November 14, 2020

What I Think We Can Expect from the Biden Presidency


Dear PERF members, 

2020 has been a turbulent, contentious year. Some hoped the election might be a turning point, but the reality is that we are still deeply divided, not only between voters who supported one Presidential candidate over the other, but also between police and many of the communities we serve.

A moment like this cries out for a leader who can bring our country together – and bring communities and police together, too. I have reason to believe Joe Biden may prove to be the unifying figure we need.

Understand that “we don’t do politics” here at PERF, which is why I didn’t write this column until after the election. PERF has always been an independent organization that values diverse and thoughtful viewpoints — and I suspect this column may spur some of those diverse opinions, which I welcome.

As I think back over the past 30 years, there is hardly a major criminal justice issue in which Joe Biden didn’t play a significant role. My experiences observing and working with him over that time provide some insights into what the Biden Presidency could mean for our country and for policing.

Above all, I have always known Biden to be a problem-solver – someone whose first instinct is to bring together people with differing views, work to find common ground, and come up with solutions that are practical and effective. Here are just a few examples from his years in the U.S. Senate.

Coordinating drug policy:  In the late 1980s and 1990s, many communities were being ravaged by dangerous drugs, but there was no national strategy for dealing with the problem. The many federal agencies charged with combating drug abuse – DEA, Customs, Justice, State, Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget, and others – were notoriously territorial and not always inclined to work together.

Recognizing the need for greater cooperation, then-Senator Biden was instrumental in crafting legislation to help coordinate our national response. The result was the Office of National Drug Control Policy.  Biden even coined the nickname for its director: “Drug Czar.” ONDCP drafted the first-ever national drug control strategy that integrated enforcement, prevention, and treatment strategies. Early in my career in Washington, I worked as an assistant to the first Drug Czar, and I witnessed firsthand the positive impact of having this coordinated approach.

Crime bill: During that same period, violent crime was also surging. Homicides in New York City topped 2,000 in some years, Chicago had more than 900, and the District of Columbia approached 500. There was considerable pressure to do something about it.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Biden convened police chiefs and sheriffs, labor union representatives, researchers, and community leaders, and he listened to their ideas. This approach produced the bipartisan 1994 crime bill, one of the most ambitious and far-reaching pieces of anti-crime legislation ever enacted. Among other things, the law created the COPS Office and funded the hiring of 100,000 new cops nationwide. It expanded background checks for gun purchases and restricted sales of certain types of assault weapons. It supported drug courts and treatment programs, and strengthened protections for child victims of crime.

During his campaign this year, the President-elect acknowledged that some elements of the 1994 crime bill no longer work in today’s environment, but I think it’s important to understand the historical context of what crime was like when the law was enacted. And my intent here is not to debate the legacy of the law, but to point out how it was developed under Joe Biden’s guidance – by bringing together a diverse coalition, including police chiefs and sheriffs, management and labor, to get things done.

Violence against women:  Another significant part of the 1994 crime bill was the Violence Against Women Act, which boosted resources for prosecuting sexual assault and domestic violence offenders and provided badly needed assistance for the victims of these crimes. The law created the Office on Violence Against Women, which to this day provides federal leadership and distributes grants to combat these crimes. Once again, it was Senator Biden who brought victim advocates and survivors together with police and prosecutors to identify gaps in services and figure out how to close them.

My own encounters with the President-elect: It’s more than Joe Biden’s legislative and policy record that gives me hope for the future. It’s also the personal side of this man, which many of us have seen over the years. Here are a few of my memories.

In the late 1990s, Boston was doing something fascinating to deal with violent crime. A group of clergy members, called the Ten Point Coalition, was working closely with the Boston Police Department and was having success.  I traveled to Boston and talked with then-Police Commissioner Paul Evans and some of the ministers about having a national meeting of police and clergy leaders to share the strategy. We got a good response and decided to hold the meeting at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C. We asked Senator Biden to be our luncheon speaker.

The event attracted cops and clergy from across the country. When Senator Biden began his remarks, you could tell right away that he was in his element. His allotted 25 minutes soon became 35, then 45. The only person who seemed to notice the time was my good friend Bob Lunney, Chief in Edmonton, who had helped organize the meeting and had the thankless task of trying to keep the speakers more or less on schedule! But Joe Biden was connecting with his audience in a personal and meaningful way.

Years later, soon after Senator Biden was elected Vice President in 2008, he reached out to the leaders of the major police and sheriffs’ groups, representing both management and labor, and asked to meet with us individually. At that time, John Timoney was PERF president, and he and I met with the Vice President-elect in his transition office.

Biden told us he had specifically asked President-elect Obama to give him the “police portfolio,” and that he planned to stay in touch with us.  And for the next eight years, that’s just what he did.  

We heard from him regularly, both professionally and personally. He invited us and our families to the Vice President’s residence at the Naval Observatory, and he spent time talking with everyone and making sure we had our picture taken with him and his wife, Jill. At other times, he hosted meetings at the White House. He always went out of his way to genuinely make everyone feel special – something that just doesn’t happen in Washington all that often.

The personal connections he forged during those gatherings helped him work through some difficult issue. For example, in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there were disagreements among police organizations about the path forward, and it was Biden who brought all of us together. He knew about the tensions, so he invited us to his residence for a breakfast meeting, and he played the role of peacemaker. At the end of the session, he suggested we take a group photo, which seemed like his own diplomatic way to literally bring us together for a moment that we all remember.

Another example that comes to mind was when New York City Police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were ambushed and assassinated on a Brooklyn street in 2014.  Vice President Biden attended Ramos’s funeral, and spoke eloquently and emotionally about their courage in protecting a city as vibrant and diverse as New York. “When an assassin’s bullet targeted two officers, it targeted this city and it touched the soul of the entire nation – a city where the son of a Chinese immigrant shared a patrol with a Hispanic minister in training,” he said.

And when 20 children and six adults were shot and killed inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School, it was Vice President Biden who brought police leaders to the White House, so we could share with the President’s Cabinet what we thought could be done to prevent future tragedies.

As I sat in that meeting, I thought to myself, there is only one person in this room who personally knows everyone else in the room – every police chief, every union president, every Cabinet secretary. And that person is Joe Biden – convener and consoler, peacemaker and problem-solver. 

So what can we expect from a Biden administration when it comes to policing? We’ll learn the specific policies and priorities in the coming weeks and months. (One thing we do know is that President Biden will not support “defunding” the police; he has made it clear that he wants to increase investments in policing.)

President-elect Biden has been with the policing profession, side-by-side, for the better part of 30 years. During that time, he has been more than just a political leader. He has been a friend of police chiefs, sheriffs, and working cops alike. And that is what gives me hope.

Have a great weekend. I hope you get some well-deserved rest.