From the Central Park Five and the ’94 Crime Bill to Black Lives Matter, both candidates have a track record and a distinct policy vision.

Officers of the 52nd Precinct head out on patrol. President Trump and Vice President Biden have jousted over who has the support of law enforcement and who offers meaningful reform for communities affected by over-policing.

One of six topics that Fox News host Chris Wallace chose as the moderator for the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Sept. 29 was “Race and violence in our cities.” Former Vice President Joe Biden explained why he was more equipped to deal with race in America than President Trump. 

Biden focused on Trump’s response to violence in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, when Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides,” in reference to a clash between neo-Nazis as a part of the “Unite the Right” rally and counter protesters which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. 

“No president’s ever said anything like that,” Biden said. 

Trump responded with accusations that Biden called African Americans “superpredators,” and challenged his commitment to racial justice by bringing up the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which the former vice president helped write and sponsor as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

In actuality, Hillary Clinton was the one who used the term “superpredator” in calling for support of the bill, although Biden did warn of “predators on our streets” in a 1993 speech. “It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society,” he said in the speech. “They must be taken off the street.” 

It was no accident that Wallace decided to pick the topic of “Race and violence in our cities” for the debate. According to a Pew Research Center study published in August, 59 percent of registered voters say violent crime is “very important” to their vote for president. In comparison, the term “violent crime” isn’t seen anywhere on rankings of important issues for Pew’s data on the previous two presidential elections.

Perception and reality

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), only 5 percent of all demonstrations across the country between May 24 and Aug. 22 involved demonstrators engaging in violence. Despite the statistics, a poll in June by the website 538 found that 42 percent of respondents believed most protesters associated with Black Lives Matter “are trying to incite violence or destroy property.”

President Trump contributed to the perception of urban chaos when he labeled New York City an “anarchist jurisdiction” along with Portland, Or. and Seattle, citing their incompetent Democratic leadership in the wake of mass protest. 

“Data show the rhetoric is just not true,” said Jullian Harris-Calvin, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Greater Justice New York program.

“Crime in New York City has been plummeting over the last decade and crime rates are much lower than they were five years ago,” she said. 

New York City has seen an increase in crime this year. Through Sept. 27, murders were up 40 percent over the same period in 2019; the number of burglaries was up 42 percent and auto thefts had risen 62 percent. Rape, robbery, felony assault and grand larceny were all down compared with 2019. The number of shootings has nearly doubled this year.

However, five of the seven major felony crimes were down significantly from 2010: The murder count, for instance, is 77 percent lower in 2020 than it was a decade ago.

Insha Rahman, Vice President of Advocacy and Partnerships at the Vera Institute, says the upticks in murders and shootings from 2019 to 2020 are not meant to be taken likely, but comparing the numbers with earlier years reflects the idea that factors other than mass demonstrations are at play when finding a cause for the spike in violent crime. 

Whatever is happening is also not just a New York problem. The homicide rate is up across 27 U.S. cities this year, with a 53 percent increase between the months of June and August as compared to last summer, according to the Council on Criminal Justice

The politics of public safety

Even when statistical analysis proves contrary to rhetoric, calls for law and order, especially by President Trump, and by Joe Biden as well, have had deep political consequences. 

Trump took out a full page New York Times ad with the headline “bring back the death penalty!” in 1989 in light of the Central Park jogger case, in which five Black and Latino then-teenagers were wrongfully convicted of rape. 

Trump has not apologized since, and has run on a continuous promise of law and order that has proved attractive to many voters. 

Ironically, during the debate, Trump criticized Biden for his role in 1994’s crime bill, making Biden out to have a tough-on-crime mentality, and then made claims about the former vice president’s weak support of law enforcement.

“You can’t even say the words ‘law enforcement,’” Trump said to Biden during the debate. “Because if you say those words, you’re going to lose all of your radical left supporters.” 

Biden responded. “The vast majority of police officers are good, decent, honorable men and women,” he said. He also condemned rioting and looting. “Violence is never the answer.” 

Biden’s record: Tough. Troubling?

Despite the president’s claims, Biden’s crime record speaks for itself. From his sponsorship of the 1994 bill, to his remarks about “predators,” to his platform today, the former vice president has a tough-on-crime record, for better or worse.

Going back to 1989, Biden supported an escalation of the War on Drugs, and criticized President George H.W. Bush’s plan for not going far enough. “It 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,” he said. 

His tough-on-crime stance was not just rhetoric; it had real impact on the streets of NYC, according to Rahman.

“The federal government sets the tone for localities and when the tone is ‘we’re going to crack down,’ that’s how the states follow,” she said. She said the 1994 crime bill inspired a series of measures like enhanced sentencing and broken windows policing in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially under Rudy Giuliani’s mayorship. 

More recently, Biden has changed many of those positions and adopted new ones more in step with sentiment on the left: He now opposes the death penalty, and supports decriminalizing cannabis and granting clemency to people serving long sentences for drug crimes. 

A new approach

Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, Rahman cited two ways in which the federal government can continue to impact localities, taking into account Biden’s presidential platform—by setting precedent and by using money. Biden’s proposals largely employ the second method, although the first is just as impactful.

His proposals include a $20 billion grant program aimed at lowering incarceration and crime rates in states, $300 million to “reinvigorate” community policing, an expansion of federal funding for mental health and substance use disorders research, a tripling of funding for Title I—which funds schools with high percentages of low income families—and $300 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services Program (COPS), created under the infamous 1994 bill.

The shift in emphasis does not impress Monifa Bandele, vice president of MomsRising, who sits on the steering committee of Communities United for Police Reform.

“It’s another way to entrench policing on the everyday lives of communities that is unnecessary,” she said. “We don’t need armed people to develop youth and to teach them basketball or to help run block parties. We have community members who are trained to do that and who want to do that.” Bandele said she believes community organizations could use the funds to do the same thing. 

The Democratic platform supports ending the school-to-prison pipeline by “reissuing federal guidance from the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to prevent the disparate disciplinary treatment of children of color and children with disabilities in school and educational settings.” 

Although Biden has supported additional funding for agencies like the Department of Education to keep children from entering the criminal justice system, he has pledged continued funding for police and opposed defunding.

“Some schools across the country have police officers and not a single nurse,” Bandele said. “Our key lever is our Counselors not COPS program, where we’re organizing parents to look at school district budgets and to invest in trauma-informed care rather than policing.” 

Rahman said the most promising piece of the Democratic criminal justice platform is the commitment to providing counsel for immigrants facing deportation. 

“The fastest growing segment of our jail population is made up of folks held for immigration detention by ICE,” she said. “The immigration system is where we see a fundamental lack of due process.”

Biden also supports ending cash bail, ending mandatory minimums, increasing the use of alternatives to incarceration and ending the use of private prisons.

Neither Biden’s agenda nor the Democratic platform necessarily reflect what will happen if he wins: budget constraints and negotiations with Congress will decide what happens and how. And of course, if elected, Biden will not be the only one proposing criminal justice policies. 

A major piece of federal legislation that organizers are pushing for is the BREATHE Act, an omnibus bill presented by the Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives

The bill aims to “divest federal resources from incarceration and policing” and “invest in new non-punitive, non-carceral approaches that lead states to shrink their criminal-legal systems and center the protection of Black lives.” Biden’s position on the legislation is unclear.

Record and rhetoric

The 2020 GOP platform under President Trump does not propose a reform agenda like the Democrats have. It proposes to undermine “over-criminalization” and urges caution in the creation of new crimes, and to curb “over-federalization” in support of increased jurisdiction in criminal justice matters by state and local authorities. The platform also supports “mandatory prison time for all assaults involving serious injury to law enforcement officers.”

Trump’s First Step Act, signed in 2018, was aimed at curbing the federal prison population through recidivism programs and decreasing the length of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, which the GOP platform supports. 

At the first presidential debate, Trump compared the First Step Act to the 1994 Crime Bill. “So you did that and they call you a super predator and I’m letting people out of jail now, that you have treated the African-American population community, you have treated the black community about as bad as anybody in this country,” Trump said.

Trump doesn’t mention the First Step Act on his campaign website’s “law & justice” policy page, however. Instead, that features a different flavor of policy, like his decision to resume a program that transfers surplus military hardware to local police departments. 

Yet it is the president’s rhetoric, rather than his policy accomplishments or campaign promises, that could leave the deepest impact on criminal justice in New York City, Rahman says.

“If we have another four years of this administration we will be playing defense to keep all the gains the city has made in terms of reducing use of incarceration and securing more public safety,” she says.