Biden asks states to dedicate stimulus funds to police

WASHINGTON — Flanked by police chiefs from across the United States, President Biden on Friday praised state and local governments for pledging to use at least $10 billion in federal stimulus funds to bolster police departments.

And he urged local leaders to keep the money flowing.

“My message is clear: Spend this money,” Biden said in the Rose Garden. “Do it quickly before summer, when crime rates tend to rise.”

As Republicans seize on the rise in violent crime to portray the White House as weak on law and order, Biden is pushing to show he’s a strong supporter of policing ahead of midterm congressional elections in November.

But the timing of his comments, just two weeks before the second anniversary of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, also frustrated progressives who say Biden has yet to make good on his initial promises to reform accused police departments. of racial discrimination.

“The funds should be used to help residents affected by the pandemic and help with long-standing disparities,” said Hannah Halbert, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit organization.

Instead, he said officials seemed to rely on traditional investments in surveillance. “You’re just going to duplicate the strategies that have produced the results we’re seeing now,” Ms. Halbert said, noting that Ohio officials had used stimulus funds to buy police vehicles.

Last June, months after the passage of his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, Mr. Biden announced that state and local governments could use $350 billion in relief funds and use the money for public safety. On Friday, the White House said the $10 billion in spending was just an initial accounting; Administration officials expect more funds to go to police departments as additional stimulus funds are paid out.

The White House hopes the spending will help prevent another spike in crime this summer. But some critics said the money should go to address the public health and economic pain caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re trying to encourage localities to make those investments in health care, education, employment, housing,” said Kanya Bennett, managing director of government affairs for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a legislative advocacy coalition.

Congressional talks to reform police departments broke down last year after nearly a year of negotiations. The Justice Department has announced federal investigations into the Minneapolis and Louisville police departments, but criminal justice advocates have called on Biden to make greater use of his executive authority to rein in the police. Outgoing White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the administration was still in the process of finalizing an executive order on police reform.

Despite calls in the wake of widespread protests in 2020 to cut law enforcement funding and increase spending on health care and education, Biden has said the best way to fight crime and achieve reform is to invest in police departments.

On Friday, Mr. Biden also praised states that had used the funds to invest in community-based safety programs, such as a Wisconsin initiative that deployed community members to work directly with people who have more likely to commit crimes with firearms.

“The best way to get reform done as quickly as possible is to go local and make sure we invest in police departments,” Biden said.

The $10 billion in spending included funds to hire additional officers, increase overtime pay, purchase police cars and weapons-detection technology, and upgrade radio systems and training facilities.

Speaking at the White House on Friday, James E. White, Detroit’s police chief, said the money allowed him to expand a program that pairs police officers with social workers to better help people with mental illness. When asked for an example of how the federal funds helped his department, Chief White said the additional money had allowed him to hire someone to improve diversity in his agency.

The $10 billion figure does not include some state spending plans that are at odds with Biden’s public safety priorities, such as Alabama’s plan to use $400 million of pandemic relief funds to build two prisons, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

While the stimulus package was intended to provide states with flexibility, the senior administration official said Biden spoke Friday about providing funding for police with the intention of putting his “thumb on the scales” and prioritizing spending. in public safety.

In a private meeting in the Roosevelt Room with police chiefs and community leaders, Mr. Biden said he wanted to continue to invest in law enforcement, but police should not be solely responsible for handling domestic violence situations or emergencies. involving people with mental illness.

Some cities used the money for public safety initiatives that don’t involve police. Mayor Regina Romero of Tucson, Ariz., announced plans to use at least $7 million of the funds for intervention programs, youth employment and programming, workforce development, and mental health and substance abuse programs.

Tucson Deputy City Manager Liana Perez said the Mayor and City Council had developed a strategic framework for the funding.

“So it’s not necessarily our police department, but community self-health and safety initiatives,” he said.

Ms. Perez said the city never went down the path of defunding its police department, but had tried to add programs and services to help its police force. For example, Tucson created a community health, safety and wellness program in hopes of diverting some 911 calls to social services rather than the police.

“We knew we had to address the challenges that law enforcement has from multiple directions,” said Ms. Pérez. “Not just, you know, funding for new officers.”

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