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Biden pitches crime plan to local leaders amid wave of gun violence

The president encouraged communities to use funding included in the Covid-19 relief plan for police hiring and crime prevention programs.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Monday met with a group of law enforcement officials, community groups and state and local leaders, including New York City Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams, to discuss his plan to address a nationwide surge in violent crime.

During the meeting at the White House, Biden encouraged communities to use the $350 billion for states included in the Covid-19 relief plan passed by Congress in March to hire police officers and put in place new crime prevention programs, and said he wanted to hear from local leaders directly about what the federal government can do.

"Most of my career has been dealing with this issue — it's not a 'one size fits all' approach," Biden said.

The meeting comes amid a rise in gun violence over the past few years. One of Biden's weakest areas in recent polling has been his handling of crime, with just 38 percent of people approving of the job he is doing in that area and 48 percent disapproving, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this month.

Despite those numbers, a White House official contended that the proposals the president has promoted to combat crime, such as increasing funding for police and community programs, are popular with voters.

Still, the White House has been working in recent weeks to distance Biden from the “defund the police” movement that some Democrats have embraced, increasingly arguing that it is Republicans who support cutting police funding, citing their opposition to the Covid-19 relief bill and past efforts to cut a federal program for police hiring.

Democratic strategists have pointed to the nomination of Adams, a former police captain who ran on a pro-law enforcement message, as an indication of the party’s support for police, and his inclusion in Monday’s White House meeting could help bolster that message.

Last month, Biden laid out a plan for tackling gun violence that included efforts to stem the flow of illegal firearms, increase police hiring and invest in community programs to expand summer and employment opportunities, and help formerly incarcerated people re-enter their communities.

The FBI does not release full crime statistics until September, but estimates by criminologists suggest a 30 percent increase in homicides last year, with another 24 percent increase at the beginning of this year.

Administration officials sent out a memo Monday to state and local officials encouraging them to use the Covid-19 relief funds to hire police officers and put in place new crime prevention programs. The memo provided examples of how cities are looking to use the funds, like a proposal by Washington, D.C., to use $59 million on a range of programs including adding police cadet slots.

“We know that the rise in violent crime over the last 18 months is a complex and multidimensional challenge for communities around the country, and that it requires a comprehensive response,” the memo said. “And we know that cities and states need a strong partner in the federal government to get that done. That’s why we’ve been heartened to see communities moving already to use the funding in the Rescue Plan to bolster public safety.”

The Treasury Department issued new guidelines last month making clear the funds could be used for police hiring, connecting the rise in violent crime to the pandemic.

For decades, Biden has positioned himself as a tough-on-crime candidate. One of his prime legislative achievements as a senator was the passage of the 1994 anti-crime law that boosted police hiring, established stiffer sentencing for drug offenses, and temporarily banned assault weapons.

As a presidential candidate, Biden distanced himself from the "defund the police” movement among Democrats and argued that as president he would put more money into hiring police officers, while then-President Donald Trump sought to paint an image of a country that would be overrun with criminals and violent demonstrators if Biden were elected.

GOP operatives have said they plan to once again seize on the violent crime message in the 2022 midterm elections and make it a central theme in their efforts to take control of the House and the Senate next year.