WASHINGTON — Facing rising fears of summer violence, President Joe Biden is embarking on a political high-wire act, trying to balance his strong backing for law enforcement with the police reform movement championed by many of his supporters.
His focus Monday was on crime.
Biden met at the White House with urban leaders — including Eric Adams, the heavy favorite to be the next mayor of New York City — about increased shootings, as Democrats warily watch a surge across the nation. Though limited to what can be done at the federal level, Biden promised to support efforts on the ground to combat crime.
“We know when we utilize trusted community members and encourage more community policing, we can intervene before the violence erupts,” the president said.
The meeting was the second in just three weeks, underscoring the political concern crime has become for Democrats as they look to protect their thin margins in Congress. Big city mayors and lawmakers have sounded the alarm on the rise in crime, believed partly fueled by destabilizing forces of the pandemic, and polls suggest it is an increasing matter of concern for many Americans.
White House aides believe that Biden, with his long legislative record on crime as a former senator, is not easy to paint as soft on the issue. And the president has been clear that he is opposed to the “defund the police” movement, which has been effectively used against some Democrats to paint them as anti-law enforcement.
The president promoted the money for policing in his COVID-19 relief bill and, reflecting on his nearly four decades in the Senate, declared that “Most of my career has been on this issue.”
At the same time, Biden has also tried to boost progressives’ efforts to reform policing and has backed a bill that, after initial promise, has stalled in the Senate.
Biden lent his support to the protests that swept the nation last year after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer. That incident sparked a national reckoning on race, including sometimes-violent protests that were seized upon by then-President Donald Trump to raise anger among his conservative supporters.
Federal statistics show significant increases in murder nationwide, though spikes in crime are common in the summer months. The federal government has been trying to step up its efforts, launching strike forces in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to help address illegal gun trafficking.
And while crime is rising, violent crime overall remains lower than it was a decade ago or even five years ago. And most violent crimes plummeted during the first six months of the pandemic, as people stayed indoors and away from others.
In fact, the spike in crime defies easy explanation. Experts point to a number of potential causes: the pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 people in the U.S., worries about the economy, large gatherings after months of stay-at-home orders, intense stress and even the weather.
Police leaders nationwide have said they are struggling with the increase in shootings and homicides. They’re grappling with retirements and fewer staff and a difficulty in recruiting officers to help push back.
In the cities, “disparities exist everywhere; we’re talking education, health care, criminal justice system,” Portland Oregon Chief Chuck Lovell said recently at a forum on crime.
“We’re solely focused on law enforcement at the moment. My hope is that throughout this time we can do some things that really benefit people in general, but we really need to think globally.”