During his term as president so far, Donald Trump has told police to “please don’t be too nice” when making arrests, applauded the death penalty for people who sell drugs and, earlier this month, ordered the violent clearing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park so he could pose with the Bible in front of a church.
But as Trump’s approval ratings plummet amid ongoing protests over racism and police brutality, Republican operatives are coming to his aid. Last week they went on the offensive, attacking Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s own record on criminal justice issues.
“From the war on drugs, to police militarization, Joe Biden has a long record of supporting questionable criminal justice policies,” says a memo published on the Republican National Committee (RNC) website. “Hoping to distance himself from decades of bad policy, Joe Biden is now calling for reforms to his own legislation.”
“Biden was a forceful supporter of the war on drugs, a war which he says did not go far enough,” one subheadline in the document reads.
Biden spent his Senate career implementing legislation that created the mass incarceration that plagues the black community today.
Biden played a central role in passing the 1994 Crime Bill—in the 15 yrs after the bill passed, our incarcerated population DOUBLED.
— GOP (@GOP) June 16, 2020
The memo appeared shortly before Trump signed an executive order imposing a set of limited police reforms. Though reform advocates have derided the measure as superficial, the GOP argues that it nevertheless shows Trump is better equipped than Biden to handle the current moment.
“Rather than call for reforms of his own policies” as Biden is now doing, the RNC memo says, “President Trump has taken action…to promote police accountability and community safety.”
The memo’s claims against Biden come as no surprise to reform advocates, who have long criticized his law-and-order approach to drug policy. For nearly three decades in the Senate, Biden vocally supported the expansion of police powers and funding, including escalating the war on drugs. Many policies Biden once championed are now coming under fire.
In 1984, for example, then-Sen. Biden—”along with segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond,” the Republican memo notes—spearheaded a law that expanded civil asset forfeiture, allowing prosecutors to seize property from people who sometimes hadn’t even been convicted of a crime. In 1990, he sponsored the National Drug Control Strategy Act, which allowed law enforcement to use that seized property to purchase “firearms, ammunition, and personal safety equipment for investigative and enforcement personnel.”
“Many have criticized the program,” the GOP memo says, “saying it was a for-profit incentive to take people’s property.”
After decades of pushing policies such as the war on drugs & police militarization, Biden is calling for reform on some of his own legislation.
Meanwhile, Pres. Trump is taking valuable action!
He signed an Executive Order that promotes police accountability & community safety.
— GOP (@GOP) June 19, 2020
In the mid-1990s, Biden supported legislation that allowed the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military equipment to domestic police forces, a program the GOP memo says “has been directly credited for the widespread militarization of police departments across the United States.” More than $7.4 billion in equipment has been transferred since the program launched in 1997.
Biden was also a key backer of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which provided billions of dollars in funding for police and prisons. He often argued that controlling crime required even more spending on police and prisons.
In 1989, for example, he criticized a proposal by President George H.W. Bush to escalate the war on drugs, saying the plan was “not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand.” The then-senator wanted to “hold every drug user accountable,” the memo quotes him saying.
The proposal, Biden said at the time, “doesn’t include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, not enough prosecutors to convict them, not enough judges to sentence them, and not enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”
In the months after Los Angeles police beat Rodney King, a black man, in 1991, Biden was a leading proponent of a so-called police officer’s bill of rights, which aimed to protect officers during internal investigations. A New York City police commissioner said in the Washington Post that the measures would “seriously undermine the ability of law enforcement administrators across America to discipline police officers.”
Criminal justice reformers say the memo’s criticisms of Biden’s are legitimate but overlook the Republican party’s own role in creating and perpetuating the country’s problems of mass incarceration, police brutality and racism.
“The GOP needs to hold a mirror to its face as they make these claims,” said Maritza Perez, director of national affairs for Drug Policy Action, the advocacy arm of Drug Policy Alliance. “Both parties have helped build the system of mass incarceration we have today. Both sides of the aisle have historically supported funding law enforcement over community investments.”
And despite Trump’s recent executive order, few reform advocates believe that his desire to rein in police violence is sincere. ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero described the White House’s response as “empty words of sympathy, anemic reforms, and hollow rhetoric.”
The Brennan Center, which advocates for police reform, said Trump’s executive order makes “only cosmetic changes when the nation is ready for law enforcement’s racism to be pulled out by its roots.”
For example, while the executive order bans the police use of chokeholds that prevent a person from breathing, the administration has said it does not apply to neck holds that cut off blood supply to the brain. The ban also doesn’t apply “if an officer’s life is at risk,” which critics say is a major loophole given officers’ tendency to overstate the danger presented by suspects, especially black men.
Reducing use of chokeholds that restrict airway does NOT also restrict the use of holds that restrict **blood flow to the brain.**
You might recall that that the lawyer for the police officer who put Eric Garner in a neck restraint insisted it was not a 'chokehold'
— Tim Mak (@timkmak) June 16, 2020
Other than emphasizing Trump’s recent executive order, the GOP memo is silent on the role that Trump and other Republicans have played in the criminal justice system’s dysfunction. It fails to mention Trump’s own support for what the memo calls “questionable criminal justice policies.”
In 1989, for example, as Trump began publicly flirting with the idea of running for office, a group of five black and Latino men, known as the Central Park Five, were wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman. In response, Trump took out full-page ads in four New York City newspapers with the headline: “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!”
In 2017, shortly after taking office, Trump spoke to a group of law enforcement officials in Long Island and encouraged officers to be “rough” with suspects. He assured law enforcement that “we have your backs 100 percent. Not like the old days.”
In the same speech, Trump congratulated himself for allowing local police to obtain surplus military equipment, telling officials, “When you wanted to take over and you used military equipment—and they were saying you couldn’t do it—you know what I said? That was my first day: You can do it,” he said. “And I tell you what—it’s being put to good use.”
Though the president signed modest criminal justice reform legislation into law and has granted clemency to a handful of people convicted of drug crimes, Trump has also repeatedly applauded foreign governments’ use of the death penalty against people who sell drugs. “It’s interesting,” he said as recently as February. “States with a very powerful death penalty on drug dealers don’t have a drug problem.”
Trump’s reelection campaign, however, doesn’t seem to be bothered by the hypocrisy of attacking Biden for behavior that Trump himself seems to support. Earlier this month, the campaign lobbed another attack at Biden, characterizing him of being a “typical Washington career politician who spent decades building up America’s mass incarceration system and poisoning the public discourse with race-baiting, divisive and inflammatory remarks.”
“Biden hasn’t just stoked America’s racial divisions over the course of his decades in Washington,” the post on the Trump campaign’s website says. “Biden was the chief architect of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, which targeted Black Americans.”
As some reformers pointed out, other than the fact that Trump is a relative newcomer in politics, the very same criticisms could be said of his behavior as president.
“Joe Biden’s record on drug policy is quite abysmal,” Erik Altieri, executive director of the advocacy group NORML, told Marijuana Moment at the time. “Unfortunately, despite not having a long legislative record like Biden for direct comparison, Donald Trump’s history as it relates to racial justice and drug policy is also quite horrendous.”
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore