May 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden preps high-stakes police reform executive order

President Biden is seen awarding medals of valor to public safety officials.

President Biden awards Officer Kyle Baker of the Concord (N.C.) Police Department the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor, along with fellow Concord officers Paul Stackenwalt (left) and Kaleb Robinson (center), during a ceremony in the East Room on Monday. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden plans to issue his highly anticipated executive order on police reform in the coming weeks, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: With crime surging across the country, the political stakes for any executive action dealing with law enforcement are high. Republicans are convinced focusing on crime will help them in November and have pilloried Democrats for their progressive flank's "defund-the-police" rhetoric.

  • White House officials have logged over 90 hours of engagement with congressional leaders, the civil rights community, police unions and families of those killed by police, a person familiar with the matter told Axios.
  • The goal has been to strike the right balance, since top Biden aides know there are political risks for what the president ultimately includes — and omits.
  • Civil rights activists and progressives — key constituencies for Democrats to energize ahead of the midterm elections — are demanding more accountability from law enforcement and action from Biden.
  • Many are also deeply disappointed by Congress' failure to act.

Driving the news: The second anniversary of George Floyd's murder on May 25 will renew attention on police reform.

  • At the same time, Biden has been trying to appeal to centrist voters by highlighting his anti-crime efforts.
  • He used his State of the Union address to emphasize "the answer is not to defund the police,” a message he repeated Sunday while speaking to the families of fallen law enforcement officials at the beginning of National Police Week.
  • “Being a cop today is a heck of a lot harder than it’s ever been,” he told the families.
  • “The answer is not to abandon the streets. It’s not to choose between safety and equal justice,” he said.

The big picture: After congressional negotiations over the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act collapsed last September, the president turned his focus to a possible executive order.

  • While the legislation served as an outline for executive action, the White House recognized that big changes to police practices — like changing qualified immunity — could only be done through legislation, the person familiar with the matter told Axios.
  • The act, though, served as a shell for changes Biden could take by executive action.
  • They include establishing new guidelines to combat hiring bias, improving data collection on best criminal justice practices and bolstering public health responses to people in crisis.

What they're saying: “I hope that the executive order strikes a balance between the legitimate concerns of the civil rights community and the legitimate concerns of the law enforcement community,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.

  • “Our goals are the same: to make the country safer for everybody without discrimination,” said Pasco, who Biden recognized in his remarks on Sunday.
  • Police groups are ready to pounce if they feel the order goes too far, as they did when the Federalist published a leaked draft in January.

Derrick Johnson, president of NAACP, told Axios: "What the administration is proposing is a great thing, but it’s secondary because an executive order only pales in its effectiveness to actual legislation."

  • "We commend the administration for stepping in, but we implore the Senate to do its job and change policing in this country so that communities and police officers are safe, and so that bad actors are not a part of law enforcement culture."
  • Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said: "It can't be a gravy train of money just for police to be police. It's got to be money that actually — if it's going out — leads to some different results."

Between the lines: Biden has interspersed events on public safety with announcements or actions on criminal justice reform.

  • On Friday, he touted the more than $10 billion in American Rescue plan funding for local law enforcement and other public safety measures.
  • In late April, he marked "Second Chance Month" by announcing three pardons and commuting 75 sentences. Last year, the Department of Justice announced it was limiting the use of “no-knock” warrants and chokeholds by federal agents.
  • It was the first time he had used his clemency powers as president.
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