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Biden rolls out election-year crime messaging in New York

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NEW YORK — President Joe Biden on Thursday joined New York’s new Democratic mayor, Eric Adams, in offering what White House officials describe as a road map for crime messaging this year, with Republicans set to spotlight the issue in the midterm elections.

Biden emphasized both increased funding for law enforcement and aggressive enforcement of gun safety laws during Thursday’s trip to the city, which was his highest-profile effort to date to model the Democrats’ election-year balancing act of supporting law enforcement while also insisting on new police accountability.

“The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said. “It’s to give you the tools, the training, the funding to be partners, to be protectors. The community needs you.”

While Biden was speaking in New York, Republican National Committee officials were scheduled to gather in Utah for their winter meeting. An RNC spokesperson said Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel’s address Friday would focus heavily on violent crime.

Many of the policies Biden spotlighted Thursday are ones he laid out last year at the White House, including investment in community violence interruption programs, regulation of so-called ghost guns — firearms without serial numbers often sold in kits without background checks — and federal “strike forces” to help cities and states combat the flow of illegal guns.

The White House was eager to build on those announcements early this election year, and in New York, to underscore what it sees as a common approach with Adams, a New York police veteran who won a crowded mayoral primary in the heavily Democratic city on a platform that included stepped-up policing efforts. Adams has referred to himself as the “Biden of Brooklyn,” saying the two had connected in past interactions. “That’s my dude,” Adams said last month.

But the trip also risked highlighting the very trends Republicans are looking to use against Democrats. Newly released statistics covering most of January showed a nearly 38 percent increase in all crime in New York compared to the same period last year.

Shootings, which have been a focus for Adams, were up by 31 percent in January, compared to January 2021, and by just over 14 percent compared to 12 years ago. After a historic drop in crime in 2018 and 2019, there is now more crime in New York City than there was 12 years ago in all categories.

A Gallup poll in early January found that just 24 percent of voters were very or somewhat satisfied with policies to reduce or control crime, down from 47 percent in January 2020. The biggest drop-off has come among Republican voters, Gallup found, reflecting the party’s focus on the issue since Biden has taken office.

“Joe Biden and Democrats’ soft-on-crime policies have emboldened criminals in Democrat-run cities across the country,” McDaniel said in a statement to NBC News. “Americans are less safe because of Democrats’ failed leadership, and until Joe Biden condemns dangerous policies and anti-police rhetoric from Democrats like Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, he is complicit in the crime surges across the country.”

Crimes involving illegal guns have been the focus of the city’s new administration, and Biden on Thursday pointed to how the federal government can assist local efforts. Biden and Adams have repeatedly and forcefully dismissed calls from progressive groups to “defund” the police.

Instead, the president pointed to hundreds of millions of dollars in funding provided by last year’s Covid relief law that many cities and states have used to put more cops on the beat — and how most Republicans in Washington opposed that and other gun safety measures he has proposed.

“We’re not about defunding — we’re about funding and providing the additional services you need,” Biden said.

Biden has long styled himself as a law-and-order politician, from his time on the Senate Judiciary Committee to his role as vice president, often as something of an intermediary between law enforcement groups and the Obama administration.

His Democratic opponents tried to turn that approach against him in the fight for the 2020 presidential nomination, focusing in particular on his authorship of the 1994 crime bill, which they said included provisions that led to mass incarceration, especially of Black men.

Biden argued that he accepted some stricter sentencing requirements as part of a compromise necessary to get the bill signed into law, and he said the focus on community policing and the hiring of thousands of new police officers were key drivers in declining crime rates that followed. And he resisted calls, then and to this day, to “defund the police,” saying that, in fact, the opposite is what is needed.

The first speech Biden delivered after he accepted the Democratic nomination, in Pittsburgh just before Labor Day 2020, marked an effort to turn then-President Donald Trump’s focus on law and order against him. He accused Trump of “rooting for chaos and violence” and said Trump bore responsibility for intentionally inflaming protests in major cities after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

“You know me. You know my heart. You know my story, my family’s story. Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?” Biden asked in the address.

On Thursday, he again defended his record on the issue, and his support for law enforcement funding. “I’ve noticed in my experience, when I wrote the first crime bill, I notice that I don’t hear many communities — no matter what their color, their background — saying ‘I don’t want more protection in my community,'” Biden said. “I haven’t found one of those yet.”

Biden’s visit also came as the New York Police Department mourned two young officers who were shot and killed last month responding to a domestic disturbance in Harlem. Just over seven years ago, Biden, as vice president, delivered a eulogy at a memorial service for another New York police officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty.

“I have spoken at too many funerals for too many peace officers, too many funerals for brave women and men who kept us safe and watched their families grieve,” Biden said then. “And I’ve observed one thing, that unfortunately it’s only when a tragedy like this occurs that all their friends, neighbors and people who didn’t even know them become aware of and reminded of the sacrifices they make every single, solitary day to make our lives better.

“I believe that this great police force and this incredibly diverse city can and will show the nation how to bridge any divide. You’ve done it before. And you will do it again.”

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