Skeptics say the devil’s in the details
President Joe Biden in August signed an executive order to improve public safety as part of his Safer America Plan that was announced in July. It attempts to balance calls for more police officers with demands police be held accountable for misbehavior.
The plan’s features include funding 100,000 more police officers; investing $20 billion in services to address crime; lifting most restrictions on eligibility and access to federal benefits and programs for formerly incarcerated individuals; and calling on Congress to require background checks on all gun sales and ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
The president’s fiscal year 2023 budget includes approximately $35 billion to support law enforcement and crime prevention. He also wants to see more women and individuals from underrepresented communities hired as police officers and expand mental health and wellness care for police officers. He called on Congress to fund approximately $750 million over five years for these purposes.
In June, Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that would provide states with $750 million to invest in crisis interventions. “Our communities have to be safer,” said former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, now the president’s senior advisor for public engagement.
Biden’s Safer America Plan has come under fire from critics who claim it needs to better define what effective public safety in our cities should look like. “Biden’s plan does not articulate a specific proposal to ensure that both existing and new officers are accountable to the public and consistently respect individuals’ constitutional rights,” stressed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Deputy Legal Director Yasmin Cader.
Although her organization overall supports the president’s plan, Cader added that hiring more police officers without adequately correcting current and systemic policing problems may result in “massive over-policing and rampant rights violations in our communities.”
Policing and its systemic concerns, especially with the treatment of Blacks and other people of color in many U.S. cities, have been called into question since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. The city has been a leader in calling for changes in police—a 2021 ballot measure to eliminate the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a public safety department was defeated by voters 56% to 43%.
New Public Safety Commissioner Dr. Cedric Alexander was sworn in January 2022—the MPD is now under his office. “We’ve got to have good policing,” Alexander told a community meeting at Phelps Park last month. “We’ve got to have good public safety.”
Mayor Jacob Frey’s latest biennial budget proposes funding the hiring of almost 1,000 new police officers in the next two years. “We have a much smaller police department than we did in 2020,” said MPD Interim Police Chief Amelia Hoffman.
City Council President Andrea Jenkins added, “Public safety is much more than just police.” She and other city council members have called for lasting changes in policing in Minneapolis.
Bottoms told the MSR in a phone interview last week, “The president has been clear that he supports law enforcement, but he has also made it clear that he supports our communities. What the president has said is that we need funding in place [and] we need to be able to hold officers accountable.
“But we also need to be able to support law enforcement, making sure that there is a mutually respectful relationship between law enforcement and our communities.”
Nonetheless, St. Cloud Police Chief William Anderson was somewhat skeptical when he spoke to the MSR last week about the plan: “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. Anderson, who recently announced his intention to retire this fall after nearly a decade of service in the Greater Minnesota city, pointed out that the “defund the police” demands have had an adverse effect on law enforcement overall.
“I say that for the last two-plus years, we [who are in] law enforcement have been a political football, and it aggravates me,” explained St. Cloud’s first Black police chief. “I bet there isn’t a law enforcement agency in the country that isn’t suffering from recruiting and retention because nobody wants to go in this profession right now, we’ve been so demonized. We’ve been so polarized and we’ve been so politicized.”
Bottoms stressed the Biden administration’s dual approach to strengthening the relationship between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. “I, like so many others, had to witness the tragedy of the murder of George Floyd—all of us, including the president,” said Bottoms.
“[He] has said that he wants to make sure that we have law enforcement officers in our communities serve as guardians in our communities, not warriors in our communities.” Biden strongly supports “law enforcement officers who will be held accountable,” Bottoms said.
“If you’ve suffered some brutality or loss of [a] loved one at the hands of a police officer,” Anderson said, “there’s little comfort to you. But when you think about the tens of millions of calls that we take every single year that don’t result in any force—let alone lethal force—that has to be a consideration.
“As long as there’s crime in our communities, there will be a need for law enforcement,” Bottoms noted. “We want to make sure that we are hiring the right law enforcement officers, to make sure that officers receive the right training, make sure that we have a database that ensures that if someone is a bad officer, they can’t go and get a job in another jurisdiction.”
“I don’t care where they are,” concluded Anderson of law enforcement in this country, “99.9% of the people out there serving are doing the job the right way for the right reason.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.