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An Old Friend Of Law Enforcement, Biden Walks A Thin Line On Police Reform

President Biden, pictured as a senator introducing anti-crime legislation in 2007, is trying to maintain his long-standing relationships with law enforcement as he pushes for changes to policing.
President Biden, pictured as a senator introducing anti-crime legislation in 2007, is trying to maintain his long-standing relationships with law enforcement as he pushes for changes to policing.

Updated July 8, 2021 at 7:50 AM ET

President Biden is trying to tread a thin, tangled line. He's trying to pass a police reform bill as a surge of violent crime sweeps the country. He's also trying to balance calls from activists within his own party for a major overhaul of policing with growing safety concerns from the broader public.

For years, Biden was a loyal ally to law enforcement, dating back to his days in the Senate when he crafted the 1994 crime bill with their direct help.

"When he was vice president, he would routinely have law enforcement at the residence," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based police think tank. "He told President Obama when he was vice president he wanted the police portfolio. So, he knows this issue."

But while Biden may know the issue, the issue itself has changed with mounting calls for more accountability among police officers in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing.

"The president has 40 years of history with law enforcement. He's familiar with the structures, he's familiar with the expectations of everyone," said Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association. "And I think the one thing that he may find himself at odds with is just how in this climate we both have very serious obstacles in our path that we have to cross together."

Biden moved left as police moved right

In the 2020 election, the National Association of Police Organizations, which had previously endorsed the Obama-Biden ticket, decided to back Donald Trump over Joe Biden. The Police Benevolent Association also endorsed Trump, as did the largest police union in the country, the National Fraternal Order of Police.

"From the '90s — which was probably the point at which the relationship was its closest — [Biden] has moved to the left in his thinking, and that colors his approach to pretty much all things law enforcement," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the FOP.

At the same time, Pasco said attitudes among police officers have also shifted further to the right since the 1990s.

"For people of my era, we still feel an affection for Biden," said Pasco, who's in his mid-70s and points out that law enforcement skews young. "That said, today we're far more likely to disagree with him on his approach to public safety than we might have been in the past."

Biden is a politician who believes in the strength of personal relationships. And during the 2020 presidential campaign, he spoke about his conviction that he could find a solution to growing tensions between police and racial justice activists, if he could just get them into a room together.

"I have worked with police in this country for many years," Biden said at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh last summer. "I know most cops are good, decent people. I know how they risk their lives every time they put that shield on."

But with such raw tensions, some in law enforcement and the civil rights community are not sure there is a middle ground to land on.

Biden vs. Trump

Then-President Donald Trump poses with sheriffs after receiving an award from them at the White House in September 2019.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
Then-President Donald Trump poses with sheriffs after receiving an award from them at the White House in September 2019.

Law enforcement groups describe the relationship with the Biden White House as cordial and candid.

"We're able to reach the right people and make our views known," said Pasco.

Police groups such as his have spoken with senior adviser Cedric Richmond, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Director of the Domestic Policy Council Susan Rice and others, but they've not spoken directly to Biden.

It's a contrast to how quickly Trump reached out — within weeks after he was inaugurated — says Thompson with the National Sheriffs' Association.

"We were asked to sit down with then-President Trump and did so and spent over two hours going through the top 10 things that he wanted to achieve and the top 10 things we think he ought to be achieving. That's a temperature check we have to take," said Thompson.

It's a temperature check he says they have not yet taken with Biden. Given the crime wave in the country, police groups say it's important they have a seat at the table.

"I can tell you from our perspective we were disappointed that the meeting the president had at the White House, that major city chiefs or major county sheriffs or even labor, we just weren't part of the conversation. We hope that that was just an oversight," said Art Acevedo, the chief of police in Miami, referring to a roundtable on gun crime prevention that the president held in June with local officials.

Acevedo, who was a Republican for years but also spoke at the Democratic Convention in 2020, considers Biden "a friend."

The administration points out that the police chief from Baton Rouge, La., attended the roundtable, but because it was a small group, the White House felt it was also important to have other voices beyond law enforcement, such as mayors, in the room to discuss the increase in crime.

"If the question is 'do they have access?' the [answer] is they do — because it's important to us to make sure we're keeping families safe and making sure that they know we're concerned about unconstitutional policing and excessive force in this country, and we've relayed that to them," said Biden adviser Richmond.

Police morale is declining

The fact that so much of the Biden administration's focus is on excessive force is a problem for some in the law enforcement community. They feel as though this focus is contributing to low morale at a time when police forces are seeing record resignations and retirements.

A recent survey conducted by Wexler's police think tank found that there has been a 45% increase in retirements in the past year. "What surprised us was ... the No. 1 issue was rebuilding community trust and public confidence," Wexler said.

To Pasco of the Fraternal Order of Police, "the kind of help we really need is in changing the attitude toward police officers and policing."

The White House defends its approach and points to the president's recent remarks on crime and gun violence.

"What I think those police groups should recognize is that during the campaign when defund the police was at its highest moment, the president's plan called for $300 million more to community policing," said Richmond.

Next steps in the reform effort

For months, lawmakers in Congress have been trying to reach a deal on police reform. Late last month, negotiators in Congress said they had reached "an agreement on a framework addressing the major issues for bipartisan police reform" but offered few details.

Democrats in the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in March that would create national standards for policing and limit qualified immunity, the legal protection that shields police from being sued for misconduct.

But eliminating the doctrine of qualified immunity as it applies to rank-and-file officers is a nonstarter for some in law enforcement.

Biden, no doubt, still has friends in law enforcement. Acevedo, the Miami police chief, says it's admirable that Biden, in his view, gets "beat up from the extreme right and the extreme left" for his public safety positions.

"His history of working with law enforcement, I think that helps him in terms of being able to navigate the need for reform without being painted as this anti-police left-wing guy, right? Cause that's simply not who he is," said Acevedo.

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