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The Good, the Bad, and the Unsaid

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eye on the news

The Good, the Bad, and the Unsaid

Assessing President Biden’s plan to counter surging violent crime June 24, 2021
Politics and law
Public safety

The Biden administration on Wednesday rolled out its plan to counter the surge in violent crime. With communities reeling from the dual blow of the pandemic and violence, it’s understandable that the president wants to act, and some of his proposals, like more funding for police, are a step in the right direction. But the administration’s plan focuses too much on guns, particularly the legal avenues for gun ownership. And Biden failed to denounce the nationwide anti-police sentiment that is a major driver of the violence.

Bucking the trend in his party, Biden unambiguously supports funding the police. The president has long occupied the “right” flank of his party on this issue, such as it is, dating back to the successful anti-crime initiatives he backed in the Senate in the early 1990s. But government spending on the police has somehow become a controversial issue among Democrats.

Happily, Biden is moving to put more money into hiring and endorsing evidence-based practices. The Treasury Department is emphasizing that state and local governments can use some of the funding allocated to them under the American Recovery Plan Act to hire police officers, “even above pre-pandemic levels,” and pay overtime. Biden also wants an extra $300 million for COPS, the Justice Department office that provides grants for police hiring to local municipalities. Police departments have shrunk over the past year, as anti-police sentiment has driven many cops into retirement or other fields. Federal funds will help counteract this trend and put more officers on the beat—one of the most well-established methods for keeping crime down.

The Biden plan will also pump more funding into non-police alternatives, namely Community Violence Intervention and Summer Youth Employment Programs. These tools are not replacements for the police, but they are likely effective supports for traditional police work. Summer job programs for teens have been shown to reduce their risk of offending by keeping them off the street. And Community Violence Intervention—a mishmash of strategies, including “violence interrupters” and “focused deterrence”—can have significant, albeit often uneven, effects on crime.

What’s not encouraging is how the administration is conceptualizing the violent crime spike: as primarily, even exclusively, a failure of gun-control policy. In his comments Wednesday, Biden returned repeatedly to gun violence, insisting that such policies as aggressive background checks and a new assault weapons ban would stop the killing. Evidence supports neither policy. More gun carrying does appear to be a proximate cause of the violence increase, though it tells us little about why people are carrying more guns. But the best way to curb gun carrying is to prosecute illicit traffickers aggressively and sweep guns off the street through focused police stops—in other words, to stop criminals from carrying guns by targeting criminals who have guns.

The Biden plan does not take that approach. Instead, it tasks the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms with targeting “rogue” dealers—i.e., legitimate licensed firearm dealers who violate ATF rules. That’s a fine policy, but guns sold by legitimate dealers are likely not fueling the current crisis: the ATF estimates that legally bought guns take over eight years on average to reach criminal hands. It’s simply improbable that the current problem is too little gun control: jurisdictions with incredibly tight gun laws, such as Chicago and New York City, have still seen enormous crime spikes.

The focus on guns seems blatantly political. Since gun control is popular with Biden’s base, he can use the violent-crime crisis to push his agenda. Political considerations clearly also determine what went unmentioned in Biden’s comments and in the administration’s plan: the role played by nationwide anti-police protests and policies in driving the crime spike.

Local, state, and federal leaders, including many members of Biden’s party, have fueled a comprehensively hostile climate for police officers, who are now frequently slandered by public leaders and the media as racist, fascist thugs who wantonly murder black people and make little contribution to public safety. Little wonder that police departments have shrunk and police activity has declined: the costs of being a police officer have gone up, and the benefits have gone down.

Counteracting that trend requires political leadership to reaffirm policing’s role as the bedrock of public safety, even as we weigh reforms. By fixating on gun control, Biden dodged the pressing question of open hostility to the police around the United States. Unaddressed, that problem will grow worse.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

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