The Magazine

Biden's One Accomplishment

Will the Democrats bring up crime this fall?

Sep 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 01 • By ELI LEHRER
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When Joe Biden has taken an interest in domestic policy, it has mostly had to do with crime. Of the 31 substantive domestic policy bills the Democratic vice presidential nominee has introduced since 2006, 20 related to crime and policing. His single most significant legislative achievement--one that Barack Obama singled out in his remarks introducing Biden as his running mate--remains the massive 1994 crime bill.

Not surprisingly, Biden's the go-to guy on Capitol Hill for many of America's police leaders. "More than just about anyone else, he really gets it," says Providence, Rhode Island, police chief Dean Esserman. "He really does care about cops."

Although street crime--which played a key role in every presidential election from 1960 to 1992--has disappeared from the political radar in recent years, the Delaware Democrat's legislative record shows a wonkish interest in just about everything related to policing. Before the 1994 crime bill, he led efforts to create the Office of National Drug Control Policy (aka the Drug Czar) and to advance the Reagan administration's priorities for drug enforcement. More recently, he pushed a big increase for federal funding for local police departments through the Senate.

The choice of Biden, with his long record of legislative accomplishment on crime, indicates that perhaps the issue may again be a popular theme of the Democratic party and that we might see a resurgence in Democratic support from police groups, who helped burnish Bill Clinton's centrist credentials in 1992.

The 1994 Biden crime bill, officially called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, created grants to put 100,000 more police officers on the streets, offered billions for prison construction, initiated new programs to combat violence against women, enacted many new criminal laws (including new federal death penalty offenses), and expanded federal control over firearms.

The bill had a lot to recommend it, and police loved it. During the 1994 electoral cycle, conservatives made political hay out of the crime bill's "assault weapons" ban and the few million dollars it devoted to midnight basketball programs for troubled youth. But the bulk of the bill, actually, took its cues from the conservatives' crime-fighting handbook: more police to catch criminals, more prisons to lock them up, and harsher sentences (including death) to protect society.

And it worked. Starting in the mid-1990s, police ranks increased much faster than the population, room was made for hundreds of thousands of new prisoners, and crime fell dramatically. Indeed, with the exception of a slight uptick right after 9/11, overall crime as measured by the FBI has fallen almost continuously since 1993. (Violent crime rose in 2005 and 2006.)

Still, it's hard to tease out the 1994 law's specific impact. "The prison money really got lost in state budgets. A lot of the investments would have happened anyway," says Chicago attorney John Schmidt, who oversaw the programs as associate attorney general during the Clinton administration.

The enormous boost in federal spending on police--through the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants--probably had the greatest impact as it increased police manpower by about 15 percent. (Studies dispute the actual effect.)

What the COPS grants certainly did was to stimulate police innovation. Edward Davis--now police commissioner in Boston--oversaw a 50 percent drop in crime in Lowell, Massachusetts. "We just couldn't have done it without the COPS grants," he says. "That's what made the difference." Innovating police chiefs in cities around the country found their priorities funded. Unlike the formula grants the Bush administration has pushed and distribute money mostly on the basis of population, COPS grants were reviewed by expert panels to make sure that the extra funding went to the best police agencies.

"The personnel and the money mattered but the idea of federal leadership--and the innovation--that mattered just as much," says Laurie Robinson, who headed the Office of Justice Programs under the Clinton administration. And Biden deserves credit for the program's specifics. "When Clinton was talking about 100,000 new police officers, he wasn't talking much about community policing. It was mostly Biden who started that," says Schmidt.

If COPS proved a success, two other major features of Biden's bill--gun control and greater federal intrusion into common crime--didn't.

Biden's "assault weapons ban," for example, didn't change the law on military-issue machine guns--private citizens already couldn't buy them--but instead outlawed a number of features like folding stocks and "pistol grips." Even gun-control supporters admit this had no impact on crime. (The law lapsed in 2004.)

Biden's attempts to bring common crime into federal courts also proved misplaced. Although largely a piece of commonsense, good-government legislation, the "Violence Against Women Act" section of the 1994 crime bill allowed federal civil suits against anyone accused of "gender motivated violence" if the underlying offense went unprosecuted. In 2000, the Supreme Court concluded that Biden's legislation went too far in contending that gender-related attacks belonged in federal court because they constituted "interstate commerce."

Although it revives some of the good ideas from his 1994 bill--federal leadership on policing and competitive grants--parts of Biden's current agenda seem silly. He has proposed federal criminal laws relating to computer hackers, prescription-drug abusers, drug smugglers who use submarines, and intellectual property pirates. Biden is proposing outlawing things it is already almost impossible to do without breaking an existing federal law and which in some cases (prescription drug abuse) rightly belong in the hands of state and local police.

In the end, however, there's little doubt that Biden can draw on significant law enforcement support and, perhaps, transfer his law enforcement credibility to the Democratic ticket. As Chuck Wexler, who heads the Police Executive Research Forum--a research group for police chiefs--notes: "He's always been there. He always shows up. We don't endorse anybody but we do recognize when somebody has demonstrated a consistency on the drug issue, the crime issue, and the importance of policing for the great part of a long career."

Eli Lehrer is a writer in Oak Hill, Virginia.