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What A Biden Administration May Do To Change Policing


This summer, after the death of George Floyd, police use of force became one of the most urgent political issues in America. And President-elect Joe Biden says he'll address this issue once he's in office. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste takes a look at what a Biden administration may do to change policing.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Even during the height of the demonstrations this summer, Biden held the line. He lamented the high-profile deaths involving the police, but he rejected some of the protesters' demands to abolish police departments or cut their funding. Here he is in the ABC town hall last month.


JOE BIDEN: We shouldn't be defunding cops. We should be mandating the things that we should be doing within police departments and make sure there's total transparency.

KASTE: He called for more training and for giving cops new ways to handle situations such as people in mental crisis.


BIDEN: That's why we have to provide within police departments psychologists and social workers to go out with the cops on those calls, those - some of those 911 calls to de-escalate the circumstance.

KASTE: The federal government's main tool for influencing local police departments has been targeted grants for things like this, and Biden's talked about adding $300 million. But activists are hoping for more than money.

DERAY MCKESSON: There's a host of stuff that the federal government can model that will send a message.

KASTE: That's DeRay Mckesson with the group Campaign Zero. He wants Biden to put the Justice Department back in the business of investigating and suing police departments for patterns of civil rights abuses. And Mckesson says the feds shouldn't just go after the departments where there've been high-profile incidents.

MCKESSON: Right now, they intervene in places where, like - normally, it's, like, a national story or - you know, like, that's how it goes. And what we've been asking for is for there to be a threshold - right? - that the federal government intervene in the top 10% of police departments that kill people or the 25 - like, something that is, like, not just focused on what the media says.

KASTE: But more systematic investigations may also rekindle the us-versus-them tension between the federal government and local police that we saw during the Obama years. Rafael Mangual is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, where he focuses on criminal justice, and he expects more of this tension.

RAFAEL MANGUAL: If there ever was a time in which we'd see the federal government kind of go further down the road of positioning itself as an opponent of state and local police departments, I think now is probably that time.

KASTE: Mangual points to the way that Biden has distanced himself from his role in the 1994 crime bill, which beefed up policing nationally but which many activists now blame for America's high incarceration rate. Biden's shift on this is one of the reasons that so many cops and some police unions have backed Trump during the last campaigns. Now that Trump has lost, they have another reason to be glum.

JIM BLACK: I think morale is low.

KASTE: Jim Black is the president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

BLACK: You know, I think you turn on the TV every day, and there's something negative about our profession. We're being stigmatized and labeled as racists or killers or that we don't care about the people in our communities.

KASTE: One way to reach out to the police right now, he says, would be to make sure that they're included in the reform process. Laurie Robinson co-chaired the policing task force under President Obama, and she says that's exactly what the president-elect has in mind. Even though Biden's relationship with the police unions is frayed, she says she has hope.

LAURIE ROBINSON: If anyone has the ability to bring everyone together on these policing issues, it is Joe Biden.

KASTE: Although at the moment, there's little sign of that process. The unions have yet to acknowledge Biden's victory. According to one insider, that's because they're still hesitant to appear, quote, "disloyal" to President Trump.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMPRESARIOS' "SIESTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.