White House seeks to shield Biden from GOP attacks on crime issue

The White House is elevating the issue of rising violent crime in an effort to show President Biden is tackling it head-on as Republicans seek to make it a key prong of their midterm messaging.

The White House has made recommendations to states and cities about using funding from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law to boost public safety and has convened a group of mayors, law enforcement officials and philanthropic leaders to strengthen community violence intervention programs.

The Justice Department last week launched “strike forces” to disrupt firearms trafficking networks in five cities that have experienced surges in gun violence, with Attorney General Merrick Garland traveling to his home city of Chicago to spotlight the program.

At the same time, White House officials have rebutted the notion that Biden supports slashing funding to police. Biden himself has tried to strike a balance between expressing support for law enforcement and calling for reform.

The issues of crime and policing have exposed fissures in the Democratic Party, with some progressives calling for reduced funding to law enforcement in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. Republicans have tried to tie Biden to the “defund the police” movement.

Biden gave a nod to progressives on Monday when he nominated Boston District Attorney Rachael Rollins (D), who has shifted her office’s focus away from prosecuting certain low-level crimes, for U.S. attorney in Massachusetts. 

But he has also been forceful in distancing himself from calls to defund the police. 

“I’ve never, never, never said defunding the police,” Biden said during a CNN town hall on Thursday. “I don’t know any community, particularly the communities that are in the most need and the poorest and the most at risk, that don’t want police. They want police, though, to look at them as equals. They want police to treat them in a way — they don’t want police abusing.”

The number of homicides and aggravated assaults increased in 2020 over 2019, a trend that continued in the first quarter of 2021, according to data from the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

The federal government has limited power when it comes to addressing violent crime. It is predominantly an issue for state and local governments and police departments, the vast majority of which are not controlled by the federal government.

A cornerstone of Biden’s plan to address gun violence — passing an assault weapons ban and expanded background checks — remains out of reach in the evenly split Senate because of GOP opposition. David Chipman, Biden’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, also remains stalled in the Senate.

In the absence of congressional action, the Justice Department has launched firearm trafficking strike forces in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Garland traveled to Chicago on Thursday to meet with law enforcement and elected officials as well as a group that provides mental health support and professional development to prevent violence among men in Chicago. 

The new task forces are part of a strategy Biden unveiled in June to tamp down gun violence and other violent crime. The White House has instructed state and local jurisdictions to use $350 billion in funding from Biden’s American Rescue Plan to boost public safety programs, such as by hiring more law enforcement officials or paying overtime in communities where gun violence has increased during the pandemic.

White House officials earlier this month held the inaugural meeting of a new community violence intervention collaborative, which looks to bring together elected officials, law enforcement, philanthropic organizations and other leaders in 16 jurisdictions to strengthen these programs over the next 18 months.

“This is unprecedented,” said Aqeela Sherrills, cofounder of the Community-Based Public Safety Collective, who met with Biden and other local elected officials and police chiefs on July 12. “In 30 years, I have never seen this type of excitement coming from our federal partners, law enforcement.”

Sherrills described the ongoing conversations as “laying a foundation” for better violence prevention strategies in local communities going forward and acknowledged it could take time to see results. He said it will be key to address the negative impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the quality of life. especially among members of minority communities.

“A lot of the violence is quality of life stuff,” he said.

Biden has also proposed about $5 billion in funding for community violence intervention grant programs that advocates expect to be included in Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget bill.

Republicans have tried to blame crime rates on Biden and Democrats ahead of next year’s elections.

An internal poll released by the National Republican Congressional Committee found that voters in battleground districts trust Republicans over Democrats by a narrow margin — 45 percent to 42 percent — to handle crime and public safety.

Former President Trump, who continues to flirt with a potential 2024 presidential campaign, released two statements Tuesday on rising crime — even as Capitol Police gave dramatic testimony over their ordeal during the Jan. 6 mob attack by Trump supporters. 

Democrats voiced confidence in how Biden has sought to insulate himself on the issue.  

“This is some real tricky stuff and I think they’ve done a good job so far recognizing that they’ve got to get ahead of it,” Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said. “I, for one, believe that looking away and not realizing there’s some issues that need to be addressed is the wrong way to go.” 

The Democratic polling firm Navigator Research released a survey Tuesday showing that voters trust Biden and the Democrats over Republicans to address hate crimes and gun violence and reduce violent crime. However, voters trust Republicans over Democrats to fund local police departments, according to the poll.

Democrats believe that Biden’s actions will ultimately help him and other Democrats prevail over Republican attacks.

“The Republicans are really good at one thing, which is elevating wedge issues and political rhetoric, and they’re really bad at the other thing, which is coming up with solutions,” Biden pollster John Anzalone said. “No one is debating whether violent crime has gone up and it’s an issue in the country, in cities. The difference is that Biden has a plan to deal with it and they don’t.”

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Harry Reid Joe Biden Merrick Garland

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