Biden Aims to Bolster Police Departments as Homicides Increase


WASHINGTON — President Biden said on Wednesday that states could draw from $350 billion in federal stimulus money to shore up police departments and vowed to crack down on gun dealers who fail to run background checks, as the White House seeks to combat the alarming rise in homicide rates in America’s cities.

Mr. Biden’s speech made clear that he intends to approach crime prevention by investing in, rather than defunding, the police — wading into a national debate about whether the government should give police departments more resources, or spend the money on mental health and other social services instead.

The president tried to appeal to both sides on Wednesday, saying from the White House that “this is not a time to turn our backs on law enforcement or our communities.”

Under Mr. Biden’s new plan, state and local governments will be allowed to use their designated $350 billion of coronavirus relief funds for programs such as hiring police officers to prepandemic levels, paying overtime for community policing work and supporting community-based anti-violence groups. City governments struggling with high crime will be able to go even further, hiring even more officers than they had before the pandemic.

“These merchants of death are breaking the law for profit,” said Mr. Biden, who appeared alongside Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “They’re selling guns that are killing innocent people. It’s wrong. It’s unacceptable.”

Mr. Biden used the moment to call for Congress to pass legislative measures that would close background check loopholes, restrict assault weapons and repeal gun manufacturers’ immunity from lawsuits.

“Folks, this shouldn’t be a red or blue issue,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s an American issue. We’re not changing the Constitution; we’re enforcing it.”

Criminal justice experts and law enforcement officials said the federal government is limited in how much it can combat crime in American cities, because local governments and police departments bear primary responsibility.

But they said supporting states with additional funds and federal law enforcement to target illegal gun sales was crucial to lowering crime.

“It will help,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law-enforcement think tank. But, he cautioned, “if people are looking for a magic solution to violent crime, it’s not going to come from the federal government.”

The Biden administration also announced this week that the Justice Department would start five “strike forces” to combat gun trafficking in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the San Francisco area and Washington, D.C.

Jim Pasco, the executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said focusing on gun trafficking was a “tried and true strategy.”

“The key is having the resources to sustain it over time,” Mr. Pasco said. “To have a lasting impact you’ve got to have lasting effort.”

Overall crime numbers remained down during the coronavirus pandemic, although homicides surged in almost every American city in 2020. In Chicago and several other cities, last year was the worst year for killings since the mid-1990s.

Mr. Biden has walked a cautious line on crime, trying to balance calls for a law enforcement overhaul while not alienating moderate voters.

He included in his budget request for the 2022 fiscal year $2.1 billion for the Justice Department to address gun violence, an increase of $232 million from the previous year. The funds include grants for local governments, programs that improve background checks and other anti-crime strategies.

White House officials said the actions announced on Wednesday were meant to build on steps the administration took in April after two mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado. Mr. Biden had directed the Justice Department to curb the spread of “ghost guns,” made from pieces with no serial numbers from kits that can be bought without background checks.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago has said she is prioritizing reducing violence over the summer by focusing resources on more than a dozen high-crime pockets of the city.

In Jackson, Miss., a rise in violent crime has stoked anger and resentment over a sense of neglect and pushed city leaders and activists to demand an investment in resources that extends beyond policing.

Over the years, white residents fled, leaving a largely African American city starved for resources. Residents point to city roadways so crater-pocked that they destroyed tires, and the weakened water infrastructure that led to a crisis in which residents went weeks under a boil-water notice. Crime, activists said, was another outgrowth of the entrenched poverty and lack of opportunity that pervaded Jackson.

“A lot of these communities need to be healed,” said Terun Moore, a director of Strong Arms of JXN, a grass-roots nonprofit that is trying to stem the violence by rerouting young people to after-school programs and job opportunities. “They need some loving. They need a lot of restorative work.”

Rick Rojas contributed reporting from Nashville, and Katie Benner from Washington.

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