In NAACP Town Hall, Biden Backs Police Reform

Screenshot of former Vice President Joe Biden at a NAACP-sponsored town hall Wednesday.

(CN) — Former Vice President Joe Biden said in a virtual town hall Wednesday that he would support legislation on police reform and withhold federal funding for police departments that violate national standards. 

In response to protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last month, Democrats in Congress introduced a bill this week barring police from using chokeholds and mandating racial bias training, among other reform measures. 

The Justice in Policing Act of 2020 would also create a national database of police officer misconduct that also tracks officers who engaged in violent or prejudiced behavior.

The legislation calls for the demilitarization of police forces but does not include measures to decrease funding for police departments across the U.S., a key demand of the Black Lives Matter movement-led protests of the past two weeks. 

Biden, who clinched the Democratic presidential nomination over the weekend, wrote in an op-ed published Wednesday in USA Today that, if elected president, he would put $300 million toward community policing programs while boosting the Justice Department’s ability to mandate law enforcement reforms.

“While I do not believe federal dollars should go to police departments that are violating people’s rights or turning to violence as the first resort, I do not support defunding police,” Biden wrote in the op-ed. “The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms, and to condition other federal dollars on completing those reforms.”

However, at an NAACP-hosted forum Wednesday, Biden said he would withhold federal funding for police departments that violate national standards.

“The vast majority of funding for police departments is local and the rest is federal. In order to get those funds you should have to meet certain basic minimum requirements,” Biden told forum moderator and journalist Ed Gordon. “If you don’t, you don’t get that federal funding,”

Gordon, who told the virtual audience that “defunding the police does not mean disbanding the police,” asked Biden what his most radical police reform measure would be.

“We need to have the ability to determine who the bad cops are and demand action against them,” Biden said regarding his plan to investigate departments’ training and policies on use of force. “This is about transparency, about exposing what’s happening. It’s about more than just reforming departments. There must be systematic change.”

Gordon said young people have expressed concern about Biden’s commitment to racial justice given his work to pass the 1994 federal crime bill, which ushered in contemporary policing practices.

“They should be skeptical,” Biden said, adding that he’s seen no polling to sustain Gordon’s representation of the youth perspective. “Watch me. Judge me based on what I do. I’m not making myself out to be a hero or some kind of savior. It’s about treating people with dignity.”

Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge told Gordon that in 1994, Biden’s stance on criminal justice was the status quo. 

“Ten or 15 years ago, no one would have thought about taking resources away from police,” said Fudge, a Democrat. “It’s what we did. But we all evolve at some point.”

Fudge said the nation must deeply examine how resources are allocated to law enforcement, saying in the forum “there is a role for police.”

Biden, who met with Floyd’s family on Monday, also wrote in the op-ed the nation needs to go beyond police reforms by investing in black-owned businesses and black communities through targeted tax credits and affordable housing development. 

Imposing penalties for making false 911 calls based on race and boosting investments for mental health services and drug treatment programs are policies Biden would back as president, Biden wrote. 

In the town hall, Biden also committed to appointing a black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court if elected president in November. 

The former Delaware senator also said he would support financial reparations for descendants of black people enslaved in the United States but only if it includes reparations for Native Americans. 

Gordon asked Biden to respond to criticism that his generation failed to deal with the issue of racism in a substantive way.

“Things did change but they didn’t get nearly far enough,” Biden said, adding that the election of President Barack Obama gave him hope that racism was on the decline nationwide.

“Most black folks understood that electing Obama did not change the landscape for us,” Gordon told Biden. “The hope we have is different than what liberal whites had, some of whom even went so far as to say we were in a post-racial society.”

“But didn’t it give you hope?” Biden said.

The townhall, which carried the #WeAreDoneDying tagline, was officially billed as a conversation about disparities in the health care system that are a direct result of systemic racism. 

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, said in the town hall the country must seize the moment to implement far-reaching reforms in health care, housing and policing.

“We know that structural racism is woven into the fabric of how this country operates,” Johnson said. “The narrative must be clear; we’re done dying. The next march we must organize en masse is to the polling place.”

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