By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.,
Speaking at the site where Capitol police officers thwarted “an unconstitutional and fundamentally un-American attack on our nation’s values,” President Biden on Saturday mourned nearly 500 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, while acknowledging that police must work harder to earn the trust of communities.
“There’s too much pain. There’s too much loss. There’s too much at stake for your safety and the safety of those you serve,” Biden said during his keynote address at the National Peace Officers’ annual memorial service.
“The toll on this profession these past two years has been heavy,” he added. “Unless we change the environment in which the job can be done, we’re going to have trouble having enough women and men come forward who want to do the job.”
Saturday’s memorial honors police officers who died in 2019 and 2020. On Friday, Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff as a tribute to the fallen. Last year’s event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden told the crowd that he has attended almost every memorial in some capacity over the past four decades.
Still, his Saturday speech comes at a particularly fraught time for America’s relationship with its police forces.
The 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer brought millions into the streets to call for police reform and a dismantling of systemic racism. “Defund the police” became a rallying cry for some and a source of derision for others. The polarization was exacerbated as violent crime ticked up in American cities and local leaders looked to police to curb the violence.
Floyd’s family spoke at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, where Biden was nominated. And as president, Biden invited the Floyds to a White House meeting on the anniversary of his killing.
“We face an inflection point,” the president said in a statement after the meeting. “The battle for the soul of America has been a constant push-and-pull between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart. At our best, the American ideal wins out. It must again.”
On the campaign trail, Biden vowed to enact a national police oversight commission but scuttled the idea in April, after civil rights leaders and police unions told the administration the best way forward was not another commission.
Biden also called on Congress to take action on police reform by the anniversary of Floyd’s death by passing a bill that bore his name. But the talks on the bill stalled before ultimately breaking down.
The lack of action on police reform was added to the list of unfulfilled promises that critics have harped on amid the president’s softening poll numbers.
Biden said he has worked to provide more funding for training and support for local police forces, including money from the pandemic relief bill signed into law this year.
And in statements and speeches, the White House has tried to bridge the gap between competing views of police.
In a May proclamation about Peace Officers Memorial Day and Police Week, the administration acknowledged that, every day, officers “pin on a badge and go to work, not knowing what the day will bring, and hoping to come home safely.”
But the proclamation also recognized that there are many, especially in minority communities, who feel “a deep sense of distrust towards law enforcement; a distrust that has been exacerbated by the recent deaths of several Black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement.”