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Concerns rising inside White House over surge in violent crime

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By Jeff Zeleny and Kevin Liptak, CNN

A nationwide surge in violent crime has emerged as a growing area of concern inside the White House, where President Joe Biden and his aides have listened with alarm as local authorities warn a brutal summer of killing lies ahead.

Biden plans to address the spike in shootings, armed robberies and vicious assaults on Wednesday afternoon following a meeting with state and local officials, law enforcement representatives and others involved in combating the trend. He hopes to dampen what has already become a cudgel for Republicans eager to run a “law and order” campaign in next year’s midterm elections.

The President is poised to announce a comprehensive crime reduction strategy on Wednesday, officials said, in hopes of reducing gun violence and addressing the root causes of the spike. He is also set to press Congress to confirm David Chipman as his nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Across the country, the easing of pandemic restrictions paired with the onset of warmer weather has led to a troubling increase in crime, much of it involving guns. After years of decreasing crime statistics, the homicide rate surged in major cities in 2020 and that trend appears poised to continue this year. Last weekend, there were 10 mass shootings across nine states that killed seven people and injured at least 45 others, according to data compiled by CNN and Gunviolencearchive.org.

Already, the uptick is becoming a potent political issue for a President who worked over the past two years to carefully calibrate his approach to criminal justice, resisting pressure from the left to support defunding the police while justifying his role in writing major anti-crime bills from the 1990s.

The politics of the moment are further complicated by the prospect of bipartisan police reform legislation, which is slowly moving its way through Congress.

The decision by the White House to devote an afternoon of the President’s time to focus on the nation’s rising crime rate underscores how serious the matter is being taken inside the West Wing. The wave of violent crime is not only seen as an impediment to the economic recovery from the pandemic, but also as a potential political threat that could give Republicans an opening in their midterm election fight against Democrats.

Biden’s aides have sought to put the numbers in context, noting the current upswing in crime began before he entered office.

“There’s been, actually, a rise in crime over the last five years, but really the last 18 months,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.

Can’t ‘just arrest our way out of this’

For months, state and local officials have been sounding the alarm about the toll that shootings, carjackings, armed robberies, assaults and more have been taking on communities.

“We have seen the data change, peoples’ state of mind change, ever since the Covid pandemic has presented so many challenges from the economic hardship, the stress, the anxiety,” Chief Murphy Paul, of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Louisiana, told CNN “Newsroom” on Monday. “We have to deal with the causes of crime and not just arrest our way of this.”

White House officials hope to take steps that will better link federal law enforcement resources with state and local governments, according to people familiar with the matter. Biden’s Justice Department has laid out a strategy for combating violent crime that includes embedding federal agents with local homicide teams and nationwide sweeps for wanted fugitives involved in violence.

That plan sought to de-emphasize the number of arrests and prosecutions, instead focusing on overall reductions in violent crime as a metric of success. It also sought to improve community engagement and violence intervention programs in the hopes of preventing violence from taking root.

Biden’s sweeping $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure proposal includes $5 billion to support community-based violence prevention programs, though the future of that proposal remains uncertain.

The President also plans on using the nationwide spike in crime as an opportunity to advance his argument for new gun control laws, even though his calls earlier in his presidency for Congress to take action prompted little action.

The impetus then was a rash of mass shootings that drew the nation’s attention after a relative lull in gun massacres during the pandemic. But even during his remarks from the Rose Garden calling for a ban on “ghost guns,” Biden acknowledged the surge in gun violence that wasn’t generating the same type of headlines.

“We recognize that cities across the country are experiencing historic spikes in homicides, as the law enforcement can tell you,” he said on April 8. “The violence is hitting Black and brown communities the hardest.”

A complicated history

For Biden, it’s the latest chapter in his long — and politically complicated — history with crime legislation. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden helped write the 1994 crime bill, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

“A guy named Biden wrote that bill and he wrote that bill by going down and sitting down with the president of the United States of America,” said Biden, crowing about the legislation during a speech on the Senate floor at the time.

In the 1990s, the tough-on-crime stance was viewed as a prized accomplishment for Biden, who warned of “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale.”

Yet a quarter-century later, his warm embrace of Clinton during a Rose Garden signing ceremony for the 1994 crime bill stirred controversy during his 2020 presidential primary. Several candidates, including then-opponent Kamala Harris, criticized Biden for his role in the legislation, which she and other critics said led to an era of mass incarceration.

Biden dismissed such criticism from the progressive base of his party, reminding voters that the controversial crime bill at the time was supported by the Congressional Black Caucus and several of the nation’s leading Black mayors. At the same time, he minimized his role in getting the law enacted, saying he was “got stuck with” the job because he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Today, the politics of crime legislation are less certain.

A movement to “Defund the Police” has lost considerable steam inside the Democratic Party, amid rising crime rates across the country. Biden has consistently been opposed to any such measures — and avoided such language — by refusing to accept the criticism from progressives during his presidential race.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement officials have begun placing greater emphasis on community intervention programs to prevent violence, a shift away from the style of policing embedded in the laws Biden helped pass.

“We have to do a better job of … not repeating the mistakes of the past, where we think the best way to solve violent crime is to go out and arrest people for low-level offenses, creating this mass incarceration epidemic that we are trying to handle,” said Chief Shon Barnes of the Madison, Wisconsin, police. “That is simply not the way to handle violent crime in America.”

“I believe that we have to start partnering with other people in our community, and sometimes the police have to take a backseat and allow some of our civic groups, some of our entities within city government to take the lead and we take a supporting role. The idea is to prevent crime and not simply to respond to it,” Barnes said on CNN.

While Biden’s views and record on crime hardly kept him from winning the primary and general election campaigns, they now present a new test for the White House in its quest to avoid deep schisms inside the Democratic Party.

Republicans, in their effort to win control of the House and Senate next year, are already seizing on the issue of crime. Party officials believe it’s one of the strongest arguments to win back suburban voters, particularly women, who abandoned the GOP in the Trump era.

“Democrats up and down the ballot have done everything in their power to subvert law enforcement,” Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said this week. “Voters will hold Democrats accountable for their pro-crime policies.”

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