Why Joe Biden Is Ditching a Policing Commission

6 minute read

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The facts aren’t in dispute. America has a policing crisis. Police are more likely to search a Black driver’s car than a white person’s vehicle, even though illicit materials are statistically more likely to be in the non-Black person’s possession, according to one massive study. Black people are more than twice as likely to be shot by police than their white neighbors, another study finds. Black and Brown people were twice as likely to die in police custody than white suspects, yet another study finds.

Which is why no one in Washington really bristled this week when the White House quietly dispatched with a campaign pledge to establish a commission on policing. A commission that confirms mountains of existing evidence — helpfully collected here and here by The Washington Post — about the inequalities baked into the criminal justice system isn’t going to change any of this reality.

But action might.

President Joe Biden’s top domestic-policy adviser, Susan Rice, quietly called allies in the civil-rights orbit in recent weeks to consult with them on shifting the White House’s focus away from another commission — which could take months to get going and well longer than that to produce recommendations that lack any bite — and moving that energy to a policing bill that has already cleared the House. Given a choice between affirming what is already plain as day or pursuing a law that could actually make a difference, activists had a pretty clear preference about which they’d rather see.

The pressure to act is high at the moment, with the twin stories coming out of Minneapolis this week about the trial of a police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd and a second case involving the officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright during a traffic stop after she says she mistakenly pulled a gun instead of a taser. It’s tough to ignore wall-to-wall coverage of a criminal trial and night after night of protests, especially when both events’ underlying facts were documented on video.

Nevertheless, a House-passed bill, titled the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, faces opposition from police groups and Republicans who say it goes too far. In particular, critics say it strips officers of their qualified immunity, meaning basically they cannot be held accountable for anything they do while doing their job. At the moment, the bill doesn’t have the support of 60 Senators needed to move to a vote, which means a procedural hiccup could derail the whole thing.

That doesn’t mean its hopes are dead, though. Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, is working with Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, on finding a compromise on policing. Bass wrote the George Floyd bill and is one of the sharpest negotiators on the Hill and, perhaps more importantly, has House Speaker’s Nancy Pelosi backing to maximize Democrats’ leverage for the possible.

Time, though, is fleeting. Democrats have finally stopped cowing to critics who say it’s “too soon” to talk politics so close to a jarring story that captures the public’s attention. That’s put off federal action on police reform after high-profile cases before; it’s easier to stall any proposal the further from the headlines the topic drifts. It’s why common-sense limits to guns, such as background checks, still aren’t law despite the public’s overwhelming support. When it comes to policing, even the most ardent defenders of police officers can recognize adding body cameras and restricting the use of choke-holds might be both smart policy and good politics. A Quinnipiac University poll released just today confirms this hunch.

Importantly, the powerful 355,000-member Fraternal Order of Police union hasn’t signed onto the George Floyd bill. In the 2020 election, the group endorsed President Donald Trump, who was unabashedly pro-police during the campaign, accusing Biden incorrectly of siding with calls to “defund the police.” In light of Wright’s death in Minnesota, Biden is again facing calls to do so but has refused, as he did after Floyd’s death last summer.

As a candidate at the time, Biden proposed the now-vanquished commission. As a longtime ally of the police, he knew he couldn’t simply move his position. But he had to give a nod to the civil rights demonstrations unfolding in the streets and the rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Now in the White House, Biden had to face the unfortunate truth about most of these panels, commissions and task forces. Having been part of so many, Biden knows that they are among the biggest collectors of dust in D.C. Most commissions’ work sparks a discussion but seldom yields tangible results. For instance, the twentieth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is approaching, yet key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission remain unfulfilled. A Biden Policing Commission would likely provide another roadmap to be ignored.

Ultimately, Biden knows what needs done. Throughout the campaign, he worked aggressively with advisers to beef up on his criminal-justice fluency. In turn, Black voters delivered to him the White House. They may not have loved his reluctance to embrace some of activists’ demands, but they saw him as a man of integrity running against Trump.

Now they’re willing to give him a break as he ditches the commission to lobby Congress to move. It’s on Biden to make good on his promise to a group he told in his victory speech: “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.” His team judged a commission as a delay they cannot risk, especially if the urgency is seen as slipping. Because the facts? They’re only growing on an already huge pile.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com