The president made clear that he intends to approach crime prevention by investing in, rather than defunding, the police as he waded into an urgent national debate over policing.
By Zolan Kanno-Youngs
WASHINGTON — President Biden said on Wednesday that states could draw from $350 billion in federal stimulus money to shore up police departments and vowed to crack down on gun dealers who fail to run background checks, as the White House seeks to combat the alarming rise in homicide rates in America’s cities.
Mr. Biden’s speech made clear that he intends to approach crime prevention by investing in, rather than defunding, the police — wading into a national debate about whether the government should give police departments more resources, or spend the money on mental health and other social services instead.
The president tried to appeal to both sides on Wednesday, saying from the White House that “this is not a time to turn our backs on law enforcement or our communities.”
Under Mr. Biden’s new plan, state and local governments will be allowed to use their designated $350 billion of coronavirus relief funds for programs such as hiring police officers to prepandemic levels, paying overtime for community policing work and supporting community-based anti-violence groups. City governments struggling with high crime will be able to go even further, hiring even more officers than they had before the pandemic.
The money is not new spending, but the administration is for the first time encouraging states to use the funds for expanding policing efforts and crime prevention efforts.
The funds can also be used for summer jobs for young people and organizations that aim to intervene with at-risk youths before they commit violence, a nod to criminal justice advocates who have called for political leaders to address the societal factors that drive crime.
With Wednesday’s speech, Mr. Biden aimed to blunt criticism from Republicans who say he is soft on crime. But he also tried to bridge the two flanks of his party: centrist Democrats alarmed by the spike in crime in cities and progressives who are pushing systemic changes to police departments that have long been accused of racial discrimination.
Mr. Biden also said he was directing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to revoke the licenses of gun dealers “the first time that they violate federal law” by failing to run background checks.
Previously, sellers often received repeated warnings before their licenses were pulled. And in some cases, the A.T.F. has been accused of overruling recommendations by their own inspectors and allowing sellers to keep their licenses.
“These merchants of death are breaking the law for profit,” said Mr. Biden, who appeared alongside Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “They’re selling guns that are killing innocent people. It’s wrong. It’s unacceptable.”
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