm believer in that," said press secretary Jen Psaki Tuesday. "But there are also steps he can take as president of the United States to help address and hopefully reduce that crime."

Psaki observed the spike in homicides began under the previous administration. Confronting similar challenges, President Trump’s Justice Department launched Operation Legend last summer to deploy prosecutors and investigators to cities with high crime rates, whether they were invited or not.

“It’s always been the ability of local police to call in federal assistance,” Bennett said. “The problem with the Trump administration is he basically insisted people take that help.”

Former Attorney General William Barr declared Operation Legend a “resounding success,” crediting the effort with assisting in 6,000 arrests in nine cities by the end of 2020, including 467 homicide cases. The program resulted in the seizure of 2,600 firearms, hundreds of kilos of illegal drugs, and more than $11 million in illicit assets.

In contrast, the Biden administration has stressed the flexibility and adaptability of its strategy, allowing state and local law enforcement to decide which resources best suit their needs. Bennett expressed concerns that some local agencies might turn back to more aggressive policing tactics to bring down short-term crime rates, rather than investing in effective long-term programs that could keep potential offenders off the streets and out of gangs in the years ahead.

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“We’re not talking about something we’re going to see the effects of in 30 days,” he said.

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