President Biden is walking a fine line on police reform two years after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement, seeking to balance calls for systemic change with an outward message of support for public safety officials.
Biden on Wednesday will sign a long-awaited executive order establishing a nationwide database of officers fired for misconduct in lieu of bipartisan policing legislation the president had hoped to sign by this time last year. The Justice Department this week also issued a memo requiring officers to intervene if another is using excessive force.
But two years since Floyd’s murder sparked a nationwide social justice movement and calls for policing reform, some advocates are left wanting more from Biden.
“I hope that we raise the issue of police accountability and he sets a tone that would say that the George Floyd bill may not have passed, but that the federal government led by the president will make sure that police are held accountable,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in an interview when asked what message he wanted Biden to send on the Floyd anniversary.
Sharpton, who in a statement later said he supports the forthcoming executive order, said he believes the White House needs to adopt a measured message of protecting people from crime and “criminals in blue uniforms.”
“We’re not anti-police, but we’re anti-police criminality,” he said.
Bipartisan efforts to enact police reform legislation fizzled among a group of bipartisan House and Senate lawmakers last fall, leading some to fault Biden for not prioritizing the issue as he has other policy proposals.
“If they really wanted to act, we would have seen pressure on senators and Congress in the first year of the almost first two years now where he basically sat silent,” said Mondale Robinson, the founder of the Black Male Voter Project who has been vocally critical of the Biden administration’s approach to and rhetoric on policing.
The 50-50 split in the Senate has made it impossible for Democrats to pass most pieces of legislation without the bipartisan support necessary to overcome the legislative filibuster.
Instead, Biden will sign an order that has been workshopped for months with civil rights and policing groups. The measure will also notably restrict the transfer of military equipment to local police departments, and it will require federal law enforcement agencies to update their use of force policies.
Floyd’s murder by now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020 set off a nationwide movement for social equality and policing reform. It also left a mark on Biden, who attended Floyd’s funeral and has hosted the Floyd family at the White House. In a rare move for a president, he weighed in on Chauvin’s trial while the jury was deliberating, saying he hoped it would be the “right verdict.”
The administration has taken some unilateral steps in the absence of legislative action. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a pattern-or-practice investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department after Chauvin’s verdict. The Justice Department has announced similar investigations into a handful of other police departments and last fall banned the use of chokeholds for federal officers.
More recently, the department issued the memo ordering changes to its use-of-force policy, the first such update in almost two decades. Among the changes, the new policy requires officers to intervene to prevent or stop other officers from using excessive force.
“It is the policy of the Department of Justice to value and preserve human life,” Garland wrote in the memo, dated May 20. “Officers may use force only when no reasonably effective, safe, and feasible alternative appears to exist and may use only the level of force that a reasonable officer on the scene would use under the same or similar circumstances.”
Biden’s forthcoming executive order has been under discussion for several months, after a leaked draft irked police groups earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Biden has rejected some of the rhetoric among progressives born out of the demonstrations that followed Floyd’s death. He has repeatedly distanced himself from calls to “defund the police” during the 2020 campaign and since taking office. In fact, he’s done the opposite — the American Rescue Plan, passed without a single Republican vote, provided funds for local governments to hire more police officers.
Activists who have met with White House officials on law enforcement and criminal justice said they hoped to see the administration mark the second anniversary of Floyd’s murder with actions to advance equitable policing.
“I’m hoping the president and his team will sign an executive order but refuse to allow it to be isolated and be seen as just a nod to the Black community as opposed to an effort to ensure the promises of this democracy for everyone,” said the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Some believe Biden inherited a system that was dismantled by the previous administration. Former President Trump repeatedly suggested officers should be allowed to use excessive force in some cases and sought to crack down on protesters in the wake of Floyd’s murder.
“We are seeing progress in some areas. We’re going to work for progress in other areas. But to fix in a year and a half what was inherited, I don’t think any administration would have been able to do,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP. “So, as we would like to see more, and we’re going to push for more, we also recognize the whole that this administration inherited.”
But Robinson, of the Black Male Voter Project, accused Biden and Democrats of playing into GOP talking points by rejecting calls to defund the police, and warned that Black voters could stay home in the upcoming elections because they feel like their interests have not been prioritized.
A majority of Black voters still approve of Biden’s job as president, but his support among the key voting bloc has waned in recent months, as it has among other parts of the electorate feeling the pain of inflation and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
A HIT Strategies survey of Black Americans conducted in March found that 74 percent of respondents said they approve of Biden’s handling of his job as president, down about 10 points from November.
“They’re taking Republican talking points and speaking on them as if it’s a way to motivate our base, and in actuality you are doing more hurt then harm,” Robinson said.