President Joe Biden outlined his administration’s national crime prevention strategy Wednesday after meeting with local leaders on the issue, in remarks that focused on targeting gun violence and new resources for community policing across the country.
The Biden administration is responding to a rise in violent crime throughout the United States in the last 18 months, senior administration officials said, especially homicides and gun assaults. The president could also be politically vulnerable on the issue of criminal justice, for which he received a 35% approval rating in a recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll.
On Wednesday, Biden laid out his five-part plan for crime prevention while negotiations on both gun control legislation and a police reform bill are ongoing on Capitol Hill.
"I've been at this a long time. And there are things we know that work to reduce gun violence and violent crime," the president said, pointing first to background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
Biden was joined by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who also outlined the Department of Justice's efforts to reduce crime. The two met with city officials and anti-violence advocates in the White House beforehand.
The president's Wednesday announcement came ahead of the potentially-violent summer months, when crime ticks up.
"Every single year, homicide rates go up in the summer," said Ron Wright, a criminal law professor at Wake Forest University, noting that pandemic stress has added to the usual factors.
And, Wright said, homicides "have a ripple effect. So if you have one killing, very often there's going to be some kind of retaliatory violence, maybe retaliatory killing."
The plan Biden laid out Wednesday afternoon focuses on reducing the number of guns in communities plus targeting COVID-19 relief funds to help police departments and community efforts to prevent crime.
He specifically highlighted the need for tighter restrictions on firearms, including new enforcement efforts by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
"It's zero tolerance for gun dealers who willfully violate key existing laws and regulations," he said. "We'll find you. And we will seek your license to sell guns. We'll make sure you can sell death and mayhem on our streets."
President Biden announced measures Wednesday to:
- Make it easier to revoke the licenses of gun dealers who violate federal law, plus add resources to the ATF
- Allow communities expecting a summer surge in crime to use funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) —the COVID-19 relief bill passed in March — to hire police officers up to pre-pandemic levels, invest in technology and boost community policing, especially in order to fight gun violence
- Invest in community-based intervention programs for both potential perpetrators and potential victims of gun violence, also through money in the COVID relief bill
- Through ARP funds, expand summer programming, employment opportunities and other forms of support for teens and young adults, such as food and housing assistance
- Help returning citizens adjust, find housing and find work after leaving prison, including through new funds announced by the Department of Labor this week
President Biden spoke after meeting with a handful of mayors, anti-violence advocates and administration officials, in which he said they discussed the need for community-based support to prevent crime, which is one way jurisdictions can spend COVID funds.
"These are local programs that utilize trusted messengers. Community members and leaders work directly with people who are most likely to commit gun crimes or become victims of gun crimes," he said. "Community violence intervention programs have shown a reduction in violence up to 60% many places."
The bulk of the new strategy relies on money already appropriated by Congress in the March relief bill, specifically the $350 billion allocated to states and localities. Each jurisdiction can decide how they use funds to address crime under the new guidance, whether that’s hiring officers or supporting teens.
"Public safety, crime control is traditionally a state and local function, not a federal function," Wright said. "So leaving localities the option to do what will work for them I think is the smart move."
Officials also said that the COVID relief funds are applicable because the legislation was designed to help state and local governments respond to impacts of the pandemic, one of them being a rise in violent crime.
In the first quarter of 2021, U.S. homicides increased by nearly 25% from the same period in 2020 and 49% from the same time in 2019, a White House official noted.
From 2019 to 2020, nearly every one of the nation’s 70 largest law enforcement jurisdictions saw an increase in at least one category of crime, according to a survey from the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
According to the survey, homicides rose from about 6,000 annually to 8,000, while aggravated assault incidents, including those involving guns, increased by nearly 33,000.
"It's a broader and broader group of people who bought guns during the pandemic. So more guns in circulation could be part of the problem here," Wright said.
In April, the president signed six executive orders aimed at quelling gun violence, including by addressing “ghost guns,” initiating a review of possible red flag laws and tasking the Department of Justice to look at firearms trafficking.
He’s also nominated David Chipman to lead the ATF, a former special agent for the bureau who’s also a long-time gun control advocate and therefore controversial among Republicans. He hasn't yet been confirmed by the Senate, and the vote could be split down the middle even with Democrats united.
On Wednesday, the president specifically called on Congress to pass gun control legislation, which he said was not meant to impact responsible gun owners.
"Here in America, we have an opportunity to come together now," he said. "We're not changing the constitution. We're enforcing it, being reasonable."
Some saw the Biden's administration's new strategy as a "Band-Aid" for pervasive problems within police departments and cities.
"Policing has been irreparably damaged," said Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "To me, it's just cosmetics."
The Biden administration’s push to address crime comes at a fragile time for policing. Officers have recently said morale is at an “all-time low” after violent encounters with police gripped the spotlight in 2020.
At the same time, Democrats have called for reform to police tactics through the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, while progressives have gone further to urge the defunding of police departments, a call the president has resisted.
"Nobody wants to go near policing, people are piling out the door. Those who are in policing want to get out and are avoiding every kind of risk they can from coast to coast," O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell called for a national commission on policing with former officers and other experts who can call attention to problems on the ground.
"Police are just paralyzed. They're afraid to pull people over," he said. "Where do you get the people from?"
On Tuesday, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the new push to address crime will not conflict with efforts for police reform on Capitol Hill.
“The president supports and stands by a lot of these groups and their support and advocacy for long overdue police reform,” she said.
On Tuesday, the DOJ also announced five gun trafficking strike forces to be established across the country in the next month.
The groups will serve five major regions — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C. — and will confront the issue of illegal firearm trafficking as part of the effort to reduce violent crime.
"Protecting our communities from violent crime is a top priority for the Department of Justice and one of our most important responsibilities," Attorney General Garland said Wednesday.
Garland joined the president Wednesday for the meeting with New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul, plus anti-gun violence advocates.
Meanwhile, experts have called for better data at the federal level, an element not in Biden's new strategy.
Right now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation releases its national crime reports a year later, and 2019's is latest publicly available.
"Can you imagine trying to do pandemic planning if you only data you have is 18 months old?" Wright said, comparing it to the need for COVID-19 data to respond to the virus. "We need to invest in prompt, reliable data that will help people at the local level."