Safety from Police Violence: How the President’s Policing Executive Order Fails Low-Income Communities of Color

By Clarence Okoh and Whitney Bunts

Two years after the extrajudicial police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, systemic police violence remains a crisis in Black and brown communities across the United States. According to the Washington Post, police killings increased to record levels in 2021 when over 1,054 individuals were killed by law enforcement that year alone—with Black individuals killed at twice the rate of their white counterparts.

Against this background, President Biden issued the “Executive Order on Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing, and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety.” The executive order includes a list of interagency directives designed to “build and sustain fairness and accountability throughout the criminal justice system.” Unfortunately, the executive order contains several ideas that would exacerbate the criminal legal system’s harmful consequences for Black and brown communities. These, in turn, weaken the order’s sections that are anti-carceral and undermine the administration’s larger goals of advancing racial equity and upholding civil rights.

Approach to Policing Threatens Communities of Color

The executive order advances the administration’s problematic “fund the police” narrative that falsely positions increased investments in law enforcement as a precondition for public safety. The order calls for new “recruitment, hiring, promotion, and retention” policies for law enforcement that would increase police presence and, by extension, police violence for marginalized communities, more specifically Black and brown communities. This directive is particularly alarming in light of the administration’s recent “Safer America Plan,” which calls on Congress to provide cities and states funding for an additional 100,000 new law enforcement officers—a direct historical parallel to the 1994 Crime Bill that President Biden has called a “mistake.”

Pro-carceral approaches to public safety are not new to this administration. For example,  President Biden has encouraged states and local governments to direct unspent federal COVID emergency relief funds toward hiring more law enforcement. Local jurisdictions have used funding from the American Rescue Plan and Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER II) Funding to hire law enforcement agencies, procure police surveillance technologies in schools, and expand local police budgets. As researchers and advocates have repeatedly observed, expanded police presence undermines health and economic outcomes for youth and young adults who are vulnerable. It doesn’t make them safe.

Pro-carceral policy interventions don’t build durable public safety, and they don’t address the underlying social conditions that precipitate community violence. Research clarifies that the most effective policy interventions for assuring public safety include direct investments in essential social services and public goods, such as workforce development and job training, postsecondary education, health care, affordable housing, and income supports.

Moreover, the executive order promotes collaboration between law enforcement and behavioral health specialists, including alternative crisis responses. It directs the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to assess and issue guidance to state and local governments on best practices for developing alternative responder models, including law enforcement-involved co-responder models. However, the inclusion of law enforcement in mobile response teams is unproductive and detrimental to the lives of young people in crisis—and doesn’t advance public safety. In 2021, close to 150 people with mental health diagnoses were shot and killed by the police. Over 25 percent of them were between 18 and 29. These percentages are even higher for Black and brown people with a mental health diagnosis. While the guidance from DOJ and HHS would benefit the overall conceptualization of mobile response teams for states and localities, promoting law enforcement-involved co-responder models will be counterproductive for the communities most affected by violence, especially for communities that already have co-responder models and have seen no change.

The Administration Should Advance Anti-Carceral Approaches to Public Safety

The Biden Administration can advance public safety while addressing racialized police violence by prioritizing the implementation of anti-carceral approaches within the executive order. For example, the DOJ and HHS guidance should champion police-free mobile response teams and other alternative crisis response systems, such as violence interrupters, mediators, and peer support specialists. The guidance should advocate for people to use the new nationwide 988 crisis line system to obtain mental health services and supports, and the agencies should explicitly deter individuals from calling 911. Furthermore, the guidance should make clear that alternative response systems, including youth mobile response services, offer a promising path to crisis response that can significantly improve public safety outcomes while reducing the presence of law enforcement in communities that have been marginalized. Most importantly, federal policymakers should engage with researchers, advocates, community stakeholders, and youth leaders to integrate local innovations into the forthcoming guidance.

Similarly, the administration should prioritize provisions of the executive order that require the implementation of anti-carceral elements of the First Step Act. The executive order establishes a federal Interagency Alternatives and Reentry Committee that will coordinate the implementation of critical provisions of the First Step Act by developing a strategic plan to reduce demographic disparities in the criminal legal system through several promising interventions. These should include, among others, rehabilitation, reentry services, job training, records sealing, expungement, access to health care, and alternatives to incarceration. The committee is asked to consult with civil society in developing the federal strategic plan, which presents a critical opportunity for advocates to shape the direction of these initiatives.

Comprehensive public investments in systems of care hold the most significant promise in disrupting cycles of community violence, eliminating systemic police violence, repairing the harms of mass criminalization, and strengthening upward economic mobility within communities devastated by judicial and carceral systems. As the Biden Administration begins implementing this executive order in the coming months, the advocacy community should push federal policymakers to invest in innovative, community-driven, anti-carceral policy interventions that build durable public safety while transforming structural inequities at the roots of public safety challenges.