Joe Biden Had Close Ties With Police Leaders. Will They Help Him Now?

His proposed solution to addressing both urgent calls for police reform and animosity from law enforcement toward Democrats is one he’s long relied on: He’ll just get everyone in the same room.


By Alexander Burns

Bill Johnson knew, before he reached out to Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign last spring, that things had changed between the former vice president and the nation’s police unions. A once-close alliance had frayed amid clashes over police brutality and racism in the justice system. Still, Mr. Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, invited Mr. Biden to address the group as it weighed its 2020 endorsement.

For weeks, the campaign was politely noncommittal, Mr. Johnson said. Finally, he recalled, on the day NAPO was deciding its endorsement, he heard from a campaign aide asking if there was still time to send a message. “Not to be a jerk, but we were literally starting the meeting,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s kind of a little late.”

The police federation, which twice endorsed the Obama-Biden ticket and stayed neutral in 2016, backed President Trump in July. Soon after, its president told the Republican convention that Mr. Biden and Senator Kamala Harris were “the most radical anti-police ticket in history.”

That attack marked a low point in a political relationship that had endured for most of Mr. Biden’s career.

If elected, Mr. Biden would bring to the White House a long career’s worth of relationships with police chiefs, union leaders and policy experts that is unmatched by any other major figure in the Democratic Party, according to more than a dozen current and former law-enforcement officials who have worked with Mr. Biden in various capacities.

During a late-summer speech in Pittsburgh, Mr. Biden pledged to draw both racial-justice activists and police leaders “to the table” to forge durable solutions.

“I have worked with police in this country for many years,” Mr. Biden said. “I know most cops are good, decent people. I know how they risk their lives every time they put that shield on.”

Yet the 2020 election has also underscored the difficulty Mr. Biden may have in achieving that goal. He is presenting himself as both a criminal-justice reformer and a friend to diligent police officers, a critic of racism and rioting alike.

But Mr. Biden has seen his formal support from prominent law-enforcement groups disintegrate as those organizations closed ranks against reform legislation. They have objected to Mr. Biden’s rhetoric about “systemic racism” in policing and to his vows to regulate police agencies with federal power, even as reformers on the left press Mr. Biden to take up far bolder changes.

Some of Mr. Biden’s colleagues from the Obama administration, including Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general, have worked to organize law-enforcement backing for Mr. Biden outside traditional police groups, and in September the campaign released a long list of endorsements stocked heavily with former sheriffs and prosecutors. Yet Mr. Trump has relentlessly exploited gaps between Mr. Biden and police leaders, running television ads accusing Mr. Biden of siding against the police in a time of unrest and berating him at the first presidential debate about his lack of police endorsements.

Mr. Biden’s response in that debate captured the risky political assumption of his candidacy, and a potential Biden presidency: that through a combination of good faith and long relationships, he might bring about peace between warring factions.

“What I’m going to do as president of the United States is call together an entire group of people at the White House,” Mr. Biden promised. “Well, everything from the civil rights groups, to the police officers, to the police chiefs, and we’re going to work this out.”

‘So Darn Competent’

Daryl F. Gates was already notorious when he visited Capitol Hill in the fall of 1990. In his 12 years leading the Los Angeles Police Department, he had become one of the country’s most polarizing supercops: a high-profile field marshal in the war on drugs who dismissed concerns about racism and police brutality. Addressing the Senate Judiciary Committee on drug control that September, Mr. Gates told lawmakers that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot.”

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