Biden tries to hold the center as Democrats clash over police and public safety
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Biden tries to hold the center as Democrats clash over police and public safety

President Joe Biden convened a small summit of local leaders in late June to discuss his plans to combat nationwide surge in violent crime. This week, he did it again — this time encouraging cities to use resources from his Covid-19 relief package to fund a range of new public safety measures.

Among those in attendance on Monday at the White House: Eric Adams, the projected Democratic nominee to become the next mayor of New York City and darling of moderates desperate to divorce the party’s brand from a movement that took flight in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Calls to “Defund the Police” have almost entirely subsided since last summer, when the backlash to racist police violence set off protests across the country. In the cauldron of those heated demonstrations, emboldened progressive activists pushed for a dramatic reallocation of public funding away from police departments and toward social services, along with other preventive strategies designed to limit interactions between officers and nonviolent potential offenders.

The slogan, grabby but simplistic, briefly enjoyed some public support by mainstream liberal organizations. But it faded from all but the most hardcore activists’ rhetoric as the 2020 election season heated up and public polling suggested it was a loser with most voters. The phrase lives on now mostly as a cudgel: one Republicans attempt to foist on Democrats in general election campaigns, regardless of their actual positions, and moderate Democrats try to hang like a millstone around the necks of their more progressive primary rivals, whether they subscribe to it or not.

Adams, a retired captain in the New York Police Department, pinned much of his successful mayoral primary campaign on a pledge to restore public safety in a city that, like so many others around the country, has seen more than a year of rising violent crime and shootings. He was also a willing foil to the “defund” crowd, which he largely dismissed as disconnected and privileged, promising stepped-up policing and the return of a controversial plainclothes NYPD anti-crime unit. In the end, Adams’ message resonated in many of the hardest hit neighborhoods.

Two days after the election, holding a narrow but solid lead, Adams stepped out and declared himself the “face of the new Democratic Party” — and warned that candidates who ignored his example risked not only their own fates, but the party’s congressional majorities next year.

“If the Democratic Party fails to recognize what we did here in New York, then they’re going to have a problem in the midterm elections, and they’re going to have a problem in the presidential elections,” Adams said.

The moderate wing of the party has celebrated the brash Brooklynite’s declarations, though his victory, in a closed primary that attracted fewer than a million voters, is unlikely to settle any long-running ideological debates. That is also a reflection of the reality that Adams’ views on crime and punishment are, by his own description, “complicated,” as he told CNN in May.

“I support closing Rikers (Island jail), but also support closing the pipeline that feeds Rikers,” he said.

In many ways, Adams is an ideal match and ally for Biden. The President’s winning coalition last year largely predicted Adams’ in June, a parallel the Brooklyn borough president enjoys pointing out. Adams applauded Biden’s approach on public safety after Monday’s meeting, which came on the heels of a 72-hour span that saw 125 people killed in more than 360 shootings nationwide, according to data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive.

“(Biden is) sending a loud message that this country and cities like New York are no longer going to normalize the level of violence that’s taking place in our inner cities, handgun violence, something we have ignored on a federal level,” Adams told CNN’s Victor Blackwell.

Misplaced priorities

Adams’ frustration with the federal government’s inaction in response to gun violence puts him in line with Democrats of all stripes. But he has also offered more pointed criticism of what he describes as years of neglect — through both Democratic and Republican administrations — of handgun violence in predominantly minority and working class urban areas.

Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday if he believed national Democrats’ priorities — specifically, their focus on assault weapons — have been misplaced, Adams didn’t flinch.

“Yes, I do,” he said. “And it’s almost insulting what we have witnessed over the last few years. Many of our presidents, they saw these numbers. They knew that the inner cities, particularly where Black, brown and poor people lived, they know — they knew — they were dealing with this real crisis.”

Adams’ comment risked rankling some leading anti-gun violence activists — in nonpartisan, moderate and progressive spheres — who view those priorities as deeply intertwined.

Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, whose nonprofit group is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, one of the nation’s largest gun control advocate organizations, told CNN in a statement that she believes “the single most important piece of legislation Congress could send to the President’s desk would be to close loopholes in the background check system.”

“This is a complex, multifaceted issue that requires a holistic approach, including funding for violence intervention programs and cracking down on illegal gun trafficking,” Watts said, “both of which continue to be a focus for President Biden.”

Frustration from the left

On the left, frustration with Adams’ rhetoric and some of Biden’s initiatives, which include his push for local governments to use money from his American Rescue Plan to hire more police officers, reflects the underlying forces that drove the “defund” movement.

Kina Collins, a longtime anti-gun violence activist leader currently running a progressive primary challenge to incumbent Democratic Rep. Danny Davis in Illinois’ 7th district dismissed the debate over defunding — “I call it funding our communities,” she said — as overly simplistic, but questioned whether a surge of police would have the desired effect.

“Here in the city of Chicago, in my district, the Chicago Police Department was given nearly $300 million from COVID relief, on top of their $1.7 billion that they already had allocated in the city budget. They dispatched a thousand police officers on July 4 weekend and guess what, 100-plus people were shot, 19 fatally,” said Collins, who served as a member of the Biden transition team’s task force on gun violence. “There were police officers who were shot — so the people who are supposed to be protecting us in these communities have now become a part of the vicious cycle of being gun violence survivors.”

The answer, Collins said, will not come from “pouring more money into an already-bloated police budget that doesn’t make us any safer,” but through investing in “violence interruption” programs that identify and train people within high-risk communities “who can identify high potential shooters and those who have the high risk to be shot at and deescalating those situations.”

On the campaign trail, Adams discussed preventive measures but never wavered from the argument that more robust policing was the quickest and most effective tool for combating the current rise in violent crime.

“Don’t let people fool you,” Adams told CNN in May. “I’ve never went to one meeting, where people sat inside that meeting and said ‘I don’t want a cop on my block.’ Never. And in fact, I’ve gone to meetings where we said, ‘We’re going to take the cop off your block’ and they would be ready to fight you because of that.”

Biden searches for common ground

Biden’s latest initiative, as detailed in a memo from the administration, tries to square both schools of thought — a familiar exercise for a President who, from the moment he clinched the nomination in 2020, has sought to forge a working consensus within an ideologically divided party. His gathering on Monday included law enforcement, elected officials and a community violence intervention experts.

Speaking afterward, Biden ticked off a varied approach to turning back the violent tide, but put particular emphasis on a piece of common ground: preventing guns from entering communities in the first place.

“While there’s no one-size-fit-all approach, we know there are some things that work,” Biden told reporters. “And the first of those that work is stemming the flow of firearms.”

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