During the raucous first presidential debate of 2020, President Trump challenged former Vice-President Joe Biden to say the words “law and order” as part of the discussion on Race and Violence in Our Cities.
This tactic was meant to show Biden as somehow soft on public safety. Biden said more than the words; he also strongly expressed support for police officers and opposing violence.
Meanwhile, President Trump continued to serve up a platter of polarizing attacks against “Democratic” cities and Black Lives Matter activists. Unfortunately, the debate was a missed opportunity to really address police misconduct, violence, and the underlying current of systemic racism.
As the presidential election convulses towards November 3rd, the law and order discussion should not become another dog whistle to scare suburbanites. We have seen this playbook of polarizing rhetoric around public safety in our work both in the U.S. and internationally. From the Americas to Africa, we have seen that law enforcement alone is not enough to solve the problem of violence.
The politicized heavy-handed responses of governments that prioritize law and order is a global phenomenon that has done little to address the social inequities that lead to violence in the first place. We are having the wrong conversation about public safety – one that so far has been devoid of the evidence of what we know works and the underlying root causes.
There is an opportunity now to have a new conversation, which will require a thoughtful, methodical, data driven approach that reimagines how we can address violence and safety effectively, one grounded in a common sense of purpose and solidarity across partisan divides.
This has been done before under the leadership of Vice President Biden with a focus on strategies to balance policing with whole-of-community social programs to reduce violence in neighborhoods throughout cities in the Americas.
In places as disparate as Central America and Los Angeles, programs that target concentrated violence among a small group of people in a small number of places have been shown to reduce homicides. Los Angeles, for example, reduced homicides associated with illicit groups by 46% between 2007-2012, and has been able to maintain those gains.
Oakland reduced gun homicide and non-fatal shootings by 52% between 2010-2017 by adopting these approaches. These successful violence prevention models were later exported to Central America as part of the Biden-led Alliance for Prosperity effort. As a result, per capita homicide rates in the region consistency decreased in the Obama-Biden administration and those trends are currently at risk if U.S. foreign assistance to the region under Trump continues to be slashed.
Today, all types of violence in the U.S. are on the rise including group-related shootings, homicides, intimate partner violence, and even feuds between neighbors, as whole of community programs are also cut back. Homicide rates between June and August increased 53% according to a new report by the Council on Criminal Justice.
There are many potential reasons for this surge, including the growing distrust between police and communities, particularly as the debate on public security becomes more politicized under the Trump administration. And this is taking place during a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected millions of people worldwide including the President, killed over 200,000 people in the U.S., and demonstrations against police abuse that have generated painful and necessary conversations not only in the US, - but globally - about race, class, and social justice.
While an overwhelming percentage of public resources are directed towards militarizing our civilian police forces, a reimagining of public safety under Biden would include more resources on programs focused on what works: helping young people to steer clear of delinquent acts, stay in school, find jobs, avoid gangs, and support strong, effective, and accountable police forces, while investing in our communities across the Americas.
Indeed, our choice is not supporting police or community investment. We can and must do both.
During the Obama-Biden administration, we had a policy of forging new alliances with cities across the U.S. to address violence, while also investing in Latin America and the Caribbean to reduce group violence and the negative impact of illicit criminal networks. These programs were working as evidenced by declining homicide rates and improved perceptions of public safety.
Changing the conversation, free of partisan politics that are dividing us unnecessarily will help us to invest in the right ideas and make better decisions about community investments. Vice-President Biden has the experience, empathy, and leadership to get this done, not only here in the U.S. but across this hemisphere. The time is now to invest in making our communities safer.