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The crime prevention proposal, which the White House calls Safer America Plan, requests $15 billion

The crime prevention proposal, which the White House dubs the Safer America Plan, requests $15 billion to help local governments identify emergencies that might be better handled if the response includes services other than law enforcement — including mental health crises, a $5 billion investment into community violence intervention programs and a $3 billion investment for clearing court backlogs.

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Broadly speaking, those proposals are in line with measures put forward by criminal and racial justice advocates and many Democratic lawmakers. The grants could very well incentivize cash-strapped jurisdictions to implement pilot programs for violence intervention and other proven alternatives to policing that they may not explore without the additional money.

But the centerpiece of Biden’s Safer America plan is the fund the police measure: a request for nearly $13 billion to hire 100,000 police officers around the country over the next five years.

That provision is fundamentally a reprisal of the prevailing tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice that has failed and contributed significantly to mass incarceration.

The massive 1994 crime bill — which then-Senator Biden called the “Biden crime bill" — is widely viewed a key driver of mass incarceration. It also included a provision for 100,000 new officers.

Civil rights groups criticized the latest proposal in statements following the White House’s announcement.

We are disappointed that the plan “embraces the failed concept that we can achieve safety by increasing police presence in our communities,” NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president and director-counsel Janai Nelson said on July 22.

The ACLU described the plan as a proposed investment “in two competing approaches” to public safety: a call “for more criminalization and incarceration,” alongside investments in community-based services.

The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In a sense, the proposal formalizes the mixed messaging the administration has given on police reform throughout Biden’s presidency.

What’s clear is that the White House and a majority of the Democratic party intend to carry the message on policing from Biden’s March State of the Union speech into the Nov. 8 midterm elections, apparently because of a political calculation that they need to defend against conservatives' accusations that Democrats are lenient on crime.

“The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said in March “It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.”

That's a sharp contrast to candidate Biden, who ran on a platform that represented a drastic shift in the federal government’s approach to policing and race, at least rhetorically, as I noted in a previous column.

He has said publicly that he was inspired to run for president by the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. And his platform featured racial justice more substantively and prominently than probably any president before.

In June 2020, Biden wrote an op-ed arguing that we “need to root out systemic racism,” and describing his race against President Donald Trump as a “battle for the soul of this nation” (The Trump administration wholly rejected the notion of systemic racism). The federal government should subsidize local police, Biden wrote, but the money should be conditioned on whether departments have implemented “meaningful reforms.”

And, at that time, Biden proposed a smaller $300 million investment into the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which runs the police hiring program that the White House more recently requested nearly $13 billion for.

Some of the officials Biden selected for his administration have also taken fairly progressive positions on criminal justice issues, including Kristen Clarke, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, who wrote an op-ed in June 2021 headlined “Defund the Police — But Be Strategic.” Melanca Clark, a member of Biden's transition team and a former chief of staff of COPS, told NPR that June that the moment presented an opportunity to reimagine police departments.

That background — and Biden’s adoption of much of the language of activists and reformers — is likely why many advocates were hopeful about Biden’s criminal justice platform.

By now, though, it’s clear the administration has made a pivot and likely doesn't plan on looking back.

The White House scrapped at least one of its major criminal justice initiatives just months into Biden's tenure, deciding to forego a campaign promise to create a national police oversight commission in favor of a push for legislation, Reuters reported in April 2021. And his initial $300 million proposal for hiring police also drew fire from racial justice groups.

The President and Democratic lawmakers pledged to pass major policing and racial justice legislation after George Floyd was killed in Minnesota police custody in June 2020, but their efforts were scuttled by Republican lawmakers.

After the legislative push failed, Biden issued a largely ineffectual executive order on policing.

To be sure, Biden has consistently opposed the "defund" movement – a push to reimagine police departments and divert their funding into other social services.

He put it quite plainly while still a presidential candidate: “I don’t support defunding the police,” Biden said in a June 2020 interview with CBS.

And, Biden is a decades-old ally to police groups.

He played key roles in passing the 1984 Comprehensive Control Act, which enabled civil asset forfeiture, and the 1986 and 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Acts, which created the racist crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity and strengthened mandatory minimums. He also wrote the 1994 crime bill — the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — which incentivized states to build prisons, put cops in schools and passed truth-in-sentencing laws, according to a report released in July by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law

Now, the White House is signaling to both conservative and democratic lawmakers that increased criminalization and incarceration is a fundamental component of justice reform — that some money can be diverted from police departments, but more money must be pumped in as well. It's also a clear signal to activists and voters about the president's earlier promises.

Tragically, the memory of Floyd's horrific murder is fading, along with the political willpower to meaningfully change the age-old dynamics that ultimately led to his death.

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