Will a Biden presidency breathe new life into community policing?

Policing is currently subject to more social experiments than at any time in the history of the profession


In 2020 the COPS office of the Department of Justice awarded nearly $400 million in staffing grants to 605 law enforcement agencies adding 2,761 police officers to the grant recipients.

With little of the fanfare of its initial promise to fund 100,000 new police officers, create a new training curriculum through the Police Corps and infuse community policing concepts, the COPS office keeps plugging along 20 years after its creation. President Bush proposed slashing the COPS budget in 2005, but funding was saved partly through then-Senator Biden’s advocacy.

Despite many of his Democratic colleagues’ endorsement of defunding police agencies, including his running mate, Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris, Biden has consistently spoken in favor of funding for community policing.

Former Vice President Joe Biden talks with Wilmington, Del., police officers as he departs The Queen theatre in Wilmington, Del., Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
Former Vice President Joe Biden talks with Wilmington, Del., police officers as he departs The Queen theatre in Wilmington, Del., Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

That doesn’t make him a fan favorite in law enforcement circles. His weak condemnation of those actively opposing law enforcement, his choice of vice-president candidate and his promotion of unrealistic use of force strategies are a stark contrast to President Trump’s cheerleading for law enforcement. Trump’s moral support hasn’t translated into many criminal justice initiatives, but he was embraced by many in the law enforcement community although, of course, not universally.

Biden’s profile

Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential campaign shrewdly made crime an issue. The rise of crack cocaine and the spillover of urban crime to the suburbs made the increase in violent crime a national concern.

Senator Biden was an enthusiastic supporter of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. He was often called on to apologize for the increase in prison numbers and statistically disparate impact on African American men.

As vice-president under Barack Obama, Biden saw the administration initiate a record number of civil rights investigations of police departments across the country. Obama was notoriously lukewarm in his attitude to law enforcement and enthusiastic about siding with protestors. Law enforcement can expect more federal investigations of police agencies to be reignited.

The evolving face of community policing

The original version of the effort to implement community policing was part of a get tough on crime policy to prove to the public that the Democratic party was not soft on crime. A Biden administration is more likely to be a "get tough on policing" effort.

In the face of many communities reducing costs and staffing in police agencies, diverting funds to social services and decriminalizing drug offenses, it might be a hard sell to increase the number of police officers even if they are labeled "community policing" officers.

The reality is that the urgency of 911 calls will not relent with the diversion of police staffing to whatever might be labeled community policing – a concept whose definition is still subject to debate. More likely the call for incorporating social services and alternative response protocols will be the focus of any law enforcement funding initiative that survives a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

The sting of the 1994 crime bill may result in the reduction of prison sentences, the continued decriminalization of drugs, early release of prisoners, and more funding for treatment and rehabilitation strategies. The claims will be that correctional cost savings will pay for rehabilitation and that those efforts will reduce crime. If those strategies don’t work, on top of other possible defunding, recruitment deficits, and reduced officer-initiated investigative incentives, crime statistics could become alarming.

What will likely not be funded is research into the assumptions underlying the cry for police reform, such as disproportionate force and arrests of minorities, epidemic racism in policing and rampant police brutality.

National standards

Despite this phrase in the Bill of Rights labeled as the 10th amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” the federalization of law enforcement will likely increase under a Democratic administration.

National standards for training, use of force policy, and a variety of other policies and procedures that have been matters for state and local governments will likely be forced on any agency with an appetite for federal dollars.

Funding, the threat of civil rights investigations and support from federal law enforcement agencies are the only influence that the federal government currently has over state and local law enforcement. A hypothetical upside is that if dollars are attached to compliance with federal standards, it may be that the dollars offered would have to be available for things that law enforcement agencies actually want and need. 

Policing is subject to more social experiments than at any time in the history of the profession. The outcomes may be enlightening or frightening, but strengthening the core mission of policing is not on the horizon for the next four years.

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